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Multilingual democracy

By Anosh Malekar

With 22 official languages, 200-odd rationalised mother tongues, and no one knows exactly how many minor languages and dialects, linguistic diversity is part of the historical cultural heritage of the country. But many native languages are dying out for want of recognition, support, and in some cases, lack of a written tradition. This three-part series, written in the wake of the first language summit held in the country - the Bharat Bhasha Confluence in Vadodara in March 2010 - examines India’s linguistic tradition and why it is important

Language activists march
Language activists march on streets of Vadodara highlighting linguistics diversity of India

There are many accounts of the evolution of language around the world. Some count language diversity among the gifts endowed on humanity while others refer to it as a curse. The book of Genesis in the Bible refers to a time when all humanity spoke a single language and planned a great city with a temple tower reaching the skies. The eternal monument to human pride invited the wrath of God, who confused their tongues and scattered them across the earth. Hence the ancient city located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf came to be known as Babylon or Babel, meaning confusion. Hindu mythology refers to the ‘tree of knowledge’ and its pride, and how Brahma punished it by cutting off the branches and casting them down on the earth, causing differences of speech and belief and customs to crop up among humans. The Quran says that people are of various colours and languages, and this is a sign of God. 

Historical linguistics, a mainly Western discipline, has long wrestled with the idea of a single original language. In the present era, globalisation is often interpreted as an attempt to unite and speak one language. The language of the internet, for example, is English. Is this good or bad? Some believe that it is good because it makes communication easier, while others say it is destroying diversity.  

Linguists often talk of a particular language dying, the latest reported casualty being the Bo language in the Andaman Islands, whose last surviving speaker, Boa Sr, passed away on January 26, 2010. In India, Hindi alone is accused of stifling 52 – some say 72 – dialects or sub-languages. Many more are being suppressed by other dominant languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil etc. India has a growing number of endangered languages, linguists warn. 

Ramnika Gupta of the Ramnika Foundation in Jharkhand says many languages spoken by adivasis and dalits in the country are endangered because of government policies, particularly in education, as well as the constant external cultural assault via television, films and the ubiquity of media of all kinds in ‘mainstream’ languages.  

“There are some 600 tribes in India of which around 75 are found outside the Northeast and, barring a few, nearly all of them have either lost their language already or are on the verge of losing it. In most cases, they have been subsumed by the language of the majority,” says the octogenarian who publishes the voices of adivasi and dalit writers across India through her foundation’s All India Tribal Literary Forum (AITLF).

Eminent linguist and the founder-director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore, D P Pattanayak, believes all Indian languages are threatened. “It is not only the small tribal languages, but even major languages like Hindi and Oriya. We are witnessing a situation where English is at the top while some 35 Indian languages are at the bottom. The smaller languages are facing a double threat from English and major Indian languages like Hindi.” 

Linguists argue that although Indians speak different languages, they are repeating the same ideas. That is, if we are speaking a kind of Hindi that is merely a translation of English and expresses only ideas borrowed from the West, it is not Hindi. It may also be the other way around resulting in ‘Hinglish’.

“This is more than a question of intrusion of foreign words. We seem to be losing touch with all that shaped our languages historically and culturally,” Pattanayak says.

According to a report on the website of the Union Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry: ‘Having recognised the importance of English as an instrument of knowledge dissemination as well as commerce as well as maintenance of international relations, a provision was left to extend the use of English language in the Article 343 on “Official language of the Union” – for all the official purposes of the Union’ even after ‘a period of fifteen years’, with a proviso that ‘the President may, during the said period, by order authorise the use of the Hindi language in addition to the English language and of the Devanagari form of numerals for any of the official purposes of the Union.’ 

“India is a peculiar case,” says Rajesh Sachdeva, director of CIIL. “Nobody knows how many languages are spoken in the country. But India is essentially a multilingual country where linguistic diversity is part of the historical cultural heritage and an integral part of nation building philosophy. This provides both a challenge and an opportunity.” 

The exact number of languages in the country requires a bit of guess work that can be quite confusing. In the 1991 census, of over 3000-odd languages named mother tongues, some 200-odd rationalised mother tongues - each of which is spoken by more than 10,000 people - account for over 99% of the population. These are further classified as 114 languages belonging to four distinct linguistic families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic, all of which have some tribal speech communities, the last two predominantly so.  

Almost one-third of India’s mother tongues (574 languages) belong to the Indo-Aryan family and are spoken by 73.30% of Indians. The Dravidian languages, 153 in number, form the second major linguistic group of the country (24.47%). There are several other languages that cannot easily fit into any of the above language families, such as Burushaski in the Northwest. Then there are separate families like Andamanese that include quite a few diverse languages. 

Officially, the Indian State recognises 22 major languages in what is known as the ‘Eighth Schedule’ of its Constitution (hence they are officially known as scheduled languages). These languages are also the major literary languages. They are Sanskrit, Assamese, Bangla, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Kannada, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Santhali, Sindhi, and Urdu. 

The HRD ministry report says there are different theories about how many mother tongues qualify to be called independent languages. ‘Even Sir George Grierson’s 12-volume Linguistic Survey of India (1903-1923) – material for which was collected in the last decade of the 19th century – had identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. One of the early census reports also showed 188 languages and 49 dialects (1921 census). Out of these mother tongues, 184 (census 1991) or at least 112 (census 1981 figure) had more than 10,000 speakers. There are other estimates that would put the number higher or lower…’ 

While all languages may have a rich oral tradition, less than half have made the transition to the realm of literacy and formal education.  

“This may be partly because several tribal languages are still to be formally recognised by state governments in the domain of education, and also, perhaps, because like the policy makers, some groups within the communities themselves are not too convinced about the need to do so, and among those who are convinced, very few know how to put it into practice. Although education in the mother tongue is considered a right in the Indian constitution, and education is multilingual, tribal mother tongues are still striving for authentic space,” Sachdeva says. 

There are only 69-72 languages that are taught in schools in India in some capacity, but radio networks beam programmes in 146 languages and dialects across the country. The highest literary awards in the country are given in 24 literary languages by the National Academy of Letters, called the Sahitya Akademi, but newspapers and periodicals, some 3,592 in number, are published in 35 Indian languages every year, the HRD ministry says. 

Linguists say that determining what should be called a language or a dialect is more a political than a linguistic decision. Most often, the language tag is applied to a standardised and prestigious form, recognised as such over a large geographic area, whereas dialect is generally used to describe the various forms of speech that lack prestige or are restricted to certain regions or communities. Sometimes, mutual intelligibility becomes a criterion; say if speakers of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi can understand each other, they are mistakenly seen as speaking the same language although they may be speaking different languages/dialects. 

Adding to this overall confusion are the bilingualism figures returned by census reports since 1931. During the 1931 census, each individual was asked to name any language other than the mother tongue that he/she commonly used. In 1991 a conscious decision was taken to ask for two subsidiary languages rather than one, to get the trilingual figures. India’s national average of bilingualism according to the 1991 census turned out to be 19.44%, which was significantly higher than the previous national averages of 9.7% in 1961, 13.04% in 1971 and 13.44% in 1981. Moreover, the average trilingual rate was 7.26%. 

It was against this backdrop that the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Gujarat’s cultural capital Vadodara decided to bring together on a single platform, and face to face, speakers of as many Indian languages – bhashas – as was possible in March 2010. The organisation, founded in 1996 by writer-activist Ganesh Devy to battle the erosion of the bhashas and conserve oral traditions of marginalised communities, has clear concerns of its own. 

‘In the census report of 1961, a total of 1652 mother tongues were mentioned. Several hundreds of these are no longer traceable. During the first half of the twentieth century, India reportedly lost about one-fifth of its languages. During the second half of the last century, we have lost about one-third of the remaining languages. If we continue to allow the dwindling of the bhashas at this rate, it is estimated that over the next 50 years, we will see the extinction of most of the bhashas spoken by the nomadic communities and adivasis, just as we will witness a large-scale erosion of some of the main bhashas that have a rich history of written literature,’ a note by Devy released on the eve of the Bharat Bhasha Confluence says. 

The event held at the M S University campus in Vadodara and the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, 90 kilometres east of Vadodara, was attended by over 600 speakers of 320 Indian bhashas representing all states and union territories from Ladhak to the Andamans and Kohima to Kutch. There were students in their early twenties and octogenarians like writer-activist Mahasweta Devi, the Gandhian Narayanbhai Desai and D P Pattanayak, besides vice chancellors, heads of national institutions, linguists, writers, publishers, cultural activists and speakers of mainstream and tribal speech communities.

For three days the participants shared the plight of different communities and states to arrive at an idea of the problems involved and visualise possible steps to be taken to protect India’s multilingual traditions. Devy claims: “It is perhaps for the first time that such a gathering of numerous speech communities is being held. I need not add that such a gathering – we call it not a conference but a ‘confluence’ – has never been attempted anywhere in India.”

At the inaugural function, sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan sought to clarify: “This is not a confluence of dead languages. We are here to celebrate languages. Modern democracy cannot be built on English. A true democracy has to be multilingual.”

InfoChange News & Features, April 2010