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.