India is four times richer than Europe in terms of language, with Indians able to express themselves in over 850 languages as compared to Europeans who can speak only about 250 languages, according to findings of the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI).
"England has not more than four or five languages of its own at the most. Out of those only two - English and Welsh -
are doing well. Meanwhile a state like Assam which is more or less the size of England has a good 52 languages," says Ganesh Devy a noted linguist and chairman of PLSI.
Devy, draws a contrast with Paris headquartered UNESCO, an organisation that seeks to promote many languages, which allows but five languages in its deliberations.
"On the other hand Indian courts and offices allow use of 22 languages," says the linguist who recently completed an ambitious survey in the country, which identified 860 Indian languages.
"In India we have several hundred living languages. It could be more than 850, out of which we were able to study 780 languages. And if the benchmark is the 1961 census we have lost 250 languages in last 50 years," he says in the survey carried after over 100 years after George Abraham Grierson under British Raj undertook such an exercise in the country.
The survey was spearheaded by Vadodara-based Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, which has already released "Maharashtratil Bhasha" (Languages of Maharashtra). 49 more such volumes are scheduled to be released here on September 5.
Columnist Arun Jakhde, who published the Maharashtra volume of the survey, says the survey celebrates the diversity of the country and is not a lament on the lost languages.
"For me, 60 languages which we surveyed in Maharashtra are 60 different sounds (dhwani) through which my state should be identified," he says.
Jakhde points out that he did not go by conventional definitions of dialects and languages.
"In the PLSI, we decided not to stigmatise languages which communities wanted to claim as 'languages' by calling them dialects merely because they had not got into any written form. Writing and scripts are a later day acquisitions of languages," Jakhde says.
Pointing out that for about the first 65,000 years of the history of human languages, all languages in world remained non-written and non-scripted.
"Given these facts, I have no difficulty in minimising the importance of the correspondence between oral languages and dialects," he says.
"You may recall the George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion', or the later day Willy Russel's 'Educating Rita'. These books amply demonstrate show how unscientific the notion of dialect is. When a language gets into print, the varieties that do not get printed come to be seen as dialects," he explains.
Jakhde points out that Grierson in his "Linguistic Survey of India" had used the term dialect quite generously.
"He classified nearly three out of every four speech varieties that he examined as dialects," says Jakhde.
A Unesco Linguapax laureate, 63-year-old Devy says, "We have prepared a baseline and it's a first survey of living languages in India. We have also collected grammars and dictionary of about 400 languages."
The survey, which began in 2010, has compiled a total of 50 volumes and 68 books that document various languages in the country, including sign languages used by transgenders and even thieves.
Devy says "The Koti language of transgenders and the 'Narsi-Farsi' code used by some denotified communities are more evolved than the telegraphy code used until recently in India and outside."
"While the Morse code used for telegrams was able to translate only words or simple sentences into simple manageable signals, the Koti code can be used to crack jokes and the Narsi Farsi is capable of creating stories. So these two are not entirely code languages in their nascent rudimentary form," Devy says.
According to the language survey PLSI found Arunachal to contain the 90 languages but Goa speaks only three languages.
In metros like Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai people speak more than 300 languages, finds the survey.
"Over 400 languages is spoken by nomads and denotified communities. And many of them don't want to associate themselves with their language because they fear it can reveal their identity and may get them into trouble," Devy says.
Meanwhile, editor of the Maharashtra chapter, Jakhade says, "In south Maharashtra we have met some communities who want to join the mainstream and want to forget their own language."
On the issue of scripts used in languages, Devy says no other country has ever created and used so many scripts.
"India uses 66 scripts and West Bengal takes the cake in this with 9 scripts in use," he says.
The PLSI survey has recorded more number of languages that the 2001 census 2001, which has provided data of only 122 languages.
"After Bangladesh war in 1971 the government decided not to record languages which are spoken by less than 10,000 people," he points out.
"Government then felt that India might fragment if it acknowledged too many languages," Jhakade says.
The PLSI has recorded even Majhi in Sikkim, a language which is spoken by only four people.
Jhakade says "a word is library of the experience of hundreds of years" and "every language presents a unique world view."
Taking about the survey, Devy says, "We have managed to complete the entire work in about Rs. 1.50 crore with about 3000 linguists, academicians, school teachers, farmer, nomads and volunteers. When the Government had plans of carrying out a linguistic survey in 2007-08, they had projected an estimate of expenditure at Rs. 600 crore. Those plans did not move beyond the initial stage."
A professor of English literature at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara Devi, Devy quit his job and founded in 1996 the Bhasha Trust which works for empowerment of Tribal communities of India and protection of human rights of Denotified and Nomadic tribes.