Does changing the script kill the language?


Note: Before I get attacked by the linguist-purists (if that’s a term), I am making it clear that I am NOT an expert on any language(s), nor this is any sort of an opinion post. I am most of the time an end user and sadly, I belong to the generation which feels sh*t to speak in its regional/native languages.

It was during a social media summit organized here in Pakistan when a debate on using regional languages for weblogs and epapers came in discussion. From the comments of not getting much viewership because the Google’s default English search to getting writers type in those languages was being discussed. I suggested how Romanized (representation of the spoken or written word using Latin script) versions of languages could have a better reach to younger readers and also easier to be typed into computers. The purists’ approach is to never play with the language script or it dies. Recently, this hard stand is being fought against though.

Do languages really die when their script changes?

History suggests it doesn’t, but yes it adapts to change and evolves over time. The literature doesn’t evolve though, so how do we confront such threats then?

I will discuss here the Sindhi language and its evolution over time focusing on its Romanization.

Sindhi in arabic script

Sindhi is a language spoken by some 17 million people in Pakistan – concentrated in the province of Sind, and 2.5 million in India. Mainly concentrated in the Kutch district of Gujarat, the remaining are composed of Hindu Sindhis who migrated during the 1947 partition and started the Sindhi Diaspora worldwide.

A very ancient language (more ancient than Sanskrit) and rich with 52 alphabets, Sindhi has remained a favourite of literary figures. It became more popular in literature when mystics such as Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Sarchal Sarmast narrated theosophical poetry in the language.

The script of the language kept changing with time and didn’t get any singular form until recently (in the 19th century during the British rule). Right now, Arabic Sindhi and Devangiri Sindhi are two accepted scripts of the language with the former being used in Sind, Pakistan, and latter prevalent in India. The language has borrowed many influences from Arabic, Persian and English in Pakistan while Sanskrit effects are quite clear in the Indian spoken Sindhi.

Romanized Sindhi dictionary

Here in Sind, the Romanized script of the Sindhi language isn’t very mainstream – no dire needs at the moment – but the research and Romanization work is extensively being done in India or by Indian Sindhis worldwide. The reason is quite clear: Sindhi is a major local language spoken and understood by almost everyone inside the province. Even if everyone cannot write it, they surely can understand and speak it. The case is not the same with Sindhis in India and abroad. When they migrated from Sind to India and other countries, they not only lost touch with the land of their ancestors but they also could no longer listen to their native language on the streets. It had to go extinct with time since there was no one to teach their kids this language.

Here is where the concept of Romanization comes. The Alliance of Sindhi Associations of Americas Inc, a not-for-profit organization of Sindhis brought together scholars and language experts to work on aroman script for the language. Learning the Arabic script (written from right to left) and learning to write the alphabets takes a lot of time which youngsters can’t give and nor are they interested. The roman format, which is transliteration in English, makes the learning process easier without needing the children to learn a whole new writing system. Adding a few signs like ~, ^, ‘, denote nasal, retroflex and implosive sounds.

The standardized format was discussed by international scholars and linguists during the annual Sindhi Samelans (festivals) and was approved in 2010 after a good 4 years of extensive research. I am really honoured to have worked with this scholastic and erudite team.

In January, 2012 the project was handed over to the Indian Institute of Sindhology, Adipur, Kutch Gujarat. The Roman script is slowly getting popular with Sindhis living abroad. Tutorials and Sindhi language teaching sessions are being held at various places.

“The tool that Romanized Sindhi Script has provided is indeed very valuable. For years we had been fighting this battle – how to teach Sindhi language to our new generation in USA? Teaching the Arabic or Devnagri script was the main hurdle. Neither children had motivation nor could the parents impose additional burden on their kids who already carry a very heavy work load and face intense competition at their schools. Now with the use of Standardized Romanized Sindhi Script, the task has been greatly simplified. It did not take too much to attract or persuade. In fact the response from the Bay Area Sindhi Community to our announcement was quite surprising. Not only kids but some adults and youth also signed up for the Sindhi class.” – Kamal Mirchandani, Fremont, CA.

Today if some Sindhi in Pakistan argues with me that I am helping in the process of killing the language, I ask them to check their children’s phones and see what language are they using while text messaging with friends and cousins: roman Sindhi. Myself, and all my Sindhi friends heavily rely on roman script rather than taking the pains of converting language in to Arabic and use that script. It is hard, and it takes effort and my generation is lazy.

From “lazy” and “my generation”, the thought of food popped in my brain. Here is a totally relevant bit to salivate upon: the Sindhi food. Check Sindhi Rasoi, a blog on Sindhi food recipes and thank me for the rest of your lives (okay, that was too much – yes.).

Written for The Alternative!

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