Episode 35: Azamgarhi Language Documentation with Maaz Shaikh

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2022/02/01/episode-35-azamgarhi-language-documentation-with-maaz-shaikh/

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Maaz Shaikh. Maaz Shaikh is a junior research fellow pursuing his PhD at the Centre for Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. Maaz is an emerging linguist who has research interests primarily in language documentation and description, as well as language revitalization phonology, morphosyntax, and historical linguistics. Last year, Maaz successfully defended his M.Phil. thesis at JNU on his heritage language Azamgarhi—a unique Indo-Aryan language, of which he is a semi-speaker.

And in this episode, we’ll hear from Maaz on his experience and his opinions of documenting his language as an insider to the community, and he also has experience documenting a couple other languages. Specifically, at the moment, he’s working on doing documentation on Zangskari, an endangered language of Ladakh. And Maaz’s story is so interesting to me particularly because his perspective on the advantages, but also the challenges, of being considered a child of everyone in the community where people really want to help you and want you to succeed, but also their investment in your future can cause them to be discouraging about language revitalization and language research if they don’t think that that language is valuable and in Maaz’s best interest in this case. So I found it very inspiring to hear him talk about his work and how he was able to persevere even when he faced resistance from his community to continue documenting and researching Azamgarhi.


MTB: Hi, Maaz. How are you?

Maaz Shaikh: Hello, Marti. I am good. I’m fine, doing well right now. How about you?

MTB: I’m good. Yeah, I’m good. Thank you. Well, thank you for coming on to Field Notes to share your story. The first thing I want to ask you about is, how did you first become involved in linguistics?

Maaz Shaikh: Oh, thank you so much for having me, and I start my journey of linguistics, well, it started from my undergrad days when I was pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, and I just… It didn’t appeal me that much. I found it to be not boring, but actually less appealing field, especially after I passed my first and second year of my undergrad degree. So during those days, I started to wonder why there was a sheer lack of resources and technology in Indian languages, because most of most of the higher education and resources are concerning that and other fields also the use of technology is in English here in India. So I got a bit annoyed by this, like people from China use Chinese, European nations use all of their languages, so I thought, “Why we can’t use our language Hindi and other regional languages as well?” So I started scrolling Wikipedia pages and started learning about languages, and from that I got to know what is linguistics. And I was so fascinated by studying about languages, and I decided to pursue a master’s degree at University of Delhi. This path was not at all easy. I faced resistance from my family, from my extended family, since after pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, I decided to pursue a degree in linguistics, a Master of Arts in linguistics, but yeah, that’s how my career in linguistics began.

MTB: Wow, so that’s quite a shift then, like you said, from mechanical engineering to then change and then to pursue linguistics. Can you elaborate on what you’ve done since you started the master’s degree? Like how did your journey develop from there?

Maaz Shaikh: So in India, linguistics is usually taught from the master’s degree. We hardly have any, we hardly have places where we get offered a bachelor’s degree in linguistics. People are from varied backgrounds, but most of them have their majors in English in in their undergrad. So I gave the entrance, and I was on the second or third position at the University of Delhi entrance, and I went to Delhi from Mumbai, and as I started to get exposure from in various courses from expert faculty members there, I started developing more and more interest and love for this field. A change came in this field where we had a course in the fourth semester by the name Field Methods in which, in a classroom setting, we call upon a consultant or language informant and work on the on a particular language, especially a, mainly on the Northeast Indian languages. So during our, in our batch during our field methods course, we chose a language named Ladakhi. It is spoken in the Ladakh region of the northernmost part of India. It’s a Tibetic language, and our supervisor for that course was a very fascinating professor, a superb expert in documentary and descriptive linguistics, so I really got fascinated by the language of, especially by its challenging but interesting phonology and complex evidential constructions. So, as you know, it is not always a painless task to find a topic for your research once your master’s studies approach completion. Yeah. So…

MTB: Yeah. [chuckles]

Maaz Shaikh: I started exploring related western Tibetic languages, the neighboring languages, genetically related languages, and from that point onwards, I decided to work on a language called Balti which is spoken in Pakistan, and some parts of India, but yeah, still… Since India and Pakistan have very non-friendly relationship, very hostile relationships, at many like months or years, so it was next to impossible to get a Pakistani visa, as I learned. So from that point onwards, I decided at least for my, given the limited scope and duration of M.Phil., I decided to work on my heritage language, Azamgarhi.

MTB: That’s really interesting. I think that’s an interesting point that you make about the visa difficulties to go to Pakistan, because it’s something that a lot of field linguists face where they might be really interested in a language or there might be a language that doesn’t have a lot of documentation or research, but if the political situation is difficult, then it’s really tough to — and maybe unsafe as well in some cases — to work on that language. Can you tell us more about the language context of Azamgarhi, like your heritage language, for speakers who aren’t familiar?

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah, sure. Azamgarhi is a very unique language of these languages spoken in Indo-Gangetic Plains in the Awadh region of the state of Uttar Pradesh, India and it’s… They both are classified in the Eastern Hindi subgroup of the central group of the Indo-Aryan language family. So Azamgarhi is spoken exclusively by a significant number of the Muslim population in the greater Azamgarh region, which compromises the districts of Azamgarh and the newly carved district of Mau in 1889 [sic?] I guess, and two tehsils, two administrative blocks of the Jaunpur, neighboring Jaunpur district of the eastern Uttar Pradesh state of India. So its uniqueness is characterized by the fact that owing to the influence of the former Mohammedan Awadh court of Lucknow, the court of the [unclear] of Lucknow, the language having its origin from Awadhi, an eastern Hindi language, was adopted by the zamindar — that is, the land-holding Muslims of Azamgarh — and from them it spread to other lower-class Muslims residing in the villages dominated by these zamindar or land-holding Muslims of Azamgarh, where Bhojpuri — a Bihari language, a language of another subgroup — is the vernacular. So it’s very interesting that people in that region, Muslims, especially the upper-class Muslims and other Muslims residing in those villages, speak differently from the rest of the population a different a different language of two different subgroups are spoken there so Bhojpuri is the substrate language, whereas the superstratum influence came from Urdu, the high variety with immense social linguistic prestige in the highly diglossic Azamgarhi speech community. And these influences caused Azamgarhi to diverge from its parent language significantly, and so much that it differs significantly in verbal inflections, intonation patterns, etc., etc. from the Awadhi language of the Awadh region. And if I elaborate more on Azamgarhi, it is unfortunately neither recognized in the Indian census, even in the dialect form of either Hindi or Urdu, and no proper record of the number of speaker exists. These all reasons, along with the complex sociolinguistic studying of the Azamgarh region, make the estimation of the numbers a very challenging task. Also, in recent years, it is unfortunate that due to pressure from Urdu, Hindi and English, this language is either loosely or not at all passed to the younger generation and is mainly restricted to rural homes. So the elite speakers, the so-called elite sp- the speakers who consider themselves elite, the upper-class speakers, who brought the then prestigious of the language now have turned to Urdu, so you can see, like there is a hierarchy of linguistic hierarchy with Bhojpuri being at the lowest stratum, then being Azamgarhi, and then being Urdu in the current scenario. And when I talk about dialectal variation, dialectal variation is indeed quite interesting but very complex and tiresome to account, especially in my M.Phil. dissertation, which had a limited scope, and the dialects considerably differ from each other to a significant extent, probably due to the corresponding differences in the local varieties of the vernacular Bhojpuri of Azamgarhi that has left substratum influence on Azamgarhi, and also because Azamgarhi speakers were originally native speakers of Bhojpuri themselves before they adopted Azamgarhi as their mother tongue. And migration has also added to the existing dialectical variation, complexity. And one interesting point which I would like to add that something is also being added to the already existing sociolinguistic complexity, which is inter-dialectal group marriage. It is very common, especially in the last couple of generations, and it is observed that women retain their dialect even after marriage or at the most develop their own idiosyncratic variety mixing their own native dialect with the in-laws’ dialect. And even more interesting is that their own native dialectal variety might be a mixture of two or more varieties. If her, if their parents hail from different generations —different regions, sorry.

MTB: Can I ask a question real quick?

Maaz Shaikh: Sure. Sure, sure. Please.

MTB: Is it custom for the bride to move into the husband’s family’s house, or is that because like… I’m just wondering, like you said that she will have an influence from her in-laws’ dialect. Is that because she’s now living in their home, or is it just like common contact or more frequent contact with them after she gets married?

Maaz Shaikh: Oh, yes. Almost, nearly hundred perc- 99 to 100%, the girl actually moves to their in-laws’ home. So since being exposed to that in-laws variety, there is some accommodation and some influence observed, yeah, especially if she’s from a different dialect group.

MTB: That’s really interesting.

Maaz Shaikh: And since Azamgarhi is merely an oral language with the least standardization compared to literary or semi-literary languages, dialect leveling is very minimal.

MTB: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So it’s especially… It’s distinct, then, that the new wives will retain their dialect if they’re suddenly being immersed in a new in-law dialect, isn’t it?

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah. They’ll retain the dialect, or at the most they’ll create their own idiosyncratic variety, like with some influences from the in-laws’ one, and mostly from her own mother variety.

MTB: Yeah. Wow, that’s really cool.

Maaz Shaikh: If you give me permission, like I would — in short, I would love to talk about how I actually came to discovering this unique language.

MTB: Yes, please. Please do. Please do share that with us.

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah. So if you see in the linguistics literature, there is no mention of this language. Actually, the Azamgarhi, it’s a name proposed by me, since if you go through my M.Phil. dissertation — what we say dissertation in India is actually a thesis in North America — so it’s also on my website, which I will share with you and you can share with the audience.

MTB: Yeah. I’ll link it in the show notes.

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah, great. So George Grierson, who was the pioneer of the Linguistic Survey of India, a British and an Irish civil servant who was given the task to prepare some record of Indian languages, was the first to mention Muslims outside the Awadh region speaking an Awadhi variety, but he didn’t mention Azamgarhi specifically. Rather, all of the varieties, Awadhi-originated varieties spoken outside the Awadh region. But I wasn’t aware of this. When I was some 15 years old, I went to a trip to my native place, Azamgarh. I stayed in Mumbai, I was born and brought up in Mumbai, but we, at least in one or two years we visit our native place. In that journey, was interesting when I just passed my high school exams and I set off to my native place with my grandfather. So when I was traveling with my cousins to place, I remember I just told them like if… Since I had the notion that our language is Bhojpuri, because Bhojpuri is popular, is the vernacular region or the region’s vernacular, and also popularized by Bhojpuri films and songs (though in a vulgar and negative, often negative, perspective) but they are still, I thought… So I told them like, “If that person would have told that point in our native language, Bhojpuri, it would be so interesting,” but one from then told, “Oh, our language is not Bhojpuri.” Then I took a surprise and asked, “Oh, then what’s our language?” So they told, “Oh, you see, like the Hindus speak Bhojpuri, and we speak our own language which is something like this.” Then I got to know, oh, wow, oh like it’s a bit strange for me. Then I got convinced that Muslims speak differently from Hindus, and later on when I joined linguistics, and during my M.Phil. days when I went for fieldwork, I saw, when I went to record a speaker from our village, a lady who was a Muslim, for some folk songs then during our conversation, during conversation with her and my cousins, I realized her language seems very different from ours, some constructions which aren’t found in our language. And when I went back home, I asked one of my cousins that why she speaks, why that lady speaks like this. So she told me, “Oh, she’s from the other village named Daudpur.” I was wondering what makes Daudpur different from our village named Sonwara. So this point stuck to my all-time curious brain, and when I went home, in Mumbai I asked my grandfather about this. My grandfather told me, “Oh, that village is all Hindus stay there.” So I thought, “Okay, since that village is a Hindu village, Hindu-dominated village, that’s why she might be speaking like this in that Bhojpuri variety.” But still, yeah, during my second fieldwork, I realized not all Muslims speak that variety. It is spoken only by the upper-class Muslims and the Muslims living in the villages dominated by these upper-class Muslims.

MTB: Wow, that is really interesting. So even within Azamgarhi, there is some class distinction.

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah, actually the non — people living in non-upper-class-dominated villages by the upper-class Muslims, they speak Bhojpuri like others, like all the other population, since Bhojpuri is the vernacular of that region.

MTB: And that’s the language that you always assumed was your language, right? Before you discovered it.

Maaz Shaikh: True, true. And the sociolinguistics, like it’s so complicated that even the Muslims speaking Bhojpuri, the lower-class Muslims not residing in the zamindar-dominated — the upper-class-dominated villages — they speak a Muslim variety of Bhojpuri with lots of Urdu words, so it’s very difficult — especially like for an outsider — to judge what is Azamgarhi, what is Bhojpuri, because the speakers will claim, “Oh, we speak that zamindar variety, that upper-class variety,” but yet actually they’ll assert that they speak that Muslim variety, which is variety spoken by the upper class. However, they speak the native Bhojpuri with a lot of Urdu words, so they assume that they speak that variety, which happened with that old lady I went to recording folk songs. She wasn’t accepting that she speaks Bhojpuri, and no one in that village speaks Bhojpuri. All speak that Muslim language.

MTB: It sounds really difficult to tease apart like what, who is speaking what language, especially if, you know, people are multilingual and there’s a lot of influence and language mixing and language changing, probably.

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah, and unfortunately all these hasn’t been well documented and described or even mentioned in like previous works.

MTB: Yeah. Can you speak to some of the advantages or the challenges you’ve experienced by working with your own language?

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah. Sure. It’s something worth talking about, since as an insider, first I’ll start with the advantages. The very first point is, no adjustment or very minimal adjustment-related issues. You belong to that community, even though you are a semi-speaker but yeah, yes, you don’t have… Like I didn’t face any issues. I have also done fieldwork in the Himalayas, the Zanskar valley of Kargil district of the northernmost part of India. There, I faced a lot of adjustment-related issues, and here, like no, in the Azamgarh. Yeah. And there’s no acceptance issues. The community, like you belong to the community and the community knows you well, and you don’t need to prove yourself like, “I am trying to become a part of that community. I’m trying to learn your language,” or, “I’m trying to do good for you.” They all know you well. And also, there was excellent access to almost all speakers. I’ll mention here with the context of Azamgarhi, since Azamgarhi, a linguistic community, is a highly conservative community where women do not expose their bodies, including their face — including their face — to a non-mahram. A mahram is a related male person which, like your very close relationship with whom you have, like your father, your brother, or your uncle, like this. So…

MTB: Mm-hmm.

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah, and I could very well manage access to women’s speech, and in fact most of my consultant were women, and since they had very good command over the language and very good… They were very good narrators. They were very good narrators, and I was so lucky to get such a variety of data from them, because I was afraid that if some outsider were to document Azamgarhi, he or she wouldn’t have access to women or… She would have access to women, but he wouldn’t have access to women, so because of that purdahsystem where women do not prefer to sit in front of a non-related person.

MTB: Yeah. Is this because you were able to work with women who were related to you very closely, or in spite of this custom, you were still able to record with non-related women because you were part of the community?

Maaz Shaikh: Yes, in most of the case, if you are somehow related to them, many people, many women also, they try to accommodate you for some recordings, and they don’t feel shy if they know me and are comfortable with me. So like we have a very wide network of relatives, and most of my relatives know me by my, either from my mother’s side or my father’s side, at least by my, by the name of my parents or the name of my grandparents, even if they don’t know me personally. And…

MTB: Yeah.

Maaz Shaikh: And in this case, I… When I recorded and when I asked them, “Oh, can I share your recording online, your video recording online,” so they gave me permission, but they told me, “Oh, please don’t let anyone see our face. You could blur our face or something like that.” And another advantage of being an insider is that majority of consultants are willing to help you out. You’re their child, ultimately. And there was an outward benefit of being a semi-speaker. Having sufficient knowledge of the language helped me save time and effort in learning the language, and besides also having some conversational fluency — which is usually not very hassle-free to achieve, like the case when I realized when I documented the Tibetic languages. I could compare how much how hassle-free this this work was for me on Azamgarhi. And this resulted in me working smoothly on the collected texts with limited guidance required from native speakers, thereby reducing the involved hassle in the almost never-ending consultation process. And then I move on to challenges, disadvantages or challenges. The major disadvantage is that the community often does not take you seriously because they feel they really quite help you because they feel, “Oh, you are our own child,” but it is very difficult to make them understand why their language is important, and especially in the case of Azamgarhi where most of the speakers have negative attitudes towards that language, and they regard Urdu as the higher variety because of the diglossic scenario prevailing there. And this is quite problematic, especially in revitalization. I’m specifically talking about Azamgarhi. I am not sure about other cases, other contexts, but this is what I observed in Azamgarhi. And also because being a semi-speaker of Azamgarhi and a native speaker of Urdu, I quite often noticed my somewhat not-so-refined knowledge of Azamgarhi having irresistible prejudices of expected elicited responses, and while at the same time my native knowledge of Urdu interfering with my perception of their responses. And I previously mentioned how interesting but how challenging the dialectal differences [unclear] account. And there were so many, a lot of differences, even between the dialects of Azamgarhi, and my dialect was somewhat different and my knowledge of Azamgarhi as a semi-speaker was from my paternal grandmother and from my mother, who is also a semi-speaker, so my own Azamgarhi knowledge was from a variety [unclear] mixed from an amalgamation from two or three different varieties of that language, and I happened to work on a variety which was different from what my own variety developed from.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. That does sound really tough.

Maaz Shaikh: So it was really tough for me.

MTB: I think I just have time to ask you maybe one more question. So I would love to know if you could tell us more about the language vitality situation and if there are any revitalization efforts. I know you yourself are a language advocate. Can you talk a bit about that?

Maaz Shaikh: Yeah, sure. Like when I talk about language attrition and consequently language endangerment, since Azamgarhi linguistic community is a highly diglossic one with Urdu as the H variety and Azamgarhi as the L variety, I observe that the major challenge to the language does not seem to be the number of speakers. Rather, it’s the language attrition, which I closely observed while documenting it. The speakers of the language are rapidly shifting towards Urdu, very high high prestigious associated with Urdu due to it being the language of official communication and education for hundreds of years in the region, and also due to Urdu’s strong association with Muslim identity and the language of propagation, which is the language of the propagation and preaching of Islam, the sole religion of this speech community. And also, since due to the pressure from Urdu, Hindi and English, this language is either very loosely or in most cases not at all passed with the younger generation, and urban migration of course is the biggest challenge to this language. Hence, this language today is only restricted to rural homes. Also, I mentioned that this, a majority of speakers have serious negative attitudes towards the language, and their regard they refer to the language as some rudimentary or rural dialect of Urdu, even though Urdu is from a different subgroup, Indo-Aryan subgroup, but they are still… And owing to all of these reasons, I faced many challenges, and I also keep on facing many challenges while advocating the use of Azamgarhi. In fact, while documenting Azamgarhi, I faced some form of indirect resistance to it from some members despite being a member of the community. I could only imagine in what a scenario an outsider would be if he had been in my place. And I also got comments like, “Oh, we think that we should move ahead in life by getting educated, and see this one — after being so much educated learning English, Hindi, Urdu and everything, he has come here only to become illiterate.” Yeah.

MTB: Wow. That sounds tough.

Maaz Shaikh: That really sounds tough. I would be at points very much disheartened and lose all my interest even in documenting the language, but you’re still… Like I something, gave me the power to document to do so. It was like at least if I could not revitalize this language, a comprehensive record of this language would be there for future generations which after having realized, oh, even that was a language, and a unique language because you don’t find many instances wherein people adopt a language spoken in another region because of its prestige and while at the same time leaving their own mother language, which was Bhojpuri. And this whole scenario becomes interesting as there is a lot of variation, a lot of sociolinguistic complexity involved. So as I move towards language revitalization, first I would like to talk about language use. It’s mostly the elder or the older and rural speakers of the community who are fluent and are actually the ones who extensively use this language in their day-to-day lives. Frankly speaking, the community is not very much interested in language revitalization. The younger generation seems not all to be interested in language revitalization. Due to the current pandemic, unfortunately I could manage the revitalization efforts only through social media. I created an Azamgarhi Facebook group wherein I post stuff which I deposited at the CoRSAL (Computational Resources for South Asian Languages) archive, which is housed at the UNT, University of North Texas Digital Library. And also I created a YouTube playlist for children’s stories wherein I took a particular audio recording, especially of a traditional story, and I placed images, cartoon images, in that in a running context so the younger children would really enjoy this, and I think by this, they could find at or at least some work is going in our language, and our language is not a — I’m sorry to use this word — a bad language, or a waste language or a rural langua, but yeah, it has got presence on internet, and we can find resources in this language. I also created an Instagram account by the title “The Azamgarhi Language” wherein what I post on my Facebook group I also post there. And I also feel that it’s mostly also through WhatsApp, since elders have hardly any presence on social media especially Facebook, and from my Facebook friend list of Azamgarhi relatives and friends, very few are female ones, female ones who are more fluent when compared to the male speakers since they are less multilingual, and the rural women haven’t got much exposure to a language such as Urdu, Hindi and English. So one of the major reasons also I suppose that they are not on Facebook is by restrictions set by their family. But nevertheless, all those members use WhatsApp, and I feel that it seems to be the best platform to share language and community-related resources. Something which I observed from my relatives and family groups on WhatsApp. Yeah.

MTB: No, that’s great. That’s really amazing. I really admire how you’re doing so many things even in the face of some discouragement from others in in the community. I think that’s really inspiring.

Maaz Shaikh: Thank you so much.

MTB: Well, thank you, Maaz, so much for giving your time, and thank you so much for sharing your story and giving your time to our listeners. Where can people find you online? I will, of course, link all of the things that you just mentioned, all of the social media, but if they want to connect with you or learn more, where can they find you?

Maaz Shaikh: Yes, Marti. It was my pleasure talking to you, and thank you so much for having me on board for your interview, and I feel this interview would also make other people, especially who are in linguistics, aware of this lesser-known language called Azamgarhi, because even in the linguistic academia, it is not well known. So yeah. And about me, you can find me on my website, which I will surely share with you, and I also…

MTB: Yeah.

Maaz Shaikh: And from there, one can also find me on various social media platforms on the web, and also the materials of Azamgarhi, the documented materials of Azamgarhi which are deposited at the CoRSAL archive, they can be found there.

MTB: Awesome. Great, and I’ll link all of that. So thank you so much.

Maaz Shaikh: Well, it was, again, my pleasure and thanks to you too.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco, and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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