When language contributes to the caste divide.

Ever made fun of someones Butler English Heres why its casteist says Dalit writer
news Casteism Monday, May 22, 2017 - 15:35

We all know languages in a country like India carry the ignominious legacy of caste. That when Brahmins use a dialect of their own, it is one way of establishing their hegemony. Or when a member of a dominant caste addresses a member of an oppressed caste using a disrespectful term, it is only an exercise in making the caste hierarchies evident. These we know, but listening to writers Perumal Murugan and Stalin Rajangam in the recent sessions of the Lekhana literary event in Bengaluru, where they spoke about language and the intrinsic caste divide was still a revelation.

The words and terms which we always thought were an innocuous attempt to pull a friend’s leg is in fact loaded with caste innuendo. Need an example? Consider Butler English. The term that has found its way into a lay person’s jargon to taunt someone with poor English speaking skills reeks of caste innuendo.

Explaining the etymology of Butler English, Dalit scholar Stalin Rajangam, says, “During British rule, the Dalits were employed as cooks or butlers, as they were called by the British. It was because they could cook beef. They picked up a few English words from their employers and obviously, they couldn’t speak them well.”

Speaking at a session about the emergence of subaltern language in Tamil, Rajangam referred to the debate between two Christian missionaries – Joseph Beschi and Zeigenbalg – where the former rooted for purity in language while Ziegenbalg supported the people’s ‘colloquial’ language. According to Rajangam, one of the first lexicons in Tamil had this division clear.  A definition of Tamil was listed as someone who was ‘neither Aryan nor a pariah’.

In his lecture at the Lekhana event, author Perumal Murugan dealt with the subject in depth. Speaking on how language carried the caste legacy, he pointed out how in early Tamil films heroes spoke a chaste language and comedians spoke in colloquial style. Pointing to daily life conversations between teachers and students, between parents and children, Murugan says the style and the words in such conversations have been borrowed from traditional conversations between members of two different caste hierarchies.

Murugan observes, “In many schools, the teachers make their students fold hands and place a finger on their mouths to maintain the silence. When entering a noisy classroom, the teacher can be heard angrily instructing the students to place their finger on their lips. The students obey. This is not a punishment, but a method to enforce discipline in the classroom. But where was this taken from? This was taken from the body language of a person from the oppressed caste when he is in conversation with a person from a dominant caste. The person typically shrinks his body, places a hand on his stomach, covers his mouth with another hand and speaks to a dominant caste person.  In practice, if the oppressed person sprays saliva on the dominant person when speaking, it is considered impure. So, when the oppressed person covers his mouth, naturally his voice his subdued”.

Listing out another example, Murugan adds, “A primary accusation of a parent towards her/his kid is that the kid does not listen to their words. It remains the primary accusation of teachers too in schools. “These kids never listen to me,” they often say. This again has a caste related undertone. Listening to one’s words mean accepting and acting as per the instructions of the person on a higher hierarchical plane without any objection. A slightest objection becomes a complaint.”     

Clearly the audiences at Lekhana found both sessions of Stalin Rajangam and Perumal Murugan not just interesting but informative too. “I would think before I tease someone about their English or ask someone to shut up from now,” a member of the audience commented. That perhaps was the intention of the writers too.


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