How English Ruined Indian Literature.

The novelist Aatish Taseer had an impassioned piece in the NY Times recently about the effect of India’s linguistic hierarchy on both the job prospects of Indians and the country’s literature; some excerpts:

“English is not a language in India,” a friend once told me. “It is a class.” This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English. “They want you to walk in the door speaking English. Then if you switch to Hindi, they like it. Otherwise they say, ‘the look doesn’t fit.’ ” My friend, who comes from a small town in the Hindi-speaking north, knew very well why his look didn’t fit. He knew, too, from the example of dozens of upper-middle class, English-speaking actors, that the industry would rather teach someone with no Hindi the language from scratch than hire someone like him. […]

Two students I met in Varanasi encapsulated India’s tortured relationship with English. Both attended Benares Hindu University, which was founded in the early 20th century to unite traditional Indian learning with modern education from the West. Both students were symbols of the failure of this enterprise.

One of them, Vishal Singh, was a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes. He was two-thirds of the way through a degree in social sciences — some mixture of psychology, sociology and history. All of his classes were in English, but, over the course of a six-week friendship, I discovered to my horror that he couldn’t string together a sentence in the language. He was the first to admit that his education was a sham, but English was power. And if, in three years, he learned no more than a handful of basic sentences in English, he was still in a better position than the other student I came to know.

That student, Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless. Despite his grand education, he would be lucky to end up as a teacher or a clerk in a government office. He felt himself a prisoner of language. “Without English, there is no self-confidence,” he said.

In my own world — the world of English writing and publishing in India — the language has wrought neuroses of its own. India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes. […]

The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.

In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual. Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry[…]

But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered.

I don’t know to what extent this bleak picture is exaggerated, but it certainly isn’t made up out of whole cloth, and I don’t know what the solution might be to the difficult reality it reflects. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Comments

  1. fisheyed says:

    Kalyan Raman wrote a withering reply to Ramachandra Guha when the latter made a similar (well, better-written) lament.

    The Indian languages never recovered.

    Except there is a boom going on in Indian languages, newspaper-readership, book purchasing etc is soaring because of the increases in literacy and purchasing power.

  2. If not teaching, which career does he think would best suit a person without any apparent qualifications besides mastery of a dead language ? Doctor ? Accountant ? Airline pilot ?

  3. AJP Crown says:

    So polyglot Indians earn more money than Indians who only speak one language. That sounds good to me. Teach English to a wider range of people in India, and then they won’t be discriminated against for being from “the wrong class”.

    The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success
    This sounds like the Olympic games. Why would anyone want to credit a nation for their cultural successes? I’m sure that Rushdie, for example, has as much interest in Pakistan, Britain & the United States as he does in India. And I know that Vikram Seth does (England, at any rate). That’s what these people write about.

    they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes
    No, they came via British schools & universities, actually.

    This is such a whiney piece of writing.

  4. SFReader says:

    – Amitav Ghosh

    To my regret, I read his novel “The Calcutta Chromosome” and I absolutely hated him for what he did in that book to memory of great man – Nobel Prize winner Sir Ronald Ross.

    I wonder how this novel was received in India, where doctor Ross is remembered with great respect for saving lives of thousands of Indians.

  5. Trond Engen says:

    But if it’s about class, it’s about sorting people on socio-cultural background. Since language is really just a surface token, it won’t help much to teach it to a wider audience. You’ll also need the right form of the language, all those little subtleties of phonology, that hint of a sheltered life in the monolingual English gated communities of the new “middle” class, or that you’ve been accepted into their schools and their clubs. And even if you can manage to teach that to perfection, it’s probably just as important with the right non-fluencies in the local languages.

  6. Alex: Doctors once could not practice in Western and Central Europe without mastering a dead language, and neither could the members of most other professions. Not to be able to provide education in the language(s) of a country is indeed a cultural disadvantage.

  7. Indeed. When the early Soviet Union decided to train women as doctors, this did not (at least at the time) elevate the status of women, whether doctors or not; instead, it lowered the status of doctors.

  8. That’s just one example of a sadly widespread phenomenon (cf. typists, secretaries, etc.).

  9. “Without English, there is no self-confidence,” he said.”

    So that’s an effect of colonialism, granted. So what’s his alternative? Privileging Hindi the same way? Let the language riots resume. Hindi is at least as colonial on broad swathes of the country.

  10. I don’t think it’s necessary to have an acceptable alternative handy in order to complain about a situation.

  11. Hey! Re the headline–not: English, but: the English.

    English is a language. It loves, embraces, and empowers everyone.

  12. Ms. Jen says:

    Language in India is also political and statist. I have several Tamili friends who are very proud that they do not speak Hindu. All are multilingual – Tamili, English, other Dravidian languages, other European, even one who knows Japanese for work, but won’t learn Hindu.

    Another Southern Indian friend has parents from different states and they decided to raise their children English first, Arabic second, and then the two Dravidian languages. When my friend found himself in Delhi for his first big job after college, he was at a complete disadvantage with shopkeepers, auto/taxi drivers, and others who only spoke Hindu and ripped him off for not speaking Hindu. When he departed Delhi to return south at 28, he still could only speak enough Hindu to shop and barter.

  13. I have to say, Arabic seems a bizarre choice for second language.

  14. Etienne says:

    I have met many, many educated men and women from former French and British colonies whose relationship to French and to English (respectively), and whose seemingly bottomless loathing and contempt for their L1’s, was of such a nature that any of them could have illustrated Aatish Taseer’s point. Sheldon Pollock, who is quoted in the essay, has documented and deplored the utter collapse of philological and historical studies in India relating to Indian languages. I suspect that this is yet another sad consequence of the same sort of self-hatred.

    A minor point: from a practical point of view it is untrue to say of India that it shows more linguistic diversity than Europe: some three quarters of Indians speak a language of the Indo-Aryan family natively, for instance, and yet Indo-Aryan is a language family comparable to Romance, Germanic or Slavic –none of which, need I add, is spoken natively by anything like the same percentage of Europeans.

  15. Many of the snarkier comments here seem to be ignoring the second half of the article, which seems to me to be the more important part, where the focus does actually turn to literarure. The actual article doesn’t really seem to me to be about colonialism, or class, or whatever, at all, and certainly doesn’t make any sweeping claims about Hindi vs. English. With regard to ‘crediting the nation’, she actually makes quite a good point about cultural backgrounds, but, more to the point, responses run the risk of appearing hypocritical. It’s very easy to laugh at these parochial natives, who (as a quick scan of the Literary Saloon at the excellent Complete Review shows) seem indeed to treat culture as a sort of Olympics, with Nobel Prizes serving as gold medals, but ultimately what these attitudes reveal is the much greater parochialism of us, the Anglophone culture which globalisation has rendered dominant. The USA and the UK are absolutely terrible at translating, absolutely terrible at learning foreign languages, and have made no effort at all to engage with Indian literature. Instead, both countries have taken the easy option of accepting and acclaiming the authors who are basically, culturally speaking, members of the Anglophone elite. This means there’s little reward or validation on offer for Hindu, Dravidian, etc. authors. I don’t think pointing this out is ‘whining’ or encouraging race riots; I do think ignoring it is wrong.

  16. Do you think that the situation with Indian and other post-colonial languages is similar to that with the Scandinavian languages? I’ve seen quite a few Scandinavians, particularly Danes, expressing… not loathing or contempt, but disinterest, I think, in their L1, saying that they think of English as their main medium of cultural and intellectual exchange, and can often articulate themselves better in it.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    This guy’s complaint is that the privileged children (like himself) were not brought up to think of Hindi or Urdu as serious languages one could seriously write in. The idea that any literature could come from children of the non-privileged majority (who haven’t learned English well enough to be ruined by it) does not seem to have crossed his mind.

    There are obviously people making a living, perhaps a good one, as scriptwriters in Bollywood (and the various equivalent film industries for non-Hindi vernaculars). Perhaps that doesn’t count as a genre of literature.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    Amend that comment if necessary to use gender-neutral Swedish pronouns.

  19. The USA and the UK are absolutely terrible at translating, absolutely terrible at learning foreign languages, and have made no effort at all to engage with Indian literature. Instead, both countries have taken the easy option of accepting and acclaiming the authors who are basically, culturally speaking, members of the Anglophone elite.

    I doubt you’ll get any argument on that score.

    This guy’s complaint is that the privileged children (like himself) were not brought up to think of Hindi or Urdu as serious languages one could seriously write in.

    Are no one but the huddled masses allowed to complain? We all see life through the prism of our own experiences.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    Wait, so is this the same Aatish Taseer who according to Wikipedia was born in London, went to college in the U.S. (at Amherst, where he majored in French), previously created an internet hubbub by writing a piece headlined (possibly not by him personally but by the Wall St Journal’s editorial staff) “Why My Father Hated India,” and who was for a time romantically involved with a woman who was not only not of South Asian ancestry but was a member of the British royal family?

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    I should qualify the claim that Mr. Taseer is “privileged” with the caveat that (as does happen among the privileged) he has an unusual and somewhat complicated family background, being the result of a brief affair between a married Pakistani politician (ultimately assassinated by the worst elements in Pakistani politics) and a Sikh journalist (born/raised in India post-Partition, but perhaps from a family that had fled what is now Pakistan). His various posh credentials are not necessarily full recompense for having had an understandably difficult relationship with an absent father with whom it is now too late to be reconciled. So we all see things through the prisms of our own experiences but it’s sometimes useful to understand that a given writer has a distinctive sort of prism before deciding whether their perspective is likely to generalize well.

  22. fisheyed says:

    . This means there’s little reward or validation on offer for Hindu, Dravidian, etc. authors.

    Hindi, not Hindu. The economic rewards are of course on a different scale for the most successful authors, but I don’t think the validation part is true. Someone like Gaddar or Ajay Navaria or Shobasakthi has a cultural importance, breadth of readership, etc that no English-language Indian writer What Indian poet in English gets the validation Vairamuthu gets? I don’t think Taseer’s point about bilingual or trilingual writers is all that true either, examples that come to mind are Jeyamohan and CS Lakshmi.

    This guy’s complaint is that the privileged children (like himself) were not brought up to think of Hindi or Urdu as serious languages one could seriously write in. The idea that any literature could come from children of the non-privileged majority (who haven’t learned English well enough to be ruined by it) does not seem to have crossed his mind.

    Exactly. The idea that the people who are major writers in Hindi or Tamil also know English well doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind either. But meanwhile, publishing in Indian languaegs is booming and Benz and Jaguar are advertising in Tamil-language newspapers.

    I can’t take this kind of complaint seriously unless it does the work of challenging the hierarchy. When Meena Kandaswamy complains that she had to learn Tamil literacy on her own initiative rather in school, I can be sympathetic because she went out and did it, and translates as well. If he used the NYT space to complain about the hierarchy of language and then put people on to Ajay Navaria, then it would have at least done something.

  23. Hat: You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.” —Sam: Johnson

    Etienne: It’s true that at the level of language families or major subfamilies, India isn’t that diverse: Indo-Iranian (75%), Dravidian (20%), Munda (1%), and marginally Tibeto-Burman and Great Andamanese. But at the level of languages, there are hundreds of Indo-Iranian languages, most of them spoken in India, vs. at the very most a few dozen in any other IE language family.

  24. The translator Jason Grunebaum wrote a rejoinder to this article. “Dear Aatish Taseer, you’re right, but you’re also wrong — Recognising the practical importance of English and honouring other Indian languages needn’t be a zero-sum game.” http://scroll.in/article/716693/Dear-Aatish-Taseer,-you%E2%80%99re-right,-but-you%E2%80%99re-also-wrong

  25. fisheyed says:
  26. A much better article!

  27. @fisheyed: My sentence there was, frankly, a bit of a mess. Apologies for the typo, and for the fact that what I was trying to say was expressed far better by Greenbaum’s article. What I was driving at is ‘the author feels she has really arrived and receives the attention that she deserves in her own country’, in Greenbaum’s words. You may dispute that’s true, but what I’ve read suggest he’s right.

  28. GeorgeW says:

    Disrespect for a native L1 is certainly not limited to India. The same is true in the Arabic-speaking world which has a rich literary history in its own language. English is widely considered the relevant language in terms of social position and career advancement.

    When living in the ME and trying to learn Arabic, I was asked a number of times by coworkers why I would make the effort since I spoke English. Most good jobs are only open to those with English skills. English fluency is a prerequisite to advancement in many major companies.

    A Saudi lady who worked for me and whose children went to an English-speaking school told he that her children “hated to speak Arabic.” Obviously, they had picked this attitude up from their school and social environment.

  29. Wait, so is this the same Aatish Taseer who according to Wikipedia was born in London, went to college in the U.S. (at Amherst, where he majored in French), previously created an internet hubbub by writing a piece headlined (possibly not by him personally but by the Wall St Journal’s editorial staff) “Why My Father Hated India,” and who was for a time romantically involved with a woman who was not only not of South Asian ancestry but was a member of the British royal family?

    I fail to see what any of that has to do with the validity or otherwise of his views. Talk about ad hominem. Also, headlines are essentially always written by editors (I happen to know one whose job it is); I wish people would stop acting as if they had anything to do with the author of the piece they precede.

  30. There are obviously people making a living, perhaps a good one, as scriptwriters in Bollywood (and the various equivalent film industries for non-Hindi vernaculars). Perhaps that doesn’t count as a genre of literature.

    Ditto newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

  31. Disrespect for a native L1 is certainly not limited to India. The same is true in the Arabic-speaking world which has a rich literary history in its own language.

    Modern Standard Arabic isn’t truly an L1, though. In Algeria, there’s a tetraglossia, with French and MSA as the H language, Darja as the L language, and various kinds of Berber as the sub-basement language.

  32. J.W. Brewer says:

    Mr. Taseer’s background and life arc are in no way typical of either the Indian masses whose social mobility is limited by lack of English or of the aspirational middle class Indians who get so invested in the class-mobility and social-signaling advantages of English that they perhaps become unduly disdainful of other languages in their society. It is pretty obvious from a few minutes’ googling that he has complicated and controversial attitudes toward Indian society and Indian identity which are almost certainly tied up with complicated attitudes (and quite possibly justifiably so) toward both his parents (his mother, for example, is probably a good example of one of the phenomena he’s condemning).* If you met a similar young fellow in the U.S. with complicated attitudes toward American society that were bound up with his own complicated family dynamics, you might find him a very interesting person to talk to over drinks, with ideas that might be well worth pondering, but you might think it foolish-to-misleading for a foreign newspaper to tout him as an authority on What’s Wrong With American LIterature. Indeed, maybe he was edited or was deliberately code-switching, but it strikes me as of some interest that the piece is not even written in IndEng but in pretty standard AmEng. Is India’s Anglophone elite further subdivided between those who take pleasure in the distinctive features of IndEng and those who eschew them as embarrassing or “incorrect”?

    *His mother is an alumna of St. Bede’s College, Simla, which sounds like exactly the sort of place that would be Part of the Problem as he diagnoses it and is named of course after a fellow who primarily wrote in Latin rather than his L1 Old English.

  33. GeorgeW says:

    John Cowan: “Modern Standard Arabic isn’t truly an L1,”

    My comment wasn’t limited to MSA. I was referring to Arabic in general, in all its forms, which are devalued by many Arabic speakers. But, the spoken dialects are the most devalued.

  34. you might think it foolish-to-misleading for a foreign newspaper to tout him as an authority on What’s Wrong With American LIterature.

    I don’t think the NYT was “touting him as an authority,” they were simply publishing what they thought was a well-written and thought-provoking article, and I agree. I do not expect or desire to agree with everything I read, and I fully expected people who knew more than I about India to disagree with the piece and correct its exaggerations or failures of perspective. The answer to wrong speech is always more speech.

  35. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have an acceptable alternative handy in order to complain about a situation.”

    True, but in that case it never becomes anything more than a complaint.

  36. True, but an eloquent complaint is a fine thing in its own right. As I settle comfortably into codgerdom, I plan to issue any number of them.

  37. Bathrobe says:

    Hat, you seem to be taking a perverse pride in your comfortable descent into codgerdom!

  38. You call it perverse, I call it comfortable!

  39. A timely issue of Words Without Borders: April 2015: Changing Landscapes and Identities: New Tamil Writing.

  40. fisheyed says:

    from an interview with Ajay Navaria / review of Unclaimed Terrain, a trans. of some of his stories into English

    Is the future of Hindi bleak, I ask, what with the urban middle-class savarnas chasing English en masse? He demurs and calls this an exaggerated fear. He believes this class’s median English proficiency is still very poor but, he says, it’s quite true that they are disinvesting in Hindi because it is no longer aligned with social power structures, higher class aspirations, or good jobs—‘a 10th-pass who speaks English has better job prospects than an MA who doesn’t’. However, another demographic shift is happening. In North India, a vast new generation is coming into literacy for the first time, and it is doing so in Hindi. This will probably go on for decades, and like new entrants everywhere, they will take Hindi language and literature to new places—the linguistic counterpart of the changes that the rise of the lower castes has brought into politics. He is hopeful that these new entrants, and their more self-confident, middle-class descendants, will not only evolve Hindi but also other hybrid cultural forms that emphasize their own creative traditions, much like African-Americans have done.

  41. Thanks, that’s really interesting (and promising)!

  42. gwenllian says:

    John Cowan: “Modern Standard Arabic isn’t truly an L1,”

    My comment wasn’t limited to MSA. I was referring to Arabic in general, in all its forms, which are devalued by many Arabic speakers. But, the spoken dialects are the most devalued.

    The problem with MSA is that it isn’t an L1. The problem with the spoken varieties is that they lack the prestige of MSA. I believe this is an important reason behind so little literature being written and read in Arabic. If MSA were universally mastered as an L2 in the Arab world, things would be different, but in a world where it’s more expedient for speakers of Arabic varieties to learn English or French, I don’t believe that is likely to happen. My preferred solution would be standardization and encouragement of the local varieties (with MSA being promoted as an L2 or L3 so as not to break the links between the different countries), but I know that’s just a pipe dream.

  43. “If MSA were universally mastered as an L2 in the Arab world, things would be different . . .”

    I am not clear on your point. MSA is universally taught in the Arabic world. It is the form used in almost all writing including newspapers and magazines. It is used in broadcasting. But, it isn’t used in every day speech and many (most?) Arabs are not comfortable writing. Maybe, it is a passive fluency – easy to understand, hard to produce.

    I suppose if we English speakers were obligated to write in very prescriptive Early or Middle English but speak as we do, we might have a different attitude about the language and less interest in various forms of writing.

  44. Yes, being able to write more or less as you speak (with relatively easy adjustments of register) and have the result generally accepted is a basic requirement for a democratic literature. Obviously lots of great literature has been produced by elites, but in the modern world restricting public writing to elites is absurd and unacceptable.

  45. Mmm, I don’t know. Tamil is very diglossic: Tamil writing can’t even adequately represent the L varieties because of their much larger phonologies. And yet it does not seem that Tamil and Telugu literature is substantially more an elite activity than Malayalam literature despite their diglossia. (Malayalam was once diglossic to written Tamil, but no longer.) Is German literature more elite in Switzerland and Austria than in Germany? Surely not.

  46. If my caveat “with relatively easy adjustments of register” applies, then sure, it’s not elite. If it doesn’t, I don’t see how it can be otherwise. By definition, only an elite have the time and resources to acquire a prestige variant well enough to use it successfully in a literary way.

  47. By definition, only an elite have the time and resources to acquire a prestige variant well enough to use it successfully in a literary way.

    But by that extremely broad definition of elite, only the elite are the ones who have the leisure to indulge in literary activity at all.

    Actually, modern literature is frequently written in spoken registers for both dialogue and narrative. But it’s not because it’s being written by people who don’t know how to write literary Tamil, and many do in essays.

    Tamil writing can’t even adequately represent the L varieties because of their much larger phonologies.

    I don’t know what you mean by “adequately” but for that matter, doesn’t English have the same problem, which is why the same vowel letter has different pronunciations in different contexts?

  48. Well, yes, but nobody would put forward English as a model for orthography revision. It’s true that H and L Tamil don’t have the kind of paired vocabulary words like oinos/krasi ‘wine’ from (former) H and L Greek, so pretty much every L Tamil word has some written representation, however bad. (Things are much worse in the Sinitic languages, where many words have either no hanzi at all, or only ones that aren’t used in Modern Standard Mandarin.)

  49. But by that extremely broad definition of elite, only the elite are the ones who have the leisure to indulge in literary activity at all.

    Not true; lots of great writers have come from hardscrabble backgrounds and have managed to write at night, in spare moments, in prison, whatever. True writers will find the time and energy to write, as long as it can be done in their native language. If they have to spend years mastering a special dialect just to get to the point where anyone will take them seriously, then it’s impossible.

    Actually, modern literature is frequently written in spoken registers for both dialogue and narrative.

    Well, there you are, then. Tamil is not an example of the kind JC was looking for.

  50. fisheyed says:

    If they have to spend years mastering a special dialect just to get to the point where anyone will take them seriously, then it’s impossible.

    It takes years to be a literate person in any language. The barriers to literacy are real, and the barriers to having the time, room of one’s own etc to write, are real, but the barrier of writing in a variety of Tamil that isn’t spoken is pretty small. (I wasn’t actually saying that only elites write, I was saying that your definition of elite was overbroad.) And as I mentioned, the novels in spoken register are not by people who are unable to express themselves in literary Tamil (and sometimes the novels are in some sort of hybrid, as Annamalai has written), so the novels-in-spoken-forms aren’t evidence about the literary register as a barrier.

    I would also say that literary Tamil is democratic in the sense that it is unmarked by social differences, unlike spoken forms. Harold Schiffman has written on how spoken Tamil is moving closer to the literary standard, because of education, spatial mobility, desire to be unmarked.

    Is there any language whose orthography “adequately” represents speech across its dialects?

  51. David Marjanović says:

    By definition, only an elite have the time and resources to acquire a prestige variant well enough to use it successfully in a literary way.

    In that case everyone belongs to the elite in cases like German, where those “years mastering a special dialect just to get to the point where anyone will take them seriously” are spent in childhood.

    Is there any language whose orthography “adequately” represents speech across its dialects?

    Do you mean deliberately engineered cases like Breton, where zh is pronounced like z in 3 dialects and like h in the fourth?

    Or do you mean cases where the phonologies of all dialects could be represented by the means the orthography provides, without a need for extra letters/diacritics/digraphs? That seems to be common.

  52. fisheyed says:

    Or do you mean cases where the phonologies of all dialects could be represented by the means the orthography provides, without a need for extra letters/diacritics/digraphs?

    This, without the same letter symbolizing different sounds in different dialects or different words.

    Actually, now that I think about it further, I would like some examples of L varieties of Tamil having phonologies that the writing cannot capture that is not also true of the H variety.

  53. gwenllian says:

    I am not clear on your point. MSA is universally taught in the Arabic world. It is the form used in almost all writing including newspapers and magazines. It is used in broadcasting. But, it isn’t used in every day speech and many (most?) Arabs are not comfortable writing. Maybe, it is a passive fluency – easy to understand, hard to produce.

    As you say yourself, it’s taught, but usually not mastered.

    In that case everyone belongs to the elite in cases like German, where those “years mastering a special dialect just to get to the point where anyone will take them seriously” are spent in childhood.

    I don’t know about German, but all my friends whose native language is a Chakavian or Kajkavian variety have said that they never even noticed they were learning Standard Croatian. It was everywhere, and they just picked it up very early in childhood without conscious effort. Can’t really be compared to a case like Arabic.

  54. Il vergognoso says:

    So you basically need one trendy big city with native fusḥa speakers to have people really learning fusḥa well.

  55. In that case everyone belongs to the elite in cases like German, where those “years mastering a special dialect just to get to the point where anyone will take them seriously” are spent in childhood.
    I’d say that’s more true in the South than in the North now, with Platt mostly leading a niche existence and the colloquial language being relatively close to the standard. From what I see, Colloquial Standard German (with some vestiges of Platt features) has almost completely replaced Platt; in rural Ostfriesland, where I grew up 40 ears ago, many children used to start school speaking Platt and were “re-educated” into speaking Standard German; now primary school teachers among my acquaintances say that they hardly encounter any children any more that speak predominantly Platt. Sure, there still are a lot of old and middle-aged people that have grown up speaking Platt, and there are those who try to keep it alive actively, but to me it looks like Standard German has won.

  56. SFReader says:

    The elite are the people who have time and leisure to spend 10-12 years in primary and secondary school and move on to college.

    In other words, majority of population even in poor developing countries today.

    Now, if 10 years in school is not enough to acquire fluency in main literary language of the country, then something is very seriously wrong with these people (as I know, schoolchildren in rural African schools do master English and French even though their native languages are not even related to them)

  57. one trendy big city with native fusḥa speakers

    Not necessarily native. If a big city’s working language is X, then it doesn’t matter if only a tiny percentage, or even 0%, of the citizens speak X natively. Consider Swahili: 15M native speakers, 50-100M non-native speakers.

    majority of population even in poor developing countries today

    The mean number of years of education worldwide (among people 15 and older) is 7.8 years, and the distribution is seriously bimodal both between countries and within them. In Burkina Faso, for example, it’s one year. The numbers are rising, but they haven’t risen that much yet.

  58. SFReader says:

    UNDP Human Development Report 2014 says that Expected years of schooling (of children) in Burkina Faso was 7.5 years in 2012 and 2013.

    http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/expected-years-schooling-children-years

    This is one of the poorest countries in the world!

  59. That’s looking forward (what can a child now expect to get), whereas my stat was looking backward (how much did an adult now actually get). They are both interesting, but they are incommensurable.

  60. “NDP Human Development Report 2014 says that Expected years of schooling (of children) in Burkina Faso was 7.5 years in 2012 and 2013.”

    The CIA Factbook says that the “school life expectancy” is 8 years. However, the literacy rate is only 28.7%. This begs the question of what they are studying in those 8 years.

  61. Trond Engen says:

    The CIA Factbook says that the “school life expectancy” is 8 years. However, the literacy rate is only 28.7%. This begs the question of what they are studying in those 8 years.

    No, this means that universal education is so new that the literacy rate has not had time to adjust to its new equilibrium. See John’s point about looking backwards vs. looking forwards.

  62. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t know about German, but all my friends whose native language is a Chakavian or Kajkavian variety have said that they never even noticed they were learning Standard Croatian. It was everywhere, and they just picked it up very early in childhood without conscious effort.

    Yep, same for me growing up 200 km west of Vienna.

  63. SFReader says:

    Yes, but the point is, majority of children in poorest countries are now attending school and will spend at least 7-8 years studying.

    Languagehat said that only the elite has leisure and time to spend years studying.

    Well, by this definition (historically very sound observation, by the way), even the majority of children in Burkina Faso are now the elite…

  64. It’s a good point, and I’ll have to think about it. It’s obviously the case that the bar is higher the more divergent the prestige variant is from normal speech, but it’s not clear to me at what point it gets high enough that most people can’t manage it.

  65. I don’t think divergence determines the bar as much as the will and ability of the elites to impose their standard on everyone. Most Arab spoken languages do not diverge from MSA any more than Chinese languages diverge from Mandarin. The Soviet Union managed to make fluent Russian speakers and writers out of people speaking entirely unrelated languages. With a centralized government and enough political will it would presumably be fairly easy to have most of the Arab world speaking MSA as their native language within a few generations. Or maybe there are other forces at play, do Arab elites prefer to have the masses remain basically illiterate, or is there a lot of grassroots resistance, even subconcious, to allowing MSA to really be the standard?

  66. But that’s just it: there is no centralized arabophone government, and not even any mixing points in which people speaking different colloquials must adopt MSA for communication. There’s also the problem that almost nobody uses MSA for conversation now, only for making speeches and the like (which normally fall on the H side of a diglossia), so there are few models for full adoption.

  67. The Soviet Union managed to make fluent Russian speakers and writers out of people speaking entirely unrelated languages.

    Well, what does “fluent” mean? I’m not talking about the simple ability to function in the language, I’m talking about the ability to write what will be accepted as literature by those who determine such things (the editors at literary magazines and publishing houses, book reviewers, etc.). Sure, lots of Chuvash learned Russian well, but how many Gennady Aygis were there?

  68. Vanya: “do Arab elites prefer to have the masses remain basically illiterate . . .”

    But, they are not “basically illiterate.” Two examples, one rich, one poor: The literacy rate in Egypt is 73.9%, in Saudi Arabia, 87.2%.

    George

  69. fisheyed says:

    It’s obviously the case that the bar is higher the more divergent the prestige variant is from normal speech,

    The soap opera about Umar ibn Khattab was in fusha. If fusha is comprehensible enough that ordinary people can watch a tv show in it, it is strange to me that it would present a serious barrier to literary life just because it’s not how people talk.

  70. Again, I’m not talking about the simple ability to function in the language, I’m talking about the ability to write what will be accepted as literature. I’m pretty sure the ability to follow a soap opera in fusha does not qualify one to write a novel in fusha.

  71. fisheyed says:

    I’m pretty sure the ability to follow a soap opera in fusha does not qualify one to write a novel in fusha.

    Well, I didn’t say it did qualified someone to write a novel, I said it seems to me it qualifies fusha as not being much of an educational barrier.

  72. marie-lucie says:

    Majority versus elite: From what I understand, in Greece some decades ago the majority spoken form of the language – demotiki – had become so different from the elite one – katharevousa – that some writers started to use demotiki to write novels, etc, with great success. So in that particular case it looks like the “elite language” has not been able to maintain its cultural supremacy.

    leisure to study

    The length of time spent by children in school does not quite qualify as “leisure to study”, which is a phrase more appropriate to older teenagers and especially university students who have some say about what they want to study, within and without the course curriculum.

  73. Well, I didn’t say it did qualified someone to write a novel, I said it seems to me it qualifies fusha as not being much of an educational barrier.

    Sure, but the issue arose because I said up above “being able to write more or less as you speak (with relatively easy adjustments of register) and have the result generally accepted is a basic requirement for a democratic literature.” Of course I’m well aware that it’s not all that hard to achieve basic competence in a language as long as one is exposed to it enough; I’m talking about that higher level of competence — call it mastery — that allows one to produce literature.

  74. Indeed, there was essentially no katharevousa literature after 1900. Nick Nicholas on the collapse of diglossia in Greece (I’ve pointed to his summary comment, but the whole article is excellent, as usual).

  75. It is excellent (and where is Nick, dammit?). I note that Peter writes (in 2009), “Is 2010 not the year that the radically new Cambridge Ancient Greek – English lexicon goes to the presses?” The answer turns out to be no, they’re still working on it.

  76. and where is Nick, dammit?

    Working for the (Australian) National School Interoperability Program, but not blogging even about that. The most recent thing he’s done, as far as Dr. Google knows; it’s geeky but not linguistic.

  77. SFReader says:

    On Soviet literature.

    As I recall, Soviet literary authorities usually wanted indigenous writers to write in their native languages, but their works were then translated into Russian and published in amazing quantities.

    So they did not approve of indigenous writers switching to write in Russian primarily.

    However, the practice certainly existed. Some Ukrainian writers are quite suspect in this regard, who, I have a feeling, wrote their books in Russian first and then themselves translated to Ukrainian, but claimed otherwise to get published.

    Their Russian originals were usually published as “authorized translations”.

  78. SFReader says:

    -marie-lucie

    In the context of current discussion, leisure meant by Languagehat is having means and opportunity to spend time to study without having to work and earn a living.

    That’s very good definition of elite in traditional society.

    Most children of school age in traditional societies were expected to work fulltime, usually in their household farms, so the fact that they are now going to school instead even in Burkina Faso is an amazing evidence of progress.

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