Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.
A few years ago, I was in Bangladesh, doing some public health work, meeting members of some of the country’s indigenous peoples, and thinking a great deal about endangered alphabets. I found myself thinking about script loss even in my down time — in other words, when I was watching television, where I got a front-and-center education in the real-life process of language endangerment and cultural erosion.
A naïve visitor to a developing country (or, indeed, any country) might assume the available channels represent that country’s cultural communities, and, by implication, speak in their languages. And even though not many people think like I do, the naïve visitor might likewise assume those same TV channels will represent those same local languages in the form of on-screen scripts.
At first sight this seemed to be true, because while flicking through the channels in search of cricket matches and the Copa America, I saw Bengali script (which, by the way, I can’t read). A closer channel-by-channel examination, however, even though hardly scientific, showed television to have less to do with the broadcast and expression of local culture and more to do with the forces of cultural and economic globalism.
The television in my guesthouse boasted nearly 100 channels, though several of these were blocked, dysfunctional, or duplicates of other channels. Beyond Channel 40, almost every channel was imported, mainly from the UK, the US and Australia — BBC World News, the National Geographic Channel, and blokes handling crocs. These channels demonstrated that almost no country in the world can resist the infiltration of the English language and the Latin alphabet, but that wasn’t my point. I wanted to know to what extent the Latin alphabet had infiltrated and taken root in even the local or regional channels.
When two languages coexist (a situation called diglossia), sooner or later one language is almost always eroded and then marginalized by the other. I was curious to see whether something similar was happening with scripts. Was there a condition we could call digraphia, the coexistence of more than one script? Were the Bangladeshi channels displaying exclusively Bangla script, or was the visual representation of Bangla similarly being infiltrated by the use of Latin script — and if so, under what circumstances?
With four channels in the Top 40 apparently duplicates, at least at the time when I was watching, this left 36 separate video/audio streams to examine.
Even before I started concentrating on the individual channels, I realized that the TV set itself was Latin-centric: When I used the remote to change channels, the channel numbers that appeared briefly were Latin numerals rather than Bengali. (That is to say, English Latin numbers, rather than Roman numerals.) The operation of a TV set, then, had an internationalized quality about it. TV was not only a window on the world, but a window through which the world could get in.
What’s more, the TV stations and channels clearly saw themselves as operating in a broader world where the Latin script is essential: in every case but one, the station or channel ID logo in the corner of the screen used Latin letters and/or words. To be television, it seemed, was to be modern and international and therefore to use the Latin script, the global signifier.
At this point, I confess, I got distracted. In particular, I got distracted by the commercials — which are, after all, intended to distract.
It was clear right away that commercials as a whole, in appealing to the middle and upper classes with disposable income, almost invariably tried to present their products and services as cosmopolitan and modern, which in the case of imported products meant interjecting the English name (“Head and Shoulders”) and even English terms (“dandruff”) into the voiced-over stream of spoken Bengali, and preserving the names and labels in their original Latin script on-screen. To be hip and worldly in Bangladesh, it seemed, was to be able to speak English and read the Latin alphabet.
This seems unremarkable until you consider how weird it would look on American TV to hear the names of a thousand miscellaneous imported Chinese products pronounced in Chinese and, say, Toyota represented on-screen in Japanese characters. A substantial percentage of the shrimp sold in the US are imported from Bangladesh, in fact, but that doesn’t mean we need to know the Bengali word for “shrimp” to order them. We are clearly the bosses here, and language is simply one sign of that inequality.
The more commercial the content, the more English words appeared. Serious discussion programs on local and national affairs, and religious programs, were entirely in Bengali, from what I could tell. Once the channel broke to commercial, though, the rules changed. A voice on a channel otherwise entirely voiced in Bengali suddenly said “Crown Cement.”
The more upscale and cosmopolitan ads, especially those that seemed to have been made in India featuring Indian models, cricketers, and movie stars, switched constantly and fluently into and out of English as a sign of their sophistication.
The same was even more true of text. A glossy beauty product or car commercial, voiced over half in English, was likely to present its text almost entirely in Latin script. The name and the label were the brand. Even low-budget ads produced for regional channels tended to have CALL NOW in English, with the phone number in both Latin and Bengali scripts. For some stations, their visual identity was entirely Bengali; in some cases, though, they seemed to have decided that a little internationalized pepping-up was in order. On at least two otherwise all-Bangla channels, program names (FRONT LINE, FASHION) were presented in English/Latin capitals.
Concentrating on the programming itself showed different kinds and different degrees of infiltration. One channel seemed to have audio consisting entirely of Bangla music. Of the other 35, 11 had audio in English (including HBO, which oddly also had subtitles in English). The other 24 had what I will call “regional audio” to disguise the fact that my ear can’t distinguish Bengali from, say, Hindi.
In these 24 channels clearly locally produced for local consumption, English words had certainly infiltrated the local spoken language. In general narrative, conversation, or newscasts, it wasn’t unusual to hear “kilometer.” In broadcasts about cricket, of course, technical terms such as fielding positions or equipment were almost all in English.
I found the whole exercise slightly depressing, if unsurprising. At least in theory, television should be perfectly capable of acting in the name of cultural integrity. One of the people I met in Dhaka worked on the Bangladeshi edition of Sesame Street. He was very aware of the goal of teaching children their letters and numbers in Bengali rather than some internationalized form — though he himself was Chakma. And he was all too aware that neither the Chakma language nor its script were to be seen anywhere on Bangladeshi television, not even on Sesame Street.
In fact, quite the opposite was happening: although Bangladesh is the world’s eighth-largest nation, with a population of over 160 million, even in its own capital Bangladesh came across as a minority, a sort of province of India, which in turn came across as a province of global Western/Anglo culture.
And that, of course, suggests another disturbing pattern — that in order to establish a strong, coherent national identity in the face of this global whitewash, each developing country feels it must work twice as hard to suppress its own regional or cultural minorities.
And as for television, TV in Bangladesh behaves very much like TV in the US in, say, 1960, when earnest local programming was already being edged out by glossier network programming. This programming seemed to come from a larger, brighter, more exciting world, a world of luxuries and affluence that seemed to have no geographic locus at all. Everywhere and nowhere.