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The loss of languages: What's all the fuss about?

By Anosh Malekar

Linguists estimate that one-fifth of India’s linguistic heritage may have reached the stage of extinction over the last half-century. Does this really matter? The second part of this fascinating series on India’s language diversity attempts to answer this question

Chewing trotters in the badlands
my grandpa,
the permanent resident of my body,
the household of tradition heaped on his back,
hollers at me,
‘You whore-son, talk like we do.
Talk, I tell you!’ 
Picking through the Vedas
His top-knot well-oiled with ghee,
My Brahmin teacher tells me,
‘You idiot, use the language correctly!’
Now I ask you,
Which language should I speak? 

- Marathi poet Arun Kamble 

Bharat Bhasha Confluence
Participants deliberate India’s multilingual traditions at the Bharat Bhasha Confluence

“Why should we save our languages? And for whom should we save them?” Vaharu Sonawane, a revolutionary Adivasi poet from remote Nandurbar district in north-west Maharashtra, asks. “We are told that every time two people converse, a language is born. And every time a particular conversation comes to an end, a language dies. So languages die around us all the time. Then what is this fuss all about?” 

O C Handa, a renowned scholar in history and archaeology of the Himalayan region, says something similar in a different context and on another subject: “Sanskrit is hardly spoken now, but it lives on in many other languages. It has enriched so many languages spoken today in our country. Similarly, Sanskrit might have enriched itself by borrowing from other languages spoken in ancient India. I am not really worried about the origin of a language or whether it lives or dies. That is a part of the social process. Whether languages benefit the common people should be the real concern.” 

Vaharu, who writes in Marathi and Bhilodi, his mother tongue, has formulated his own logic to satisfy the query he raises. He believes the basis of the ‘variety’ in human culture today was laid in the Adivasi condition over 10,000 years ago, before humans discovered agriculture. The population of those involved in agriculture increased gradually and they became a majority. Very few Adivasi communities accepted the agriculture system. And even if some of them got into agriculture they maintained their varied and unique traditions.  

Thus, according to Vaharu, the ‘main treasury’ of the variety of human cultures and traditions was maintained outside of agriculture by the Adivasis in Africa, Asia, America and elsewhere. It was maintained throughout in their independent existence as also in their enslavement and exploitation. The different Adivasi cultures and traditions, evolved over several centuries, have many things worth keeping. If the Adivasis lose their speech, all of it will be lost because the heart of a culture or tradition is voice. “That is why it is important we save our languages. And we save them for the whole of humanity, as also our own future generations,” Vaharu concludes. 

Professor Chandrakala Rawat from Himachal Pradesh agrees with Vaharu, but says that in the Himalayan region, where dialects change every four kilometres, Hindi has come to dominate as the main communication link.  

“We are taught Hindi from the primary-school level. There is no place for our mother tongues, Kumauni or Garhwali, despite each having several lakh speakers. Imagine the plight of other minor languages with fewer speakers. Things have come to such a pass that mothers in our area beat up their children if they hear them speaking Kumauni or Garhwali. ‘Speak Hindi/English or you will remain illiterate like us,’ our future generations are told. Now, how do we save our languages?” 

Lalima Hujur, a Ph D student from Jharkhand, observes that learning one’s mother tongue, which may officially be just a dialect, is not practical any more. “If you have to earn a decent livelihood, you have to learn in English or Hindi or whatever is the dominant language of the region. Otherwise you are reduced to labouring in the fields of the dominant classes.”  

M P Desai, a retired bank employee from Karnataka but settled in Vadodara, says: “My children studied in English and Gujarati and later settled in the United States. Their children speak English as their preferred first language. Though at home we speak Kannada, so many words, and with them so many aspects of our mother culture and native tradition, are lost to them. It is a big challenge to save our language in a rapidly globalising world.” 

Writer-activist Ganesh Devy feels it is time for all to act: “Aphasia, a loss of speech, seems to be our collective fate. Aphasia is being imposed on all of us. It is a daunting task to determine which languages have come closest to the condition of aphasia, which ones are decidedly moving in that direction and which ones are merely going through the natural linguistic process of transmigration. But let us ensure that all the 320 languages represented at the Bharat Bhasha Confluence will live on.” 

Officially, some 310 languages are counted as ‘endangered’ in India. Among them, some 10 languages spoken by more than 1,000 speakers are said to have a better chance of survival. These include Adibhasha, Bakerwali, Beldari, Jatapu, Kanjari, Raj, Sarodi, Sohali, Subba, Tirguli, besides some others like Bare, Kolhati, Khasal, Inkari and Uchai that are spoken by close to 1,000 speakers. But there are 47 others claimed by much less than 1,000 speakers and 263 more returned during the census by less than five speakers that are difficult to verify. 

In 1971, data from the census was distributed in two categories, the officially listed languages of the eighth schedule, and the other languages with a minimum of 10,000 speakers each. All other languages spoken by less than 10,000 speakers were lumped together in a single entry: ‘Others.’ This practice continues to be followed and as linguist Uday Narayan Singh comments, “The problem with Indian labels is that the 1961 census had floated so many mother tongue labels (1,652) especially among the unclassified languages (the ‘others’) that it will have to be worked out as to how many of them finally survived – which is itself a gigantic task.” 

However debatable the methodology followed by the Indian census, particularly the 1961 census, linguists and activists conclude that a fifth part of India’s linguistic heritage may have reached the stage of extinction over the last half-century. And the language loss is experienced not just by the ‘minor’ languages and ‘unclassified dialects’, but also by ‘major’ languages that have long literary traditions and a rich heritage of writings.  

“In speech communities such as Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada and Oriya, the younger generations have little or no contact with the written heritage of those languages, though they are able to ‘speak’ the languages as ‘native speakers’. It may not be inappropriate to assume that people all over the world are paying a heavy price for a globalised development in terms of their language heritage. This linguistic condition may be described as ‘partial language acquisition’ in which a fully literate person, with a relatively high degree of education, is able to read, write and speak a language other than her/his mother tongue, but is able to only speak but not write the language she/he claims as the mother tongue,” Devy observes. 

The reorganisation of Indian states after Independence was carried out along linguistic lines. The languages that had scripts were counted. The ones that had not acquired scripts, and therefore did not have printed literature, did not get their own states. Schools and colleges were established only for the official languages. The ones without scripts, even if they had oral traditions, did not get educational institutions.  

The Bhasha Research and Publication Centre’s efforts in the last 15 years have resulted in improvement of some of the Bhilli group languages, and documentation of the literary and artistic heritage of several other tribal and nomadic communities. Bhasha has also set up an Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh in Chhotaudepur taluka of Vadodara district, for promotion of adivasi languages, literature, arts and culture.  

The other such effort has been the All India Tribal Literary Forum (AITLF) set up in 2002 by Ramnika Gupta to publish works in some 30 Adivasi languages including Mizo, Chakma, Koke Boroke, Khasi, Jaintia, Garo, Bhilodi, Mundari, Ho, Kurukh, Kharia, Santhali and others, providing a common unifying social, political, linguistic and literary platform. “Tribal literature encapsulates a history of three to four thousand years, a wonderful diversity from an abundance of communities, composed in 90 languages that don’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Gupta says. 

Yet the current success on the part of language activists in keeping Bhilli or Santhali alive is not shared by other marginalised languages like Mundari in Jharkhand, Bhilodi in Maharashtra, Gondi in Chhatttisgarh, Karbi in Assam, or Kandha in Orissa, just a few of those currently fighting for official recognition. This, linguists say, is to the detriment of the country as a whole.  

“Each of these languages, which could not flourish beyond their speakers’ areas due to lack of scope for wider use at the national level, is endowed with the potential to add something to our national integration,” Dr Deviprasad Shastry, head of the Tribal and Endangered Languages Department at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, says. 

It is important to note that many of these languages have survived being cowed down by mainstream languages and cultures because of their rich oral traditions; now, it is believed, there is more scope for survival because of the rise of literacy among the various speech communities. “As such, many languages will never die until the speakers abandon them. Bhasha marti nahi, maari jaati hain (a language never dies, it is killed),” Gupta says. 

Language loss and linguistic shifts cannot be blamed on globalisation forces and government policies alone. “The overpowering desire among parents to educate their children in English, along with French and German as second languages in place of the mother tongue, to make them more productive labour for international markets, is equally to blame,” Professor Rawat says. 

Vaharu is optimistic: “In spite of the pressures of the modern world, many tribals and dalits have taken to writing in their mother tongue albeit with borrowed scripts, thanks to the interventions by organisations like Bhasha and AITLF. When I started writing decades ago in Bhilodi, it was not unusual for the mainstream audience to count me among Marathi poets, or associate me with the new crop of dalit writers. But today I am here representing my tribe, the Bhils. These things will keep changing for the better. ” 

Tensula Ao, a well-known writer from Nagaland, hopes that change will come faster: “The Northeast is no more only Assam for the rest of India. But we are yet to learn that there is no Naga language but Naga languages, and there are different tribes among the Naga people who have preserved their traditional wisdom and myths despite becoming Christians. We may be a small state and a small population, but we know one important thing – language is survival.” 

To make her point on the debate about ‘major’ and ‘minor’ languages (forcefully raised in Arun Kamble’s Marathi verse), Ao recited a Naga poem at the concluding session of the Bharat Bhasha Confluence: 

You may be big
And I may be small
But we are the same
Because we broke our mother’s back
When we were born! 

InfoChange News & Features, April 2010