A 2000-rupee note. From 1926, languages that had scripts were counted and the ones without a script did not get their own states.(Representative image)
A 2000-rupee note. From 1926, languages that had scripts were counted and the ones without a script did not get their own states.(Representative image)

Not just words: Why hundreds of India’s regional and tribal languages are dying

India is one of the 10 most linguistically diverse countries in the world. But a new report says we have been losing several languages due to political marginalisation.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By KumKum Dasgupta
UPDATED ON SEP 18, 2017 04:50 PM IST

English professor Ganesh Devy’s eyes sparkle when he talks about the challenging days when he published magazines in dying languages of India.

“In 1997, I brought out 11 magazines in tribal languages, which were on the verge of being lost. One was of the Chaudhari tribe of Gujarat. I printed 1,000 copies and on the first day — to my surprise — I sold 700 magazines,” 67-year-old Devy, who used to teach at the University of Baroda told HT.

“Illiterate daily wage labourers bought those copies … I saw tears in their eyes when they saw their language in print for the first time in their lives,” he said, underlining the pride and joy that spurred those people to pick up the magazines.

After that life-changing experience, Devy decided to document dying languages. He travelled across India, stayed for months with poor communities, built networks, trained and mobilised 3,500 volunteers (academics, language experts, authors, school teachers, farmers, activists, bus drivers, and nomads), and finally set up an 80-member editorial collective to ground the project academically.

Devy is not a linguist but under his initiative, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) was established in 2010 in Vadodara. Last month, PLSI launched 26 volumes on languages spoken across 10 states. Thirty-four more are expected to be out by 2018.

While Devy’s project is a personal effort, the Union government, too, has its own programme to preserve dying languages. In 1969, it established the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) in Mysuru. In mid-2013, the institute, which is under the ministry of human resource development, was given the task under the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL). The actual documentation work started in late 2014. CIIL did not respond to queries regarding their project.

Over the last two decades, scientists have come up with mathematical models for predicting the life of languages. These predictions have indicated that a large part of linguistic heritage is moving rapidly close to extinction. Some of the predictions maintain that out of an approximately 6,000 existing languages, only a small portion of language diversity will continue to exist in the 22nd century. In the absence of a through survey of languages, it is difficult to decide how many languages there are really in existence and how many will survive. The PLSI is a snapshot of languages. In GLSR, we are going to do a janampatri of languages, a horoscope. This (PLSI) is about the present of the language … that is about the future of the languages.
The 1961 Census recorded 1,652 languages
Since the 1971 Census, languages spoken by less than 10,000 people have been lumped as "others"
The language data of 2011 Census, the most recent one, has not been disclosed
PLSI has recorded 780 living languages, of which 400 are dying.

How many languages does India have?

There is no official count of the total languages in India. The 1961 Census recorded 1,652 languages. But since the 1971 Census, languages spoken by less than 10,000 people have been lumped as “others”. The language data of 2011 Census, the most recent one, has not been disclosed.

“Thanks to lack of public information over the last 40 years (1971-2011), it is impossible for any agency other than the census office to figure out the range of languages expected in India,” explained Devy.

Devy’s research, however, shows that there are 780 living languages in India — at least 400 are at the risk of dying in the next 50 years.

Unsurprisingly, most at risk are the ones spoken by marginal tribes whose children receive no education or, if they go to school, are taught in India’s 22 languages recognised in the Constitution.

How did we start losing languages?

This marginalisation of languages started in 1926. That year, the idea of organising India on the lines of linguistic states came up and became a reality after Independence. 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.

Languages without scripts had no place in the education system. The result: Gondi, Bhili and Santhali became minority languages because their population was divided among several states.

“Bhili is a minority language in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh while together it has its own majority. Bhili did not have a script and so nobody proposed a state for them,” Devy said.

As a result of this division, tribal groups started lagging behind in education and many took on other languages.

Today, schools are increasingly training students in global languages, giving a short shrift to local ones.

In a similar way, the idea of Nation-State and one language — an idea which has triggered many discussions in this country — has weakened regional languages. The NDA’s push for Hindi, which has met with protests in non-Hindi speaking regions, reflects that one nation-one language idea.

Why should we save languages?

“Some say there’s no harm in losing languages. 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,” said Devy, adding that in a tech-driven world, language diversity can be turned into a great cultural capital and real capital.

Language is also about political power. “The scheduled languages are linguistic citizens of this country but non-scheduled languages are linguistic non-citizens. But we all have equal stakes in the country and equal responsibility. By giving the non-scheduled languages their due, I am creating responsible citizens by protecting their languages,” argued Devy. “Linguistic citizenship is as important as political citizenship.”

Moreover, language is also about bargaining power of the people with the State. The lack of a common language between a local administrator and the citizens severely curtails both sides from expressing their needs.

Or take the issue of security. In Maoist-hit Chhattisgarh, misunderstanding between local language-speaking tribals and Hindi-speaking forces lead to a loss of lives.

“Had we given importance to tribal languages, we would not have landed where we are today. I believe that if we start working on tribal dialects, start creating dialogue model of communication platforms, and start education in those languages, the Maoist problem can be solved. There is a huge drop-out rate in adivasi students because they speak dialects of Gondi and the teacher Hindi. Many of them end up with Maoists, [who speak the local language],” Subhrangshu Choudhury, a Chhattisgarh-based journalist-turned-educationist who works among tribals, told HT.

“As always, in connecting with nomadic communities Devy brings in a new critical insight that overrides some of the existing paradigms and notions,” said Vinod Raja who recently directed Sikkidre Shikari Ildidre Bhikari, a film on the Hakki Pikki (bird trappers and small game hunters) nomadic tribe.

Endangered languages also cannot ensure livelihood to people, leading to migration, loss of culture and knowledge, and social and economic imbalance.

With the PLSI on firm ground, Devy, a meticulous planner, would like to document languages used by the transgender community and the trade languages of India. “The ones used by dabbawallahs of Mumbai and the angadias (cash-carriers) of Gujarat …” he told HT, happy at the prospect of starting another unique project.


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