On the Origin of the National Language

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." 
- George Orwell in his book 1984.
In recent years, the Gujarat High Court has been the champion of the anti-Hindi cause throughout India, arguing that Hindi was a foreign language in parts of Gujarat [1] and arguments that Hindi was merely an official language. This article seeks to delve into the issue at hand - what is a national language? Do we need a national language? Furthermore, what is a standard language?

What is a National Language?

Saint Petersburg is on the far Northwest red circle in Russia.
Vladivostok is on the far Southeast area, Primorsky.
To anybody reading this from parts of the world like Europe or China, the answer is obvious. It's obvious the language people from one part of a country can use to speak to those from another part. For example, a person from Saint Petersburg would be able to talk to a person in Vladivostok in Russian. A person from China's Fujian province would presumably be able to speak to a person from China's Heilongjiang province in Mandarin.

But while the concept of a national language is very new, it has existed for more than two millenia in the past. Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty in China, after reuniting the wartorn country, had established a single unified national script - somebody from Luoyang, China, could read the writing of someone from Suzhou, China. Qin had intended to keep his dynasty ruling forever - in fact, he died because he wanted to be the ruler forever and drank chemicals advertised as 'immortality potions'. However, in order to do this, he created a unified script specifically to unify China. Though he failed in keeping China, the succeeding dynasty, the Han, would continue his script.

Then what do I mean when I say that the concept of a national language is new? If China has had one language for millenia, it can't be new! Not so, actually.

Hanzi (汉字), the unified Chinese script

China, such a large and vast nation, inevitably has more than one language. Heck, languages like Tibetan, Uighur, Manchu, Mongolian, and Zhuang are official languages in many places - though it is important to note that Manchu speakers are definitely a minority in the three northeast provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. Mongolians consist of half of those in Inner Mongolia, etc. The point is that China has many languages.

In addition, China's unified script has many different pronunciations and writing styles. These pronunciations are so diverse that many linguistic experts describe 'Chinese' as diverse a 'language family', akin to the Indo-European language family. These 'languages' (or dialects, if you ask someone from China) are mutually non-intelligible - traditionally, the seemingly homogeneous Mandarin speakers wouldn't understand each other if one came from Xinjiang and the other came from Shandong.
This is a map of China by dialect. 
Please note that the white areas
do not speak a Chinese language. [2]

Think about it this way - some linguists argue that Cantonese and Northern Mandarin are as similar as Gujarati and Russian. Personally, I call them different languages, so my resume looks much better. For example, speaking three Chinese languages sounds so much better than speaking three Chinese dialects. Further, these languages have their own dialects: consider Min Chinese (the medium-light blue one on the map at the right).

It has many dialects of itself, including Central Min (闽中, or Minzhong), Southern Min (闽南, or Minnan), and Northern Min (闽北, or Minbei). These three are only the cherry on the cake, with dozens of dialects spread around the world. After attempts to make up a language, the Chinese government gave up and forced the Beijing dialect of Mandarin on all students, though they weren't completely successful. Some of the students were unable to speak Mandarin accurately either.

SPQR - The Senate and People of Rome,
a motto of the Roman Empire

Other than China, you can find the examples of 'national languages' of a sort elsewhere, though normally not as early as China. Rome is a good example, though they didn't institute Latin entirely for the purpose of stopping their nation from civil war. From Britain to Egypt, Romans were generally taught either Latin or Greek, Latin being the language used by both the military and the courts. Later, though, Latin developed separately in different provinces - the examples being Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian.

For a long time, the concept of a national language disappeared and almost went extinct. To visit modern-day Germany under the Holy Roman Empire, you would need to know five different dialects of German - just to be able to travel between five neighboring villages. Standard languages began to appear, with one of the first Finnish languages being created by Mikael Agricola in the 15th century,

What is a Standard Language?

According to Wikipedia, a standard language is a language variety used by a group of people in their public discourse. Personally, I'd say that standard languages are languages that eventually became the dominant language of a region larger than its origin. That's a pretty broad definition, so let me give some examples.
  1. Standard English is just the form of English used in English-speaking nations.
  2. Standard Italian was actually the Tuscan dialect, but became widely used after the (Italian) government instituted it.
  3. Standard Mandarin is the only official language of China, and almost everybody can speak it (or think they speak it).

Do we need a National Language?

And now, for the answer most of you have been looking for...I argue NO.

Why? There's so many reasons.
  1. Linguistic Diversity: National languages severely reduce linguistic diversity and have forced many dialects and languages extinct. Some argue that this is a good thing, but it's always a shame when a group's culture or language has been lost. Others argue that this is not true - but it is.

    Consider the long brought-up reason of China. I know I've mentioned it a lot this time, but it's very useful. Shanghainese, the largest Wu Chinese dialect, is on the decline already, with Mandarin quickly replacing it. The reason? Migrants to Shanghai both don't need to learn Shanghainese to survive and have the internet to maintain their Mandarin skills. Assimilation is very rare now.

    A better example would be Germany, which is often ignored. Standard German has forced dialects practically extinct in Hanoverian, which is never a good thing.
  2. International Languages: The biggest reason why people argue in favor of a single national language is because they believe that one language is needed to communicate between other languages. For example, as mentioned since the beginning of this post, many Indians support Hindi. On the other hand, many African nations have adopted French as their national language.

    Why is a national language needed at all when you have international languages, like English or Spanish (or Esperanto, which has proven to be a slow success)? A huge job provider for thousands in India and the Philippines are customer service call centers. Indeed, one of the biggest reason these jobs aren't outsourced to China like almost every other job is because of skilled English proficiency in both nations. And skilled English proficiency, especially in India, is because of the need to communicate between different languages. With the replacement of Hindi, English would become unnecessary. Jobs could be completely outsourced to the Philippines, which would be more than happy to accept them.

    Also, unlike Hindi or Mandarin, English would never be able to replace the local provincial language. International languages have always served as a cause for bilingualism, though they have never managed to replace individual languages. For example, in ancient East Asia, China was the hegemon over much of the land. Nations in Korea and Japan have noted linguistic similarities to China, though their languages are obviously different.
  3. Adjustment: For those already speaking the language, it's easy to simply argue in favor of replacing provincial dialects or languages with the language you can speak. When Mao Zedong forced Beijing-Mandarin on everybody, nobody in Beijing complained. In China, the difference isn't big, either - grammatically, Mandarin and Cantonese would be identical.

    But in India, languages like Malayalam and Hindi don't have similar grammar structures. Further, they aren't even in the same language family - Hindi is derived from the Indo-European language family, while Malayalam is a Dravidian language. Hindi, influenced by centuries of Muslim conquest, is much closer to Arabic, Persian, and Turkic languages than Malayalam is.
  4. Finally, the biggest issue is what is this national language replacing? In Germany, it replaced dialects - which is bad, but not pressing. But in India (Hindi), the battle is at the edge of the cliff - will India finally lose its motto, "United in Diversity"? Pakistan has forced Urdu on all of its people, causing a large rebellion in Baluchistan. What would happen to India?

    Further, dialectal extinction is bad enough. Why should we further encourage the destruction of millenia-old languages like Tamil and ruin the cultural heritage of future generations?
The numerous languages on the Indian subcontinent:
forcing one language is difficult
But why would you want a national language? Below, I will discuss the implications for India.

India: In Favor or Not?

To clarify the issue in India, the Constitution puts forth Hindi in Devangiri Script and English as the two official languages of India. Originally, English would eventually be dropped in 1965, but massive protests in Tamil Nadu stopped the government from quitting English. Furthermore, the states are allowed to have their own official languages, so there's 22 official languages in India.

I'll be playing the Devil's Advocate now. Here are 2 reasons in favor of a national language in India.
  1. In addition to people who prefer English as a national language (which, to be honest, just probably isn't going to happen), there are those who prefer Hindi as the national language. The biggest and most obvious reason in favor of a national language is inter-regional communications - how is a Punjabi going to talk to a Malayali? Either English or Hindi could  theoretically work as a national language, and the current system is obviously pretty flawed.

    With either Hindi or English being taught, Hindi learners in Kolkata would not be able to communicate with English learners in Bangalore. Further, even when both are taught, it places further educational burdens on non-Hindi natives. Hindi natives merely have to learn Hindi and maybe English. Those originally speaking Telegu, Bengali, Marathi, or literally any other language would (in order to maintain their language) have to learn three completely different languages - Telegu/Bengali/Marathi/other, English, AND Hindi (some call it the Three Language Policy). Who gets the advantage in exams when the people in one place have to study more material? This is a clear cut reason for one national language, not two - and it's a reason I certainly understand.

    In the article “It is actually Hindi vs English, not Hindi vs Tamil”, Nagarajan from Centre Right India proposes that "Hindi is just another regional language for us. Majority of us don’t see a reason to learn Hindi, until we are forced to migrate to a Hindi heartland for education or job. It can be my third Language after Tamil and English. My Hindi speaking fellow Indians should be happy that we acknowledge Hindi’s importance ahead of our neighbouring languages such as Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam."
  2. National Unity is another big reason people often bring up. India's national bird is a peacock, and its national animal is a tiger. The majority of Indians can speak Hindi, those in favor of Hindi explain, so Hindi should become the national language of India. Europe has its national anthem (Ode to Joy; India has one too), while its individual countries have their own anthems.

    Britain has one, France has one, Germany has one, Russia has one, Finland has one, Sweden has one - in other words, all of them have one. Looking further west (or east, if you want to look at it from another way), one can notice quickly that America has no official language, very unlike India, much less a national language.

    China has one, Japan has one, the Koreas have one, Taiwan has one - even Bangladesh and Pakistan have one. India is surrounded by nations with an national language (or only one official language), yet it does not have one. Right now, it is the shining beacon of diversity and democracy in the middle of oppressive mono-lingualism. Who wishes to change that?
Moreover, if you're going to live in India or stay in India for a while, make sure you know what language the province you're going to be living in speaks. You don't want to start learning Bengali - only to find out the province you're going to speaks Malayalam. In addition, and this applies to any language, the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. Gemma King from Epicure and Culture explains:
"In today’s globalized world, one of the most valuable and rewarding skills you can possess is the ability to learn languages and speak foreign tongues. Multilingualism opens you up to authentic travel experiences, new professional opportunities, greater cultural understanding and friendships with people from across the world. Whether you’re learning your second language or your fourth, whether you want to speak a lingua franca like French or an obscure tongue like Welsh, the best way to learn a language is to be surrounded by it."
What do you think about national languages? Do you think it's necessary? If you have any other reasons why or why not national languages should be used, feel free to comment below! Please, remain cordial. :D

  1. "Hindi Is a Foreign Language for Gujaratis, Says Gujarat High Court" The Times of India. India Times, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Aug. 2015.
  2. Chinese Maps for Dialects. Digital image. Dartmouth College. Dartmouth, n.d. Web.
  3. "Languages of South Asia." Emory University. Emory, 2014. Web.

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  1. Your right! India has 22 languages recognized as National languages. Hindi is not the only language and India is a country of diversity where all people have the rights to follow and adopt their mother tongue with respect to the particular regions.

    1. so democratic country dont have a language ?? or which language are you ready to accept ??
      every one who wants central jobs ready to learn hindi... what is the problem to declare hindi as our national language..

    2. you r so right manik
      all Indian languages should be official, not just hindi

    3. India does have 22 official languages, Raj, and central jobs in Hindi applies mostly to the north. Still, the problem is (now, just like in the 1960's) that many Southerners cannot speak or understand Hindi. If Hindi became the national language overnight, southerners who cannot speak, write, read, or understand Hindi are disqualified for government jobs.

      You've said this before, but I don't know if you understand how big that is for any society. That practically gives the whole bureaucracy to a small minority in the south. No rational Indian government would ever do that, or you might see large scale riots in the south. When I say large, I mean large. Very large...

    4. which language are you ready to accept but hindi ??
      english is from the imperialists !!

    5. Well, Raj, there's another option - the Status Quo (Latin for "the existing state of affairs"). In other words, even though the current system isn't the best, any changes would rock the boat and anger either the pro-Hindi side or the anti-Hindi side.

  2. Absolutely with you on this one. National langues are completely unnecessary for India - remember, United in Diversity!

    1. apparently you dont spell to
      languages not langues

    2. Please, please, remember to be cordial! Spelling mistakes are fine, though, as long as they get the message through. Thanks, Anand!