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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019

Mumbai’s many tongues and linguistic swagger

What else is Bambaiyya Hindi if not a unique, grammar-free, syntax-free and reference-free mix of Marathi, Gujarati, even Urdu mixed with Hindi? It is voiced by Bollywood characters on the screen but the dialect – it is that, a dialect – is heard zillions of times more on the streets of Mumbai.

mumbai Updated: Sep 19, 2019 01:48 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
In Mumbai, language matters less than survival instinct and swagger
In Mumbai, language matters less than survival instinct and swagger(Representational photo)
         

It is possible to speak any language peppered with some broken English or Hindi-like words to get one’s way around in Mumbai. It is possible to live, work and play here without knowing Marathi, the language spoken by the largest number of Mumbaiites. Some would call it the mother language of the city. It is also fairly commonplace for a person switch from her mother tongue to Marathi to Gujarati to Hindi to English all in the space of a day, perhaps multiple times a day, each tongue a marker of the person’s multi-lingual identity. That’s why union home minister Amit Shah’s idea last week that “it is absolutely essential that the entire country has one language…the most spoken language of Hindi” cut little ice in Mumbai.

It raised hackles in the southern states, as expected, and brought out the uglier aspects of linguistic sub-nationalism right out in the open. Shah’s ally Uddhav Thackeray whose politics is built on linguistic sub-nationalism did not take much offence. In fact, a political poster in Gujarati in Pune enraged social media users more than the Thackerays. Shah’s political ideology was shaped by the European and unitary concept of one nation-one language-one religion-one leader. But there’s more to India.

The raging debate perhaps pushed Shah to clarify on Wednesday that he “never asked for imposing Hindi over other regional languages”. He would do well to revisit India’s reorganisation of states on linguistic lines, and learn how linguistic diversity and autonomy helped knit the nation together. A person could be a Gujarati speaker and Indian without there being dissonance between the two, another could be a Bengali speaker and Indian, and so on. We did not need one language to be Indian.

Mumbai typifies this idea of India. Here in slums and chawls, middle class housing complexes and gated communities, in suburban trains and at traffic signals on potholed roads, in factories and markets, hospitals and schools, languages co-exist, interweave, enmesh, and jostle for space. This must have been a feature of the old Bombay too, inspiring Joseph Gerson da Cunha, a physician and a historian, linguist and author, to describe the city as a “real Babel of tongues” back in 1912.

In Mumbai, language matters less than survival instinct and swagger, languages evolve and adapt as Mumbaiites do, languages borrow from one another and nurture a new tongue, language maketh not the Mumbaiite but she/he makes the language. What else is Bambaiyya Hindi if not a unique, grammar-free, syntax-free and reference-free mix of Marathi, Gujarati, even Urdu mixed with Hindi? It is voiced by Bollywood characters on the screen but the dialect – it is that, a dialect – is heard zillions of times more on the streets of Mumbai.

“Apun” is a derivative from Marathi “aapan” or we, “khopcha” is from Marathi “kopra” or corner, “shaana” or “shaanpatti” is also from Marathi “shaahana” or “shaahanpan” meaning smartness. There are words borrowed from other languages, mixed and mauled, their meanings altered – “lafda”, “kachha limbu”, “jhol”, “thakela”, “raapchik”, “bindaas”, “hafta”, and my favourite “bol bachchan”. Then there is the lingua franca of the underworld, heavily coded but simple words, like “supari”, “peti”, “khokha”, “maal”.

Here, Thackeray’s children received English education in upper crust schools and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation funded schools in Urdu, Kannada, Tamil, and other regional languages. In Bandra West, it is possible to hear within a few hundred metres millennials speak in their distinctive English-like language and maka-pao inspired English. “What men” acquires another meaning altogether. Konkani, Sindhi, Tulu, Bengali, Parsi Gujarati, Persian, Arabic, Maithli, Bhojpuri, and tens of other languages have found their homes.

Over decades, Mumbai’s linguistic character changed too. Marathi, once the dominant language, had 4.4 million speakers or those who identified it as mother tongue which is about 36%, according to Census 2011. Hindi is spoken by 3.5 million Mumbaiites as their first language or mother tongue, up 39.5% in the 2001-11 decade. This Hindi, Amit Shah should note, is not the Sanskritised version favoured by the government. It’s the people’s language – malleable, adaptable, loaning and borrowing, sometimes sneering but pulsating with life.

Cities usually show linguistic diversity coming from its migrants. Mumbai is no exception. Mumbai’s multi-lingual character and its unique lingo have few parallels in the world. If Nagpur or Delhi wants to foist one common language, Mumbaiites will likely show their most “hatela” side (hatti or adiyal in north Indian Hindi), with a “cutting chai” in hand.

First Published: Sep 19, 2019 01:48 IST

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