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Speaking of survival

The rise and fall of languages like Sanskrit is a natural outcome of social evolution.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2009 19:55 IST

That old grandmother of languages, long kept on a ventilator by outdated school curricula, is being given a fresh lease of life by a group of determined enthusiasts. So while in Lucknow, an e-tutorial project aims to put a module of courses online to enable people to study Sanskrit, an academy in Gujarat is using the lure of Bollywood to resuscitate a near-dead language. The idea is not just to be able to read those great storytellers like Valmiki, Ved Vyas and Kalidas in the original, but also to help Sanskrit buffs incorporate its use in daily life. Many other traditional Indian vernaculars, however, have not been so lucky.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) 2009 Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, India tops the list of countries where languages are precariously balanced between neglect and extinction. We have 196 endangered languages, including 84 that are ‘unsafe’, 62 that are definitely endangered, 35 officially endangered and nine extinct languages. Those who mourn the loss of our diverse linguistic heritage complain about the neglect that has beset all those tongues not included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which lists 22 ‘Indian’ languages. All others are left out in the cold, being listed in the census as, well, ‘others’.

Unesco also lists about 2,500 of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world as doomed or likely to disappear in the foreseeable future. In India alone, the 2001 census catalogued a whopping 6,661 mother tongues, later distilled into about 122 scheduled and non-scheduled languages. Self-help aside, frequent demands have been made on the State to rescue local dialects and patois from being lost forever. In this, we are not alone. There are 199 languages in the world spoken by fewer than a dozen people, often with a single person watching over a dying flame.

Given this situation, the promotion of a language, familiar to a handful, by those protective of their mother tongue is one thing. But then others who want the State to come to the rescue of a provincial patois, spoken by one hundredth of a tiny village, might be asking for too much. Besides, languages, like living species, fall under the cold rule of evolution that sees them change, mutate or die. So to define languages as ‘pure’ or ‘endangered’ or ‘dying’, with a need to protect them, is itself a flawed way of going about things. Gestures of statutory protection are little else but attempts at showing that the nation cares for its many peoples. It does little in real terms to ‘protect’ languages.