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Goa’s Babel

 By Frederick Noronha

You could call it Goa’s Tower of Babel. We have so many languages that enrich our small State, and yet we either neglect them, play favourites among them, or even work to ensure their extinction.Peter Nazareth, the novelist and critic who compiled the first anthology of Goan writing in English way back in the 1980s, suggests that Goans have themselves written in 13 different languages.

For any other community, this would be seen as a huge asset.  But not so in Goa.

Let’s take a look at our diversity. Konkani is accepted as indisputably Goan.  But then, if we accept it as an Indo-Aryan language, it would imply that some other (probably lost) language or languages existed in what is today’s Goa even before the coming of the ‘Indo-Aryans’.  Within Konkani itself, there has been an intense debate, particularly recently, about dialect and script.  Some are more equal than the others.

It is undeniable though that most of Goa’s elites and its educated classes have often turned their back on the Konkani language.  While it is politically convenient to blame the firangi ruler for the ‘destruction’ of the language, the facts tell of another story too.  From some distant shores, in another century — whether the Czech Karel Prikryl (Carolus Przikryl, 1718—1785) or the English Thomas Stephens (1549-1619) besides many others — a range of people have built language in diverse and amazing ways.

If Konkani is the language through which Goa speaks, broadcasts, sings and enjoys much of its theatre in, then Marathi for quite some time has been the language of primary education.  Since the 1960s at least, it has been the language of a significant part of our media.  Quite a few books, including creative writing, are published in the language.  Marathi also represents a market of hundred-million strong just next door, as some writers in that language from Goa recognise.

The demise of the Portuguese language after the 1960s was as unfortunate and unexpected as the sudden growth of English in Goa, a region which had little direct contact with the British earlier.  (Exceptions being the stationing of British troops during the Napoleonic wars to ‘protect’ Goa; the Anglo-Portuguese treaty of 1878 which impacted the local economy severely and of course large-scale migration to British India and the other British colonies.)

But the story doesn’t end there.

Dennis Kurzon’s book Where East Looks West: Success in English in Goa and on the Konkan Coast (Multilingual Matters, ISBN 1-85359-673-6) looks at a paradox.  Kurzon writes: “For a number of consecutive years (1993-2000), speakers of Konkani, an Indian language spoken in Goa and in several areas in South Goa, attained the highest average grades in the world in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).” Kurzon points out that Goa, unlike the rest of India, was not part of the British Empire, but was under Portuguese rule for 450 years.

Kannada is another neighbour, but one which we often prefer to overlook.  Yet, we are reminded of its role in Goan history through some village names (you might not guess that ‘Candolim’ has a Kannada root!) and the vibrant Kannada-script Konkani community which is probably more active than both Devanagari and Romi.

I’ve known Goans who speak Japanese, the Brazilian variant of Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Swahili and more.  This is apart from the many Indian and South Asian languages (including Urdu) from places that Goans have migrated to.

But, apart from a few hardcore fans in the island of Divar (his native place), who remembers the work of Jacome Gonsalves?  This 17th-18th century Goan missionary to Sri Lanka, born on June 8, 1676, is known as the “Father of Sinhala Catholic literature” no less.

When he embarked to Ceylon, he is said to have known Konkani, Portuguese, Latin and Spanish.  During his long journey, he studied Tamil.  He studied Sinhala.  He also learnt Dutch.  According to SG Perera, he is known as “the most successful missionary that this island ever had, the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon, whose name is still held in benediction.”

Some time ago, while staring out at cyberspace through my desktop, I ran across Ana Martin.  Her mum is Goan, father Spanish, and she’s based in Spain.  She knows that language fluently.  She has since authored a book set in Goa, based on magical realism, and…  you guessed it right, it’s in Spanish.

Charles Camara has been working for Caritas in Stockholm, but many here might know him as a youth from Margao who was keenly interested in the lives and travails of the Siddhi community in nearby Karnataka.  Migration for some generations now has given Goans links to languages across the globe, in this case, Swedish.

Other skills have also moved in to Goa. The Diaspora community brings with it language talents of its own.  So do those who settle or resettle here for work or other reasons. William R da Silva, who headed Goa University’s Sociology Department quite some time ago, would conduct German language classes in Goa.  There are others who know the language, having returned from parts of Germany or Austria.  Retired professor Ave Cleto Afonso learnt Italian, and then went on to build an Italian-Konkani dictionary himself, perhaps the first such venture of its kind linking these two languages.

These might seem like stray examples, but when put together and seen in perspective they do add to something worthwhile.

In any another part of the world, all these skills and talents would be seen for what they are. Something positive and of much potential use.

In Goa, however, a language we ourselves don’t know is seen as a challenge, something to be put down.  In our zero-sum world, the growth of another language is a loss to ours.  But does it have to work in that way?

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