21 January 2010

Correcting a critical prejudice

Charles Li's contention (summarized by Stephen Wadley in my previous post) that "pidgins rarely, if ever, produce a literature" is soundly refuted by historical evidence. Here is an account of the language and literature situation in Bangladesh in the 18th century:

"After the Turkish conquest of Bengal in the 13th century, Persian became the official language and both Hindu and Muslim communities started learning the language for personal advancement. In addition to Persian, Muslims also learnt Arabic. This led to the influx of a large stock of Arabic-Persian words into Bangla. Following the establishment of administrative, commercial and cultural links of Bengal with the Mughal capital, Delhi, during the 16th century, a large number of Muslims started visiting Bengal. Urdu-speaking Muslims engaged in state, religious and educational activities, and their families started settling in Murshidabad, Hughli, Howrah etc. Urdu-Hindi words now began to have a significant influence on Bangla.

"Persian was so important at the time that, apart from Muslims and Hindus, the employees of the European trading companies too started learning it. Before coming to India the employees of the East India Company used to learn Persian at seminaries in Britain. After observing the state of Bangla language in the 18th century, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed in A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778) said that those who spoke Bangla using the largest number of Arabic and Persian adjectives with Bangla verbs were regarded as knowing Bangla well. The documents and legal papers of the 18th century largely used this kind of language. Sukumar Sen termed it as a 'working language' or the 'language of usage'. Bharatchandra called it yabani mishal (Muslim mixture). He himself learned this language and claimed that although it did not possess high literary qualities it was understood by all. Bharatchandra and Garibullah came from the same region of Bhurshut Pargana at about the same time. The spoken language of the common people, irrespective of whether they were Hindu or Muslim, was the language of puthi literature and thus cannot be termed as an artificial literary language. The ordinary educated Muslim liked it because of the mixture of Arabic and Persian vocabulary.

"With some exceptions, most puthi literature was derivative with poets using Persian, Urdu and Hindi works as their sources. While borrowing from these works, they not only adopted the subjects but also many words, parts of sentences and even their syntax."

I highlighted the sentence about the language of literature not being an artificial language (on the contrary, puthi literature used the language of real men and women on the streets and even in court). Scholars prejudiced against pidgin and mixed languages are simply on denial mode. If William Wordsworth were around, he would doubtless say that literature in "mixed languages" is the norm and monolingual writing is the exception, since he proclaimed famously that poetry is nothing else but "the real language of men [and women!] in a state of vivid sensation."

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