It’s amazing how we in Goa build simplistic arguments, which then get the currency of truth. One such issue is the script and language debate, about which much has already been said.
A “principle” we are repeatedly reminded about is that mother-tongue education is most beneficial for a young mind. Why this is true only for students till Std IV and not beyond that is never explained.
This gives us a hint that arguments are being tailor-made to suit the reality, and not the other way round. Then, due to a complex mix of political realities and vested interests, a dialect and script that is little used and hardly popular is foisted on wide sections in Goa which are not well-disposed to using them. Finally, we end up wondering why the Konkani language isn’t growing. Or why it’s losing the reach it once had – especially in the fields of culture, music, the spoken word, theatre, even film and book publishing too.
Since the 1960s, Marathi has received acceptance among an influential section of the political class here. Admittedly, the language was in use in Goa long before that too. Yet, other languages which reflect the full diversity of Goa yesterday or today (like Kannada, Portuguese, Urdu to some extent and even English) are treated as alien and not worthy of recognition or any support.
Much has already been debate on this subject. But new perspectives come up all the time. Recently, at a publishing seminar held in Panjim (PublishingNext, very well organised by the Margao-based Cinnamon Teal), some interesting issues on language and script came to the fore.
One of the speakers, Ganesh N. Devy (b. 1950) raised some interesting points. He is a former professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, a renowned literary critic and activist, andfounder and director of the Tribal Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, and director of the Sahitya Akademi’s Project on Literature in Tribal Languages and Oral Traditions. He was educated at Kolhapur and Leeds.
As he put it: “There is no logical connection between any given language and the script that it uses at any given time. This morning we’ve been told about Konkani that uses five scripts. Sanskrit has gone through three scripts diachronically (at different points of time) and several scripts synchronically (at the same point of time).”
While his work has been on tribal and endangered languages, the points he raises also gives pointers to what we need to be looking at in the context of Konkani.
Script is an addition coming from different quarters, he noted. Any script can write any language, almost. Just as no script can write its own language fully. Linguists will say this particular sound is not captured by this script, and use diacritic marks. Even diacritic marks cannot solve the complexities, though they do help someone who’s not used to the language, Devi said.
While narrating how they created scripts for some oral languages, he pointed out: “If there is a choice, once can choose the better. If there’s no choice, and the question is of people’s dignity, remaining alive, living on their land, then you use an instrument that comes handy.”
Devi cited the case of the Ol Chiki script, of Santhali. Ol Ciki, Ol (and sometimes as the Santali alphabet), was created in 1925 by Raghunath Murmu for the Santali language. Previously, Santali had been written with the Bengali alphabet, Oriya alphabet, or Latin alphabet, on the rare occasions it was written at all, as has been noted.
It has been argued (see the Wikipedia) that Santali is not an Indo-Aryan language, so Indic scripts did not have letters for all of Santali’s phonemes. This made writing the language accurately in an unmodified Indic script difficult. Missionaries brought the Latin alphabet, which was better at representing some Santali stops, but vowels were still problematic.
There has also been debates over the Kokborok language, the language of the Tripuri people in Tripura. Kok-borok had a script known as Koloma which has disappeared. Since the 19th century the Kingdom of Twipra used the Bengali script for writing in Kok-borok. The Roman Script is being promoted by non-governmental organizations. The script issue is highly politicized, with the Left Front government advocating usage of the Bengali script and others advocating for the Roman script.
This only goes to show how complex script issues can be. In many cases, arguments are built to justify one’s position. Yet, other perspectives do emerge too.
Vinutha Mallya, a publishing professional with a Konkani background, said: “I think the problem comes when you’re multilingual. I studied Hindi in Devanagari. So the sounds of Hindi represents that phonetics. When I try to read Konkani in Devanagari, it becomes a challenge because there are some sounds that are not the same. I relate to the Hindi phonetic sounds and it disturbs me.” Mallya added she found the Roman script more helpful in this regard.
As Devi said, pressurised script and language groups are often fighting “for survival”. They need to shout out and say, “We exist”. One debate hardly mentioned is, that the switch to Devanagari, which has been promoted for many years now, and vociferously since 1987, would mean the loss of decades, actually centuries, of the written word in that script. It has been an integral part of the evolution into the region we now know as Goa.
To expect governments and authorities to bother about such issues might be asking for too much. Those who see this as a priority should just keep on working to preserve and take this legacy further.