India is losing languages. Apart from a cultural loss, the process can also hamper governance

Many argue that there is no harm in losing languages; it is part of an evolutionary process. But every language is a unique world view and a repository of traditional knowledge…losing them would be disastrous

editorials Updated: Feb 22, 2018 11:16 IST
Hindustan Times
Laguages,Census 2011,Ganesh Devy
According to the 2011 census data, there are 1,635 rationalised mother tongues, 234 identifiable mother tongues and 22 major languages in the country(AP)

Last week, the Census directorate said more than 42 languages or dialects in India are heading towards extinction as fewer than 10,000 people speak them. This is not surprising because the process of extinction had started decades ago, an aspect that has been captured well in Ganesh Devy’s The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), which was released last year. The PLSI recorded 780 languages in the country, of which 400 are dying. The languages that are dying are mostly the ones which never had a script, and are used by marginal groups such as tribal communities. If one delves into India’s political history, the marginalisation of certain languages started in 1926. That year, the idea of organising India on the lines of linguistic states came up. Languages that had scripts were counted, and the ones without a script, and therefore, no printed literature, did not get their own states. Schools and colleges were established only in the official languages.

Many argue that there is no harm in losing languages; it is part of the process of linguistic evolution. “As an argument, it is okay. But every language is a unique world view and a repository of traditional knowledge…losing them would be disastrous,” Mr Devy said in an interview. Moreover, language is also not just words and grammar; it is also about political power and citizens’ bargaining power vis-a-vis the State. The lack of a common language between a local administrator and the citizens cripples communication and gets in the way of articulating needs.

Take, for example, the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh. Many of them cannot speak in the link language, Hindi. How will they communicate with the State? Many believe that if the State had given importance to tribal languages, the Maoists, who, among other things, have also exploited the communication vacuum between the State and citizens, would not have managed to become so dominant in the state. Even today, if the State starts working on tribal dialects and starts education in those languages, it would go a long way towards solving the problem.

First Published: Feb 22, 2018 11:16 IST