On Plasticity and Evolution of Languages 

English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the World and that is a fact. Coming from a tiny island nation of barely 70 million people, it is spoken by over 1.5 billion people on the planet. Of course, there are colonial reasons to why, but the language itself also has an inherent quality that makes it very malleable, and easy to amalgamate with other languages. The parts of speech in the language are very flexible. 

The essay was spurred by a video I was watching online about the definition of a Spatula. In the video, a very interesting word was used that I am sure probably does not exist in any dictionary, “spatularity”. Even my word processing software right now underlined it in red right now. But despite the obvious incorrectness of the word, you understand what it means. It means “the quality of being a spatula”. Suddenly, a common noun, a rather unremarkable one at that, is converted into an abstract noun, loaded with meaning that would take a good long while to cover exhaustively. It doesn’t end here either. Just as easily, Nouns can be used as verbs. You Google things, microwave food and email people. Verbs can be nouns (you run a 5k run), adjectives can be adverbs (“working hard”), and the word “set” has some 464 definitions as per last count. It is this malleability of the language that helps it be so commonly used. 

There are dedicated words denoting hybrid languages that have been created by the mixing of English with another language. In India, Hinglish is very common so is Spanglish in North America. Many East Asian countries like Japan and Korea have their own bastardized versions of English that are used colloquially. However, it is very difficult to see the same when it comes to other languages. 

In India, it is not uncommon to see multilingual people. My father speaks four languages (counting English) and I can stutter through three myself and comprehend another one or two if it is being spoken slowly. However, despite all this, I have never been able to create words to represent ideas in them as easily as I have been able to in English. I have often felt that the vocabulary of Hindi, my mother tongue, has stagnated. Purists insist on making esoteric translations of English words into Hindi and adopting them (Internet is Antarjaal. Seriously?), while a lot of native speakers simply use the words from English without any change and trust people to follow along because of how common English is. Nilotpaal Mrinal’s award-winning debut novel in Hindi was called “Dark Horse”, a phrase that is not only in English, but also one that has a symbolic meaning. He does try to offer a weak justification for it in his author’s note, but the fact remains that often native speakers find it easier to use words from other languages than fish around for a word in Hindi and other regional languages. 

Now, I am not on the side of the purists here as well. I don’t think making rough translations of English words is a good approach either. It does not leave room for the word to breathe and grow and seems more like a trick bureaucrats use to make sure their documents can be typed in Hindi. When you refer to the Internet as Antarjaal, it reeks like an admission of defeat to me, implicitly stating that we are so creatively bankrupt that we cannot create a new word to refer to an idea without depending on another language. 

This brings me back to the initial point that we had started with. Hindi, and a lot of other languages, are simply more inflexible. Creating new words to represent ideas, while remaining within the confines of the language is simply not a characteristic of the language. This is the reason why English has become such a deeply embedded part of our communication patterns. Turn on any Hindi news channel and listen to a reporter. Many of the words in a sentence and most words of consequence, are in English. This problem is made worse by the academia of Hindi being dominated by purists, who are resistant to any changes in the language. Though there are no custodians of English either, but the Oxford Dictionary garners a lot of press, and they chose an emoji as their word of the year in 2015. Of course, you could write it off as a publicity stunt if you wish, but what that signals to the larger population is that the language is willing to change to accommodate the times it is describing. Language, as a tool of expression and communication, isn’t the end goal. And any language that tries to hold on to its purity eventually dies a slow, uneventful death. 

Hindi, to me, is an amazing language. Barely a few hundred years old, it has blossomed into a language of immense beauty and depth. The literature in the language can easily rival the classics written in any other. However, the language has stagnated. New words and ideas are not being created, some due to the nature of the language itself, which is slightly inflexible, and some due to the insistence of the custodians on defending its purity. In this day and age of revisionism and national pride and all that right-wing, conservative nonsense, one would expect more attention would be paid to one of the bedrocks of their jingoism. However, sadly, even that has been mostly empty chest-thumping without any real work being put in to create something of value. No one wants to put in the hard work to actually curate a language that encourages adoption and increased usage, yet everyone is forwarding UNESCO-backed claims of it being the best language (or lord knows what else is floating around the Antarjaal these days). 

So, while English walks to the bank with “spatularity”, we are left picking up the crumbs left behind by it, while trying to find dignity in being linguistic bottom feeders. 

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