Friday, March 13, 2009


I've been reading an article by Steve Coll published in the New Yorker, which made news a fortnight ago by revealing that India and Pakistan were close to a deal on the future of Kashmir. I was struck by this relatively unimportant passage: "The Indian troops on occupation duty in Kashmir-- about five hundred thousand soldiers and paramilitaries--rarely speak the Kashmiri dialect. Locals resent them, and they return the attitude".
The New Yorker, world renowned for its obsessive fact checking, failed to recognise that Kashmiri is a language, not a dialect. The confusion between the two terms was a regular source of annoyance when I lived in England. Some well-meaning professor or fellow student would ask me, as standard small talk, "So which language do you speak at home?"
"English, mainly, though my mother tongue is Marathi".
"Marathi? Is that a dialect of Hindu"?
"Hindu refers to a member of of a religious group. The language is Hindi. But Marathi is a separate language. It has its own literary tradition going back nearly a thousand years. It's as different from Hindi as Portuguese is from French."
"So there are, what, a dozen or so languages spoken in India?"
"No, hundreds".
"Surely you're speaking of dialects."
Resisting the urge to point out that
I might know a bit more about these matters since I studied literature while he studied biochemistry, I'd say, merely, "I'm speaking of languages. If you count dialects, the figure would be much higher."At this point, the person would look away, unconvinced, then change the subject.
What was annoying was the racial division always implicit in such conversations. White people spoke languages. Dark people mainly spoke dialects. Just like dark people in white lands were immigrants, white people in dark lands were expatriates. It didn't matter if Arthur C Clarke had settled in Sri Lanka for life; he was always an expat.
Going back to the New Yorker's assertion about security forces in Kashmir: since most of those personnel come from outside the state, it is obvious they won't speak Kashmiri. But referring to Kashmiri as a dialect rather than a language makes it seem like the military men are unwilling rather than unable to speak to Kashmiris in their own tongue.
I'm quibbling, I know. It's been a slow week mentally.


Anonymous said...

A dialect is defined as "the usage or vocabulary that is characteristic of a specific group of people; "the immigrants spoke an odd dialect of English"; "he has a strong ..."

so what I got from that article was that the Indian Army soldiers were unwilling to even learn say teh type of Urdu spoken there - in the sense that if you learned enough of persian + urdu of the type used in kashmir.. you could roughly be able to communicate with the people there naturally

I am not trying to defend the writer -- I am just saying you are being a little tooo quibbling..

Girish Shahane said...

The writer specifically speaks of Kashmiri, which is a completely different language from Urdu. And even more distant from Persian. I'm certainly not quibbling at that level. Having read your response, I feel maybe I'm not quibbling at all!

greycity said...

You make an interesting point about the misuse of the term 'dialect.' A couple of years ago, I was chatting with a graduate student in Languages, and he was very passionate about this topic, so much so as to claim that the term is useless and misleading. His example had to do with Chinese, and the Chinese government's policy that the languages spoken in different parts of the country were dialects, although these dialects could be as different as English and Hungarian. So I guess it isn't always the carelessness of the West, although I suppose it was western academics that invented the term.

Girish Shahane said...

I didn't know the Chinese government went that far in attempting to impose linguistic homogeneity.
As far as the term dialect goes, it is still useful in its restricted sense of referring to a group that speaks a language in a distinct way, but one that is ultimately comprehensible to other speakers of the language. I found some of the northern dialects of English in the UK pretty tough to comprehend: I'd be lip reading desperately. But it was clear we were speaking the same language; very, very different from being faced with a French speaker.

Space Bar said...

Our law in media prof. at scm said something similar about sociology being the study of white societies and anthoropology being the study of coloured societies.