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The case for a linguistic survey

By Anosh Malekar

In January 2010, the Bo language died a quiet death with the demise of its last native speaker. This has been the fate of many Indian languages. The last in this series on India’s linguistic diversity makes out a strong case for initiating a linguistic survey, 100 years after the last and only such attempt was made.

Bhasha-Van
The site for the proposed 'Bhasha-Van' at the Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh

Before she died early this year at the age of 85, Boa Senior, the last speaker of the Bo language - one of the ten Great Andamanese languages - spent her days speaking to birds on the faraway islands. “She would simply look at the skies and keep talking to the birds and then smile and say it was the only way she could keep her language alive,” Anvita Abbi, the well-known linguist from Jawaharlal Nehru University, recalls. 

Nobody in India noticed the death of the language that dates as far back as 65,000 years, until Prof Abbi announced it and the western media picked up the news. Prof Abbi, who was engaged for the past several decades with Boa Sr and other tribes on the Andaman Islands and runs the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese (Voga) website, is pained and anguished: “Many foreign publications covered the news, but very few in the Indian media bothered to even mention Boa Sr.” 

Boa Sr’s death was a loss for intellectuals around the world wanting to study more about the origins of ancient languages and one of the oldest tribes of the Great Andamanese, who now number just 52. Originally 10 distinct tribes, the Great Andamanese were 5,000-strong when the British colonised the Andaman Islands in 1858. Most were killed or died of diseases brought by the colonisers. Most of the Great Andamanese tribes have forgotten their mother tongues and speak in Hindi now. Even Boa Sr had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with her own people. 

Prof Abbi is concerned about the future of languages spoken by the Andamanese tribes. “The extinction of a language is unnatural because languages never die. Our native languages have survived the onslaught of Sanskrit, English and Hindi for centuries,” she says. Writer-activist Ganesh Devy is worried that, like Boa Sr and her language Bo, there are many other languages in the country on the verge of extinction. “How can you sit and watch when so many people are faced with the global phonocide (combining the Greek word ‘phonetics’ with the Latin word ‘cide’ or killing) let loose in our times,” he asks. 

To understand and deal with this situation, a people’s linguistic survey of India will be planned for next year, Devy announced at the conclusion of the Bharat Bhasha Conference, claiming that such an exercise will be undertaken in the country a good hundred years after the first and only such exercise that gave us Sir George Abraham Grierson’s 12-volume Linguistic Survey of India (1903-1923) – material for which was collected in the last decade of the 19th century.

“We have decided to conduct a linguistic survey of India on behalf of the people. It will not be an official exercise. We will be meeting in Bhubaneswar around December this year to work out the details. Ours will not be a survey really. We choose to call it ‘Abhivyakti’ or expression of ‘Bharatiyatva.’ We expect some 1,200 participants to deliberate and finalise the plan,” Devy said while explaining that the exercise will look at historical, social, political and cultural aspects, besides linguistics.

It was social scientist Dhirubhai Sheth who came up with the suggestion of holding a linguistic and ethnographic survey of India. “Even if it is not at a national level, let us try for a local one, combining Gujarat and Maharashtra, as a pilot project. Let us set a model for others to follow,” he suggested. “Whatever had to happen has happened. But we certainly need to reflect on the fact that if people are marginalised, languages will get marginalised too.”

He also suggested the formation of a national level committee with somebody like the eminent linguist and the founder director of CIIL, D P Pattanayak, at its helm to look into the possibility of holding an independent linguistic and ethnographic survey on such a scale and possibly involve the government too. “I do believe that civil society and the government have to work in tandem,” he added.

Pattanayak hopes the Central government will gather “enough courage” to conduct a linguistic survey, long overdue in the country “because that is the only way to know all our languages…I am sorry about the linguistic survey [not being conducted earlier by the government]. We do not care about the tribals. There is nothing about them in our history, geography and social sciences.”

The Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) had planned an official survey, touting it as the biggest ever such exercise conducted in the world, in April 2007. The survey was to be conducted by the CIIL. Rajesh Sachdeva, director of CIIL who was present at the Bhasha Confluence, said the exercise had to be abandoned with “the government developing cold feet”.

Governments for the past several decades have feared that linguistic surveys could lead to bhasha-vaad or language disputes in a country where states were formed on linguistic lines. But Sachdeva feels India has come a long way since Independence: “Bhasha chintan ka, chinta ka masla nahin hona chahiye (Language should be a subject for reflection, not for social tension).”

He conceded that accurate information on the number of languages, especially smaller languages, spoken in the country was the need of the hour. “Though Grierson's survey inspired a large number of studies on language, it also had some drawbacks. It excluded the former province of Madras and the then princely states of Hyderabad and Mysore from its purview. As a result, nobody knows exactly how many languages are spoken in India,” Sachdeva said. 

Devy also announced that a Bhasha-Van (Forest of Language) will be developed at the spacious 10-acre Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh. “The trees, when they grow, will be fitted with bio-sensors and every time a visitor passes a tree in the Bhasha-Van it will speak or sing in an Indian language,” he added explaining the preservation effort. 

In the same breath Devy expressed concern that “while our cities have become ‘Bhasha Bharat’ (drawn from the Mahabharat) with the migration of speakers of different languages, we did not prepare them for this situation, leading to many social problems.” The situation he was referring to was the language wars in Maharashtra, where, incidentally, language diversity is more than anywhere in the country with some 209 languages. West Bengal and Gujarat follow with around 150 languages spoken in each state, while Delhi is next with a language diversity of 120.

The meet also discussed other important ways to preserve Indian languages like preference for primary education in the mother tongue, promotion of translations and, most importantly, the need for studying the relation between language, society, and politics, something traditional linguists have been wary of doing. 

One of the most important conclusions of the Bharat Bhasha Confluence was that a language never dies; death is imposed upon it, often by external forces like in the case of India’s many Adivasi tribes. With languages dies a culture, a way of life. Hence, it is important to preserve languages. And with it India’s cultural and linguistic diversity.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2010