Monday, February 25, 2013

Language Profile: Bhojpuri

If you've been paying attention to our weekly language profiles, you've probably noticed that India is home to many languages. Not only is it linguistically diverse, but its native languages are also some of the most spoken languages in the world. That's why we're covering Bhojpuri this week and several more Indian languages in the weeks to come, while languages you're more likely to have heard of (such as Dutch and Thai) will be featured in a few months' time. 

The Taj Mahal, located in the Bhojpuri-speaking
Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Bhojpuri is one of the ten most spoken languages in India, a list that includes Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and Gujarati. Despite its large number of speakers, Bhojpuri is not one of the over twenty officially recognized regional languages of India. In fact, it's the most spoken unofficial language in the country, with 38.5 million native speakers. There has been a significant movement by Bhojpuri language activists and media to gain recognition by the government, but so far the most they have received is a promise from a government official in 2012 that it will soon be included in the Constitution.

The Bhojpuri language is not only spoken in India. It's also an official regional language in Nepal, where it is spoken by about 6% of the population. There are also large Bhojpuri-speaking populations in Guyana, Suriname, Fiji, and Mauritius. Local varieties of Bhojpuri are spoken in these countries because in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Indians were taken by colonizers to work as indentured servants on plantations. This was mainly due to the fact that they could no longer use African slaves as workers because of the abolition of slavery. 

Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, in Nepal.
Although Bhojpuri is often considered to be a dialect of Hindi by non-speakers in India, Ethnologue considers them to be closely related languages, so we'll stick with them. The language was quite influential during the process of development of Hindi as the official language of India, since many prominent Indian writers at the time were Bhojpuri speakers. However, Bhojpuri literature is most known for its folklore, especially its poems and folk music. 

As seems to be common with Indian languages, Bhojpuri has used several distinct writing systems over the years. Before the 1880s, the language was written in Nastaʿlīq script, a Perso-Arabic script still used to write Urdu. The Kaithi script was also used for a time, and was used only by a specific caste of Indians known as Kayastha whose occupation was to record official documents. Currently, the language is written almost exclusively in the Devanagari script that is commonly associated with Hindi. There is plenty of media to be found in Bhojpuri as well, including magazines, newspapers, and television channels!