South Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - Invisible Speech: Phonetic Representation and Textual Anxiety in Early Twentieth Century Hindi and Bangla

Saturday, July 7
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Willow, First Floor

This paper explores how anxieties about the proper inscription of speech come to shape Bengali and Hindi literary modernism in the early twentieth century. I begin with the question of proper inscription that once haunted the linked but distinct languages of Hindi and Urdu. Highlighting the dilemma that Christopher King provocatively named “One Language Two Scripts,” I outline three influential responses: the onomatopoeic pessimism of Sa’adat Hasan Manto, the scriptural reformism of Jawaharlal Nehru, and the inclusive polyphony of Premchand. Whereas anxieties about the accurate representation of spoken language in northern India mirrored, in large part, concerns about the appropriate representation of different religious groups, the debates in Bengal, while less communalized, nonetheless reflected the same concerns. Focusing on Rabindranath Tagore’s writings on onomatopoeia and pronunciation, as well as his opposition to Bengali language’s diglossic conventions – that is, its usage of a written register (sadhubhasha) quite different from the spoken language – I suggest that what is often seen, in the Hindi-Urdu context, as a specifically northern battle over script and community may be part of a larger subcontinental crisis around the writing down of spoken things. At a global level, moreover, these are quintessentially modernist concerns. As I note in conclusion, this preoccupation with the proper inscription of a spoken vernacular, in India as in China, responds in part to the increasing efficiency of recording technology in the preservation and reproduction of speech as sound.

Madhumita Lahiri

University of Michigan, United States

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3 - Invisible Speech: Phonetic Representation and Textual Anxiety in Early Twentieth Century Hindi and Bangla



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