Where do Language Policies come from?

We live in an age of increasing attention paid to what is now known as `multi-ethnic diversity', and part of this attention is focused on issues of language. Nowadays it is not uncommon in discussions about language policy1 that someone will eventually ask the question ``Why does there have to be a language policy? Why do we have to have a standard language? Why can't people just do what they like with language?" My reply is that whether or not there are explicit language policies, there will always be implicit policies, i.e. there are cultural assumptions about language, about correctness, about the `best' way to talk or write, and even if there is no explicit policy, these assumptions will constitute the implicit policy. That is, there is no such thing as no language policy; there is always a policy, whether or not it is explicit. Abolishing the explicit rules about language, or declaring `standard' languages to be nothing but a `myth' or an ideology does not make the cultural assumptions underlying these concepts automatically disappear.

An area of the world where we find very ancient cultural concerns about language is India and the South Asian subcontinent. If we wish to examine the origin of language policy in South Asia, we must first confront a whole set of cultural assumptions about where languages come from, and what purpose they serve in the scheme of things. That is, the conceptions of what is language, what is not language, what is language for, who may use it, and what powers it has over human behavior, have deep roots in Indic culture, and have for a very long time perplexed those who have grappled with questions. One cannot have a policy about language in India without being able to say that Sanskrit is a language and that the language of the mlecchas is not, or that Hindi is (or is not) a separate language from Urdu. The former question was the first one asked, and the latter question and others like it has been asked again and again, but has not in fact been satisfactorily answered.

Language policy analysts would ideally like to have facts about language at their disposal when they analyze language policies, and they often turn to linguists to provide them with such facts. Under British rule, the Government of India asked George Grierson (1903-28) to come up with some answers, but his survey simply raised more questions than it answered. Disentangling what is a language from what is a dialect, finding clear dialect and language boundaries to correspond with political boundaries, etc. has been a problem in many polities; there is no time here to review all these controversies, except to say that hard facts are difficult to come by. I refer the reader to the review of this issue presented by Shapiro and Schiffman (1981:16-107); but recall that even in the absence of hard facts, policy makers have been known to make decisions that presuppose fact rather than fiction. 2 What they are doing when they do this is, what this book is about--trying to delineate where policies about language come from when they do not rest on hard data.

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Harold Schiffman