Language jingoismThe selective outrage of ruling party leaders on the use of English terms and letters shows their hypocrisy.
I had made an allusion to the ever-ready Nepali-language jingoism in my last column. As it turns out, it was not one made too soon. I refer here to a recent intervention by Bedu Ram Bhusal, member of the National Assembly, during a parliamentary debate. It appears that the Honourable Bhusal was quite irked by the use of English terms in an amendment bill to the Standard Measurement and Weight Act, currently under deliberation at the Assembly’s Legislation Management Committee of which he is a member.
‘There is an ongoing attempt to displace Nepali language through the law’, thundered Bhusal, according to a news report, before continuing rhetorically, ‘Why don’t we use Chinese from neighbouring China? Why not Hindi? Why does it always have to be English’. The focus of his ire were four words in the bill, namely, ‘kilogram’, ‘ampere’, ‘candela’ and ‘Kelvin’. Bhusal demanded that the Nepali forms of these four be found and inserted into the bill before it would be taken up. That seemingly patriotic gesture apparently received whole-hearted support from other MPs present, and the committee chair actually instructed the concerned ministry to not only find appropriate translations but also ferret out all other similarly offensive English words in the bill and do likewise.
With 50 of the 60 National Assembly parliamentarians, including Bhusal, belonging to the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), one can be quite certain that like the chairperson those supporting him were his party colleagues. That a party which never misses an opportunity to associate the word ‘scientific’ with everything it professes to believe in is also home to a whole bevy of individuals with nary an understanding of basic science is epic. Not one honourable member present was seemingly capable of enlightening Bhusal and the chairperson on the fact that the words that have them seeing red are units of measurements that are universally known thus. That Nepal adopted the same terms in those very forms under the act they were discussing more than half a century ago. Or that even if someone were to try it would not be possible to translate terms such as ‘ampere’ and ‘Kelvin’, named as they were after scientists who contributed to our understanding of the respective phenomena in which they are used.
One could certainly attempt a translation of something like ‘kilogram’ since all it means is ‘1000 grams’, with the latter being simply a Greek-Latin-French derivative for ‘small weight’. Delving into Sanskrit, a Nepali concoction that stands for ‘one thousand small weights’ is certainly possible but to what purpose. Even Hindi, a language in which translations are at a far more advanced stage than Nepali has not gone so far as to translate measurement units. Hence, ‘kilogram’ is still kilogram in Hindi as are a watt, a metre, or a second. The name of India’s national TV channel may be Doordarshan (a literal translation of ‘television’) but everyone still calls the idiot box ‘teevee’ in Hindi. The same is true for the telephone; no one uses the translation, doorbhas.
Bhusal, by the way, is not some run-of-the-mill, opportunist NCP politician. He is a member of the powerful standing committee and well respected within party circles and without. He is also someone with a zest for knowledge, having completed all his higher studies while in jail and also evidenced by his perseverance in striving for and receiving a doctorate at the age of 66. That could be the reason why his fellow MPs showed deference to him and his supposed wisdom. It all seems to have been for effect though. Otherwise, Bhusal should also have been banging his desk to demand that Nepal Television be given a Nepali name. Next, he should be out calling for his own party’s name to be changed to Nepal Samyabadi Dal (NeSaDa). Then, leading a movement to subject Nepal Telecom to the same treatment. The list is endless.
Actually, if Bhusal and like-minded others are really serious about indigenising foreign terms, it is very simple. Given that Hindi and Nepali share the same Sanskrit derivatives, all they have to do is borrow from Hindi since practically every English term used in the humanities and the sciences, whether natural sciences or social, has already been translated into the language. But that would perhaps defeat the whole purpose of privileging Nepali over others, especially if it meant borrowing from Hindi, the use of which in Nepal generally drives our comrades into paroxysms of nationalist fervour.
The same news article cited above had asked Nepali language grammarian Sharad Chandra Wasti his opinion on the National Assembly debate. While Wasti missed the opportunity to dismiss the clearly frivolous demand to translate standard units, he did point out the tendency of people to champion the Nepali language on a whim and then forget about it in a jiffy. He could not be more right since just the other day the government came up with a new immigration provision that anyone going abroad on a ‘visit visa’ (as opposed to a ‘student visa’ or a ‘work visa’) would either have to produce an SLC certificate or be able to converse in English. So far, there has not been a squeak from anyone, neither Bhusal nor his comrades, over such an outright affront to speakers only of the Nepali language.
This patently unfair rule, introduced ostensibly to curb human trafficking, has not seen any reaction so far even from something called the Nepali Language Teachers Council. It is this same council which had objected to the use of Roman letters and Arabic numerals in the new standardised licence plates being issued for motor vehicles in Nepal, going to the extent of calling it ‘a conspiracy against Nepali language and culture’. Even Prime Minister KP Oli got involved in this supposed debasement of Nepali, after the chancellor of the Nepal Academy complained to him that the number plates were going to sport non-Devanagari characters. That the country’s prime minister was unaware of an issue that had done the round of the courts and has been all over the papers says something about which world he inhabits. In any case, as is his wont in his current pseudo-imperial avatar, Oli apparently gave the order to put a stop to it. Like most of his orders, it seems this one, too, has been quietly ignored and the process of distributing the number plates has continued unhindered. But that is between him and the government agencies under him. Worrying is that in a simple convention common to practically the entire world, language jingoists saw the handiwork of dark forces. Yet when the government led by Oli announces a language test that would discriminate against Nepali-speakers, there is silence. Talk of misplaced priorities.