It was six years ago that I discovered this. 

I was working for a non profit   where we were designing a curriculum for illiterate adult learners.  We were trying to develop some simple reading material structured around their livelihoods.  There was a pedagogy expert working with us . One of the things that he brought to our notice was the fact that we would have to introduce  learners to simple words and then simple sentences. It was during the course of this discussion that  I realized that almost all Indian languages sound completely different when written!  There is a certain formality that comes in making  both the grammar and the syntax different. The extent of this formality varies between languages but it does exist in most of them. 

Among the two Indian  languages that I have been taught to read and write – Hindi and Bengali, I found that the later has it in a larger measure. Actually, the difference between the written and the spoken word in Hindi is not much – except for the words used. The grammar and syntax are pretty much the same. But in the case of Bengali there is certainly a difference between the written and the spoken words. 

However, among  the languages that I know to speak, I think Tamil is probably the one where the written word is almost like another language in itself! Though Tamil is my mother tongue, I did not learn to read and write the language through any formal means as I did not do my education here. I am pretty much self taught picking up alphabets and forming words by reading bus boards and cinema posters. So you can imagine the first time, I tried to read a public notice! I could completely understand at that time, how those  women who came to the learning centres must have been feeling all their lives! 

I often wonder why it is so- this huge difference between the verbal and written forms ? I guess, it has something to do with access to literacy. When the written word was being developed and penned down, there were only few who had access to it –caste being a barrier. Reading and writing were treated as scholarly or religious activities and were not considered as mere written forms of the spoken word. So people sought to make it very ornate, flowery  and therefore more complicated. It had the flavor of the court at some level and  religion  at another. Actually, at one point during the ancient times, the written word WAS  different – Sanskrit while the spoken language was Pali or Prakrit. I think it was during Ashoka’s period that the royal edicts began to be written in Prakrit. But the religious scriptures continued to be in Sanskrit. Tamil as the oldest Dravidian language had similar  issues where the language written and popularized through the Sangam literature was different from that of the common man/ woman.

If we use the above reason behind the huge difference between the written and the spoken word, it explains to some extent why Hindi does not carry so many differences. Hindi as we know it today is actually a modern language developed through a mix of Sanskrit, Urdu ( which itself is a mixed language) and the various north Indian dialects. This Hindi also known as Standard Hindustani is a descendent of Khari Boli which is a mixture of various dialects around north India. A mixture of mixtures undergoing modern standardization and later “sanskritization” by the Government of India, it was devoid of the complexities that made the written word “unreachable” or “un-teachable” for the common man/woman.

I am not familiar with the written words in other Indian languages but I suspect that the written word is as complicated as it is in the languages I have mentioned. I realize this must have been true of English too. However over the years the written and the spoken words slowly came together.
I think one of the best ways to improve literacy would be do a language innovation so that the gap between the written and spoken word reduces. Today after nearly half a century of independence I feel that it SHOULD be possible. School children should not have to struggle to read and write something that they do not speak.

Language is for communication. Communication should be simple and easy for people to exchange messages, concepts and ideas. If language itself becomes a barrier then it is a challenge for all. So a lot of knowledge gets lost because those who are repositories of such knowledge do not how to document it in the written form. And then, there also develops a bias against knowledge that is transferred through oral tradition- it is often not recognized as knowledge! Finally when rights start being defined over “owners” of this knowledge those who did not know the written word lose their rights over the fact that they are creators of this knowledge. Those of you who are familiar with the International Intellectual Property Rights issue around turmeric may understand this better! 

Today’s world requires language that is in keeping with the times. If we keep at the same formats of having difficult written words then we are denying the common man/ woman access to knowledge. Instead of asking the poor boys/ girls/ men and women to prepare themselves to do the grammatical acrobatics around the written word, it might be better if we make the language simple for all to understand and use. 

Languages is after all man made. So it should serve the needs of (wo)man and not expect (wo)man to learn to serve its needs.

( I invite readers to please give their views on this. I am not a language expert. What I have written is based on my analysis from a sociological perspective. I might be entirely wrong! )


  1. Agree on the big difference between written and spoken languages. This difference is more striking where literacy levels are low because in societies where literacy is high, linguistic ability develops at a young age and they get into the "groove" of the literal language. On the other hand, where literacy levels are low, language is more driven by the need to communicate and is not "hindered" by a formal language.

    I am no language expert either, but I enjoy listening to the street language - be it urdu in Hyderabad or the rural Telugu in Telangana. Which one do I prefer? The street version of course and its for the same reason that I prefer bermudas and a T-shirt to 3-piece suit any day!

    Enjoyed reading your post which was interesting as usual. Keep writing Meera!

  2. Interesting post. Agree with you. I am writing a post on my writing style. I do not want to use flowery or bombastic words. I also have difficulty understanding when I read articles that throw many un-understandable words. Some people take pleasure in writing in a very formal way with using lot of difficult words. Wish they change their style.

  3. I agree with the differences you have mentioned of the reason as you mentioned was because of the class priviledges... but in some languages like the Swedish language the written word is really easy but the spoken word is what is difficult...the sounds created by some alphabets are so difficult that if you misdo it then you tend to change the meaning of the word... for example alphabets like ä a ö o ...their sounds are different and if you are not careful you might misuse them..but see the writing is comparitively easy...

  4. I'm a lay person too when it is this subject you wrote about.Not my arena.
    Then as a lay man itself, I guess that the difference in spoken and written language is fine . Because the slang , the odd phrases etc that are subsumed or inherent in spoken language may not be appropriate in written formal language. don't you think so? What might be fine in private conversation may be a "faux pas" in written formal language or even when spoken in public. isn't it?

  5. I was waiting for the entire day to find some quiet time to post my comments.

    We have been facing some of the language issues now that our kid is going through her formal primary Education level and language being so very crucial for this phase.

    Very true observation about the languages being so different in written and spoken form. Bengali text abounds in them.

    The vernacular literature (for me, Bengali) which we were brought up with were mostly written during an era where writing, reading, discussions about literature was more of an elite and aristocratic act. The society did not have much of Service Sector then. The other major sector, the peasants were totally into tilling their lands and mostly the next generation followed.

    I am sure this divide is changing now with the convergence from all strata, READING as such may not be anymore viewed as an elite thong only.

    And about verbal language, the ones trying to sound elite, did speak SHUDDHO BANGLA as they called it and even criticized the ones who, spoke in a more localized dialect. They were branded as Gaayiaa.

    Hope in coming years, the trend shall change. And we really do not anymore use so many words which are en-scripted in books.

    I remember the satire in Sukumar Roy's poem, Note Boi:

    Kaar naam Dundubi, Bole kaake Oroni?
    Bolbe ki tomra toh Note Boi poroni...

  6. Christopher, you have hit the nail on the head! Where literacy levels are low people struggle to understand the written language as language for them is an ability to communicate. What my suggestion is that why not make changes in language so that the difficulties are removed and people are more keen to become literate?

    @ SG, I must read your blog on your writing style. .

  7. @ Sukupedia, I am curious to know how the spoken word is more difficult in Swedish. Do elaborate

    @ Ani, I love Sukumar Roy exactly for these reasons - his ability to write nonsense verse :) and make it enjoyable

  8. @ Anil, I think I should make some clarification here - the spoken word is not always slang. For e.g in Tamil we say "Avan angai poran" when we speak but when we write it is "Avan Angai pogi kondi irukan"- you see how it differs in terms of number of words, alphbets and the grammar? The written word in most Indian languages would sound ridiculous if we were to start speaking in it.

  9. Namaste....
    Communication is always complex both written and oral. It can be a virtual minefield if you are not careful. Wars has been started on miscommunication and misunderstandings. Cultural nuances and ethos impact communication on all levels


  10. Being a foreigner... it was very hard for me to learn to write hindi... because speaking it and writing it was sooo different... I always got the spellings wrong.. I thought this was just a problem for only me!

  11. Yes Rhapsody, wars have started on many things including poor communication. That is the whole idea of making it simple so we can have peace!

    Emmy if you had trouble with written hindi you should try written Tamil!


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