Bihari is an identity, not a language. And yes, the British can be blamed for this confusion

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Illustration: Ramandeep Kaur | The pressure

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M.outside of Bihar Take it for granted that a Bihari will speak either Bhojpuri or ‘Bihari’ and believe that both are a different form of Hindi. Bihari is often used as a synonym for Bhojpuri.

The truth is that Biharis do not speak “Bihari” because it is a geographic identity, not a language. An Irishman named George Abraham Grierson grouped all the languages ​​of Bihar into a single category called the Bihari languages ​​during the first “modern” linguistic study of India. In this way, the languages ​​spoken in that particular geography – Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi, Angika, Bajjika, etc. – became known as the Bihari language (s).

In the years that followed, the Indian government officially used the term Bihari dialect (s) in several censuses to enumerate dialects among Hindi. Later, Grierson’s classification and census of the languages ​​of Bihar by the government produced expressions such as Bihari languages, Bihari Hindi, or simply Bihari. Bihari languages ​​is an academic jargon mainly representing the languages ​​of Bihar. Bihari Hindi in this setting is a result of the government’s categorization of the languages ​​of Bihar, other than Maithili, as dialects of Hindi. Bihari, on the other hand, is a general, non-academic term that refers to any or all of the languages ​​of Bihar for the rest of India.

Ironically, most of the Biharis who have not emigrated to other parts of India still do not know that the language they speak has a different name, Bihari, than the traditional one. Those who have emigrated to other states find this colonial imprint either insignificant or do not have the strength to counter the established narrative.

The only Bihar language that recognizes the Indian constitution is Maithili, according to the 92nd Amendment of 2003. Bhojpuri is recognized as a dialect. For a linguist, however, the distinction between language and dialect is controversial. The artificial distinction is more political than linguistic. Since each ‘dialect’ corresponds to the linguistic parameters, it can easily be viewed as a language. Hence, in this article, every language system, including Bhojpuri, has been referred to as a language rather than a dialect.


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No “other form of Hindi”

The misconception associated with bhojpuri – that it is “just another form of Hindi” – creates a situation where authenticity is viewed as a distortion which then becomes a source of ridicule.

The pronunciation of the palatal fricative consonant š (श) is a nightmare for a Bihari tongue as the speaker often replaces its articulation with the tooth fricative consonant so (स). This notorious substitution, based purely on the nature of the language acquired as a mother tongue, causes funny moments in the listener and constant embarrassment for the speaker, who cannot be anything but a Bihari.

The mere articulation of simple sentences in Bhojpuri creates a smile on the faces of ignorant and educated Indians who neither understand nor speak it. If a Bihari does not appear phonetically as a stereotypical Bihari by chance, his colleagues will always make it clear to him that he must sound like a typical Bihari. Even a language-conscious Bihari like me (although I often hypercorrect) hears comments like “You don’t speak or you don’t look like a Bihari”. Surprisingly, I still haven’t made up my mind whether to take it as a compliment or a comment.

This happens because the pronunciation of a Bihari is characterized by territorial origin, which does not seem standardized when compared to Hindi phonology. However, Bhojpuri is an independent language system. It has its own phonological branch that creates such phonotactic constraints that give different Bhojpuri words unique phonetic forms. To simplify matters, Bhojpuri has more aspirated sounds than Hindi, which affects the “standard” pronunciation of common Hindi words. For example, the standard Hindi does not recognize the aspirated forms of / l / (ल), / m / (म), or / n / (न) as phonemes, while in Bhojpuri / lɦ / (ल्ह्), / mɦ / (म्ह्) or / nɦ / (न्ह्) appear in minimal pairs and not as allophones or two different phonemes in a conjunctive form.

Hence, this notion of a “non-standard” form of Hindi is nothing more than a misunderstanding. In addition, the limit of our biological capabilities is that we cannot acquire and articulate phonemes from languages ​​that are not our mother tongue. For example, we Indians do not sound like native English speakers because our native language always influences the pronunciation of the phonemes of English-language words. In this regard, a Bhojpuri speaker has already acquired another phonological system that by default, if not deliberately checked, affects and influences the articulation of Hindi sounds.


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Bhojpurization of the Biharic identity

Aside from Bhojpuri, Biharis speak various other languages ​​- Maithili, Magahi, Angika, Bajjika, to name a few. When Jharkhand was not separated from Bihar, several rich tribal languages ​​such as Kurukh, Mundari, Santali or Ho also belonged to this geographical region. I still consider these languages ​​to be the languages ​​of Bihar. It’s personal and has nothing to do with geopolitics.

If little attention is paid, one could easily see that there is a strong phonological difference between Hindi spoken by a Bhojpuri and a Maithili or Magahi speaker. However, the educated non-Bihari Indians have only merged the Bhojpuri language with the Bihari identity, while in reality Bihari is not a homogeneous identity. There are different sub-identities that are marked with different linguistic features. Biharis who speak Maithili are Maithil-Biharis, Magahi are Magahi-Biharis or Bhojpuri are Bhojpuriya-Biharis. These sub-identities retain their unique stylistic, culinary, or picturesque styles. The veneration of historical personalities is also specific to the region. Maithils, for example, worship the multilingual scholarly poet Vidyapati from the Middle Ages, while Bhojpuriyas worship the freedom fighter of 1857 Babu Kunwar Singh. In addition, the ritual ceremonies are even with obvious overlap SUI generis in performance.

However, it is exclusively Bhojpuri that is treated derogatory in Bollywood or in TV series, because for them a Bihari only speaks Bhojpuri. Hence, in theory, it is the Bhojpuriya-Bihari identity that is in deep crisis and requires serious deferential attention.

The author is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Regional Director, Central Institute of Hindi (Shillong Center), Meghalaya. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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