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Bihari is an identity, not a language. And yes, you can blame British for this confusion

Biharis who have migrated to other states either find the colonial coinage insignificant or fail to muster the strength to counter the established narrative.

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Many outside Bihar take it for granted that a Bihari either speaks Bhojpuri or ‘Bihari’ and believe both are an aberrant form of Hindi. Often times, Bihari is used as a synonym for Bhojpuri.

The truth is that Biharis do not speak ‘Bihari’ because it is a geographical identity, not a language. An Irishman named George Abraham Grierson, while doing the first ‘modern’ linguistic survey of India, grouped all the languages of Bihar into a single category called Bihari languages. This is how the languages spoken in that particular geography — Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi, Angika, Bajjika, etc. — came to be known as Bihari language(s). 

In subsequent years, the government of India officially used the term Bihari dialect(s) in several censuses to enumerate dialects under Hindi. Later, Grierson’s classification and government’s census enumeration of languages of Bihar generated expressions like Bihari languages, Bihari Hindi or simply Bihari. Bihari languages is an academic jargon that primarily represents the languages of Bihar. Bihari Hindi, in this setting, is a result of government’s categorisation of languages of Bihar, except Maithili, as dialects of Hindi. Bihari, on the other hand, is a general, non-academic term, which refers to any or all of the languages of Bihar for the rest of India.

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

The only language from Bihar that the Indian Constitution recognises is Maithili, as per the 92nd Amendment of 2003. Bhojpuri is recognised as a dialect. However, for a linguist, the distinction between language and dialect is contentious. The artificial distinction is more political than linguistic. Because every ‘dialect’ fits the linguistic parameters, it can be easily regarded as a language. Therefore, in this article, any linguistic system, including Bhojpuri, has been referred to as a language and not as a dialect.

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Not ‘another form of Hindi’

The misconception associated with Bhojpuri — that it is ‘just another form of Hindi’ — creates a situation where authenticity is regarded as distortion, which then becomes a reason for ridicule.

The pronunciation of the palatal fricative consonant š (श) is a nightmare for a Bihari tongue as the speaker often substitutes its articulation with the dental fricative consonant s (स). This notorious substitution, which is purely based upon the nature of the language acquired as a mother tongue, causes funny moments for listeners and perpetual embarrassment for the speaker, who cannot be anything but a Bihari.

The mere articulation of simple sentences in Bhojpuri generates a smile on the faces of the ignorant as well as educated Indians who neither understand it nor speak it. If, by chance, a Bihari fails to phonetically appear as a stereotypical Bihari, his/her colleagues never fail to make him/her realise that s/he must sound like a typical Bihari. Also, a linguistically conscious Bihari like me (though I often go into hypercorrection) hear comments like ‘you don’t talk or look like a Bihari’. Surprisingly, I still have not decided whether to take it as a compliment or a comment.

This happens because the pronunciation of a Bihari is marked by territorial nativeness, which appears non-standard in comparison to Hindi phonology. However, Bhojpuri is an independent linguistic system. It has its own phonological branch that creates such phonotactic constraints that give unique phonetic shapes to various Bhojpuri words. To simplify it, Bhojpuri has more aspirated sounds than Hindi, which affect the ‘standard’ pronunciation of common Hindi words. For instance, standard Hindi does not regognise the aspirated forms of /l/ (ल), /m/ (म), or /n/ (न) as phonemes, whereas in Bhojpuri /lɦ/ (ल्ह्), /mɦ/  (म्ह्) or /nɦ/ (न्ह्) appear in minimal-pair and not as allophones or two distinct phonemes in a conjunct form.

Therefore, this notion of a ‘non-standard’ form of Hindi is nothing but a misconception. Further, it is the limit of our biological capabilities that we could not acquire and articulate phonemes of those languages that are not our mother tongue. For instance, we Indians do not sound like native English speakers because our first language always influences the articulation of phonemes of the English language words. In this context, a Bhojpuri speaker has already acquired a different phonological system, which, by default, if not checked consciously, is going to influence and affect the articulation of Hindi sounds.

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Bhojpurisation of Bihari identity

Apart 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 were also part of this geographical region. I still consider these languages as languages of Bihar. It is personal and has nothing to do with geopolitics.

If little attention is paid, one could easily identify that there is a stark phonological difference between Hindi spoken by a Bhojpuri and a Maithili or Magahi speaker. However, the educated non-Bihari Indians have conflated only the Bhojpuri language with the Bihari identity, whereas, in reality, Bihari is not a homogeneous identity. There are various sub-identities within it, marked with distinct linguistic characteristics. For instance, Biharis speaking Maithili are Maithil-Biharis, Magahi are Magahi-Biharis or Bhojpuri are Bhojpuriya-Biharis. These sub-identities retain their unique sartorial, culinary, or painting styles. The veneration of historical figures is also region-specific. For instance, Maithils revere the medieval period multilingual erudite poet Vidyapati, whereas Bhojpuriyas lionise the 1857 freedom fighter Babu Kunwar Singh. Moreover, the ritual ceremonies, with obvious overlapping, are even sui generis in performance.

However, it is exclusively Bhojpuri which has faced pejorative treatment in Bollywood or in TV serials because for them, a Bihari only speaks Bhojpuri. Therefore, theoretically, it is the Bhojpuriya-Bihari identity that is in deep crisis and demands serious deferential attention.

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

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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