PC-the Telugus desk

The Telugu World   column# 5          

Telugus Who Cannot Read/Write Telugu

Last week I spoke of the miraculous process of Avadhanams – the literary feat of multitasking 8, 100 0r 1000 tasks simultaneously in the order in which they are presented – found only in Telugu literature and how ‘Shatakas’- like those of Sumati or Vemana – are peculiar only to Telugu and Kannada. 

Both the Shatakas mentioned above contain 100 stanzas each, telling us truths of life which should be remembered for leading an ethical life. In English these eternal truths common to life everywhere and for all people, are called axioms in English or ‘kahavate’ (కహావతే ) in Hindi. Another literary form of quote often used is called proverb in English and ‘Muhaavarey’  (ముహావరే) in Hindi.


Wikipedia says:An axiom is a statement that everyone believes is true, such as ‘supply equals demand’ or ‘the only constant is change’.”  A proverb is a short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice. A phrase is a group or pairing of words. Proverbs, axioms and  phrases enrich any language and also reflect the culture and lifestyle of the people who use it. 

Telugu, besides the Shatakas or axioms of life, is said to have the largest number of proverbs among the world languages. Today only old-timers speaking in Telugu or classical Telugu books like ‘Barrister Parvateesham’ or ‘Kanyashulkam’ use a lot of proverbs. These quotes from Shatakas and proverbs make  the language colourful and drive home a point like no words can. 

Telugu language has great literary traditions and literature dating back to several centuries before the Christian era began. It is a classical language spoken not only by the  84 million (8.4 crore) people of Andhra and Telangana states but also thousands hailing from there but settled in other Indian states and in other countries, besides thousands in Maldives and Mauritius whose ancestors had migrated there in  a previous century. One website on Telugu says the International Alphabet Association has chosen it as the world’s second best script, the first place going to Korean.

It is one of the most phonetic scripts in the world, just as English is the worst or least phonetic. There are hundreds of English words with same spelling and pronunciation with widely varying meaning and many words whose meaning is changed with a slight variation in the spelling but the same pronunciation. The same letters have different pronunciations in different words.  Worse are French, German and Russian where pronunciation varies widely from what is written. In Russian a letter is pronounced differently depending on the letters before or after it. In Tamil you write ‘magatma kanti’ but read it as ‘Mahatma Gandhi’. In Telugu as in Sanskrit, you pronounce exactly as it is written. Sanskrit is said to be the best language for computers; which means Telugu too can be. And yet even a fully Telugu keyboard for computers has not been developed. Using English.

A letter for the second ‘la’ (ళ) is only in Telugu and Marathi script, not even in Dev Nagari, the script of Sanskrit, though Marathi, which once had a script named ‘modi’, changed over to Dev Nagari later.

The problem with Telugu today is that thousands of Telugu-speaking people settled outside the two states understand the spoken language, but cannot read and write it.  Working in (undivided) Andhra Pradesh some years ago, I found many Telugu young men who could not write in Telugu or translate from it because they “studied in English medium.” 

Many Telugu women in other states working in offices find no time to teach their children the Telugu script.  When two Telugu people meet outside, they would speak in the local language or (most often) in English. The children too are spoken to in English, Hindi or the local language which they pick up from other children. So they end up not knowing Telugu at all, or unable to read and write it. You cannot find Malayalis, or Bengalis or Maharashtrians who do not know their mother tongue. A Telugu person born and brought up outside (like me) and still able to write in Telugu is very rare.

Telugu newspapers and magazines, therefore, are read only by the people in the two states and a few who had migrated only recently. Their children born and brought up outside, cannot read Telugu. After a few years they may also stop speaking in Telugu.  There are lakhs of such people in Karnataka, Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, Odisha (which have whole districts of such people) and some in Chaatisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Bengal, who have integrated so well with the local people that one cannot make it out.

Integrating with locals is good.   Forgetting mother tongue is not.  


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