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Speak up, India

Shriya Mohan | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 22, 2017
The grounding: Children practise the Oriya alphabet outside their home in Bhubaneswar. The volunteer-driven People’s Linguistic Survey of India estimates that India will lose 400 languages In the next 50 years. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

The grounding: Children practise the Oriya alphabet outside their home in Bhubaneswar. The volunteer-driven People’s Linguistic Survey of India estimates that India will lose 400 languages In the next 50 years. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Before words: Human language is only 70,000 years old. Prior to that, humans communicated through theatre, dance and music. Here, members of the Gond tribe perform the Gedi dance

Before words: Human language is only 70,000 years old. Prior to that, humans communicated through theatre, dance and music. Here, members of the Gond tribe perform the Gedi dance

Words that breathe life: A rare manuscript in Gondi Lipi was found in Adilabad and read from at a World Heritage Day gathering in Hyderabad. Photo: P V Sivakumar

Words that breathe life: A rare manuscript in Gondi Lipi was found in Adilabad and read from at a World Heritage Day gathering in Hyderabad. Photo: P V Sivakumar

Protect our turf: Protesters in the Capital demand Scheduled Tribe status for Assam’s Moran community; the PLSI documented 54 of the state’s 70 languages. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Protect our turf: Protesters in the Capital demand Scheduled Tribe status for Assam’s Moran community; the PLSI documented 54 of the state’s 70 languages. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   -  The Hindu

Right to language: At the Bharat Bhasha Confluence in March 2010, 320 speech communities expressed the need to document and preserve Indian languages leading to the birth of the PLSI. Photo credit: Bhasha research and publication centre

Right to language: At the Bharat Bhasha Confluence in March 2010, 320 speech communities expressed the need to document and preserve Indian languages leading to the birth of the PLSI. Photo credit: Bhasha research and publication centre

Seeking voice: Ganesh Devy, founder of the Bhasha Centre at Vadodara and editor-in-chief of the PLSI, is now on a mission to map the linguistic diversity of over 6,000 world languages by 2025. Photo: Bhasha research and publication centre

Seeking voice: Ganesh Devy, founder of the Bhasha Centre at Vadodara and editor-in-chief of the PLSI, is now on a mission to map the linguistic diversity of over 6,000 world languages by 2025. Photo: Bhasha research and publication centre

As cries for a national language grow shrill, a linguistic survey finds that many native tongues have already gone silent, and more will soon. The tapestry of dialects is up against the forces of modernisation and commerce

Imagine waking up one day to find that you are the last speaker of your mother tongue. That everyone else who spoke it has either perished or forgotten it. And it is the only language you know. Prof Ganesh Devy remembers meeting Boa, an 85-year-old woman, in the Andaman island in 2010. She spoke Bo, one of the four endangered languages of her pre-neolithic tribe, the near-extinct Great Andamanese.

“She spoke to the birds to remember the language,” recalls Devy, who met her shortly before she died. The poignant memory of witnessing the death of a language, with its speaker having nobody but birds to speak it to, has haunted Devy ever since. The former professor of English at M S University of Baroda had just then given up academics to dedicate himself to the mammoth task of documenting India’s living languages. Boa was the last speaker of Bo. Her children and grandchildren had embraced Hindi and Andamanese instead.

“When a language dies, its speakers don’t die. They move to another language,” says Devy, when we meet at New Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) shortly after his big day in July. He and his 3,500-strong team of volunteers, including an 80-member editorial collective, had just released the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) in the Capital. A project that began in 2010, the PLSI, edited by Devy and published by Orient BlackSwan, documents the status of 780 living Indian languages. The team was forced to leave out 70-80 languages because many of them were spoken in conflict areas that were inaccessible or they found out about them too late.

Since 2013, the findings have been published in State-wise volumes. With the 11 volumes released in July, in the presence of an empanelled audience that included former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 27 States have been covered so far. The Sikkim, Goa, and Andaman instalments will be ready by 2020.

Tellingly, the PLSI uses for its logo a painting by Gulam Mohammed Sheikh called ‘The Speaking Tree’. Visible between the branches of the tree, as also under it, are Sufi saints, fakirs, sadhus, the Bamiyan Buddha, musicians, people belonging to different walks of life, and even a car. 67-year-old Devy found his world view encapsulated in Sheikh’s speaking tree — the coexistence between communities and belief systems that India desperately needs. At its core, the PLSI is the story of the country’s acutely threatened diversity.

Devy sees languages as living entities, whose existence is threatened by the very environment they enrich, much like a thriving rainforest that’s decimated in the name of development. “We already communicate using half the vocabulary we had 50 years ago. In the next 50 years, 400 Indian languages will become extinct,” he says.

Scratching the surface

The earliest survey of India’s linguistic diversity was published in 1928. Undertaken in 1903 by George Abraham Grierson, a linguist and member of the Indian Civil Service, it involved 25 years of painstaking research and documentation of over 500 languages and dialects. Devy deems it exemplary for its emphasis on communities and dialects.

It would take another 58 years for independent India to publish its first language census. “The most comprehensive till date”, as Devy calls it, the 1961 census recorded 1,652 mother tongues. Mysteriously, a decade later, the 1971 language census showed only 108 mother tongues. “Over 1,500 languages were lost. I decided to look for the missing ones,” says Devy, explaining the genesis of his quest.

What disturbed him even more was the government’s decision after 1971 to publish census data only for the languages that had a minimum of 10,000 speakers. The others, this seemed to imply, simply did not matter.

“It is our right as citizens to know what languages India speaks! When data is not available, people think their language does not exist. They feel discouraged. They eventually give up on it,” he argues. He found mismatches — 135 in all — between the census data and what he saw on the ground.

For instance, 60 lakh people use the sign language and, yet, it finds no mention. Nomadic communities are often left out too. Devy knows what this implies from personal experience. In 1996, he left Baroda University to be directly involved in the upkeep of the adivasi languages of Gujarat.

The following year he brought out 11 magazines in tribal languages that were on the verge of extinction. On the first day he was surprised to see daily wage labourers buying 700 of the 1,000 copies he had printed. “I saw tears in their eyes when they saw their language in print for the first time in their lives,” he told Hindustan Times in a recent interview.

In the 2000s, he was a sub-committee member of the Central Institute of Indian Languages. In 2007, under the 11th Five Year Plan the government allocated ₹280 crore for a proposed New Linguistic Survey of India (NLSI), with an expenditure budget of ₹600 crore over 10 years. Nothing came of it, however, as the home and education ministries sparred over it.

Devy, who was supposed to have a leading role in the NLSI, decided to do it on his own in 2010. “People are larger than governments,” he says. The Jamsetji Tata Trust gave ₹80 lakh for his project. He lost no time connecting with over 3,000 people in every nook and corner of the country. “Our meetings were in school buildings, under trees, in dharamshalas, railway platforms, mosques and temples,” he reminisces, reckoning that the non-monetary support in the form of sponsored meals, meeting venues and travel costs was worth nearly ₹1.2 crore.

According to the 2011 Census, there are 122 languages, each of them spoken by more than 10,000 people. The Constitution recognises only 22 of these as scheduled languages. The PLSI, with its rich information on the 780 living Indian languages, is holding up a mirror for the Government to see its red face.

What makes a language?

At what point does a language carve its own separate identity, to distinguish it from a mere dialect? If, for instance, Hindi is a combination of 45 older languages such as Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Maghadi and Maithili, with Maithili alone having 15 variations, does Hindi deserve to be called a separate language at all? And is it fair to club 65 languages that have a similarity to Hindi as mere dialects? “The English language doesn’t have its own script. It uses the Latin script,” Devy points out, helping me navigate the language topography with its many entangled roots and branches.

Human language is only 70,000 years old. Before that, humans communicated through the means of theatre, dance and music. So the Indian head shake is roughly 300,000 years old. “There were more vigorous forms of dance covering the entire semantic universe of meaning. It was only after that we started using sounds and tones,” explains Devy. This is also why the “hmm” and “hmm?” mean the same in all languages.

The PLSI uses a key set of indicators to define what constitutes a language. There is the history of the language itself, the existence of a unique grammar, kinship terms that are indicative of its social structure, and terms related to space, time, seasons and colour, to understand how distinctly they view the world. Equally important is the local folklore, as also the community’s self-image — whether it sees its language as distinctly separate from another.

“There are vocabulary stocks for particular periods in time. There were many words for natural landscapes, mountains, forests, waterbodies and types of weather. Now there are many words for digital technology,” says K Rangan, a retired linguistics professor with the Tamil University in Thanjavur, who edited PLSI’s Tamil Nadu chapter.

“The first threat to any language is the loss of folk material. Be it proverbs, folklore, songs or names of herbs. With the loss of folk material we lose so much native wisdom,” says V Gnanasundaram, a linguist and retired professor of CIIL.

If the grammar of a language differs by more than 60 per cent from the dominant language, the PLSI classifies it as separate. “It is the combination of a unique grammar and a community’s self-image that counts,” explains Devy’s wife, Surekha, a former professor of chemistry at M S University who, too, has contributed to the making of the PLSI.

Devy says one of the definitive litmus tests of a language’s endurance is its speakers’ memory of colour terms: “Language processing is done in the left lobe of the brain, but the colour terms have their primary gathering through the eye and not ear. That change is the slowest for any language.”

The Siddi community today living on the western coast of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka had once migrated from Africa. “Today they remember their African dance moves but not colour names. The words they use are almost all in Hindi, Gujarati and sometimes English. They have almost entirely lost their language,” he explains.

But memory is about more than just remembering or forgetting.

At the Rajasthan-Gujarat border lives the Garasiya community, whose members can recite epics such as the Mahabharata in their language. They take up to three months to complete one recitation from memory. The musical memory endures longer than the linguistic memory, which explains why it’s difficult to remember the lyrics of a song without humming its tune. The Garasiya worship their string instrument, the ektari, because it helps them remember their language.

Death by ‘dominant language’

Among the Eravallan, an endangered Dravidian nomadic tribe spread across the Nilgiris biosphere in Pollachi (Tamil Nadu), Chittoor (Andhra Pradesh) and parts of Kerala, it is the women who remember their native language. The census finds their total population to be no more than 3,500. Of 26 languages in Tamil Nadu, the PLSI looked at 20, with 17 being tribal languages. It found that the men lost their language after migrating to other States as agriculture labour. The children, too, learn Tamil as the primary language in school.

The PLSI observes that the loss of language is further accentuated by the use of Hindi, English and other dominant State languages in school.

According to Gnanasundaram, unlike Indian bilingualism, where two languages can together form a new mixed language, tribal bilingualism is different.

“Here the dominant language — Tamil, eventually replaces the mother tongue of the disempowered,” he says.

Himachal Pradesh, again, has several endangered languages. In Lahaul Spiti Valley, Studpa is spoken by just 4,000 people and Lohar Kinal by merely 400-500. In Kullu’s Malana gaon, Kanashi is spoken by fewer than 1,500. “There is a cultural erosion of sorts as each new economic system makes inroads,” says Tobdan, a retired bank officer who helped edit the Himachal chapters of the survey.

The Jispa dam project has displaced nearly 4,000 tribal people in Lahaul valley. Kanashi is fast being replaced by Kullu and Hindi because of tourists, he says.

Pointing out that “quite a hierarchy of fears and anxieties seems to have besieged languages all over the world”, the PLSI observes that the idea of a national language to preserve national unity has put a strain on sub-national languages, leading to a “somewhat forced alignment where ‘regional languages’ have learnt to expect the migration of yet smaller language communities within their fold as a natural result of ‘development’.”

Numbering two lakh, the Gondhali community in Maharashtra is the custodian of a fascinating script that is written in air. To demonstrate, two persons stand 200 to 300 ft apart, out of earshot of each other. Devy whispers French into one person’s ear and he proceeds to ‘write’ it out in swift motions in the air. The other man reads it and shouts it back in perfect French.

Devy believes there is really only one reason for the extinction of such nimble languages: the lack of a livelihood that needs it. In the 17th century, the Gondhalis were said to be employed as spies for the Maratha king Shivaji’s army. Their air script has no job market today.

Birth and revival

About 60 years ago, when the tribal pockets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh wanted to engage in trade and commerce, the biggest barrier was language.

In Odisha, the PLSI found Desia and Sadri to be the two link languages that developed as recently as 60 years ago. Desia is spoken in the Koraput area by both tribal and non-tribal people, primarily for trade with the outside world. The Gond, Paraja and Gadaba tribes speak it in the markets. Sadri, spoken in Jharkhand and Sundergarh, is a tribal (Mundari) language mixed with Jharkhandi and Hindi.

Has it brought the tribals and non-tribals closer? “Yes,” says Mahendra Mishra, the Odisha coordinator of PLSI. “The languages have made mutual cultural exchange possible.” He points out that Sadri was also used in Assam’s tea gardens, and is now even a medium of instruction in primary schools.

In Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, the PLSI found two more link languages: Bhatri and Halgi. More than 200 years old, Halgi is a mix of Marathi, Hindi, Odia and Chhattisgarhi. “Link languages also help the tribals pick up dominant languages. While Desiya is the bridge language to learn Odia, Sadri is for Hindi.”

Sixty years in language evolution is considered breakneck speed. Malayalam was a dialect of Tamil and grew into its own full form gradually between the ninth and 13th centuries. Hinglish (Hindi+English), Tamlish (Tamil+English) and Tenglish (Telugu+English), too, might in 200 years become separate languages with their own unique grammar!

“When mother tongues are neither official languages nor the medium of instruction, speaking in Assamese or Hindi (the dominant languages) becomes a way to achieve a superior social status,” says assistant professor Banani Chakravarty, who teaches Assamese in Guwahati University and edited the Assam volumes of the PLSI, documenting 54 of the State’s 70 languages.

It was, however, fascinating for her to witness the re-emergence of a few traditional languages during the course of the research for the PLSI.

Moran, spoken in upper Assam, was considered a non-language at the time of the survey. But the film Handook was made in Moran and eventually won the best regional film award in 2016. People regained their sense of pride in the language and began speaking it again. Other languages such as Tiwa, Khamti, Tai-ahom have also seen revivals.

The speakers of Tai-ahom had migrated from Thailand, through China, in the 13th century and had gradually replaced their language with Assamese. But when India and Thailand’s geopolitics improved, creating new connections between the two nations, the number of Tai-ahom speakers surged. “They found their roots and wanted to assert themselves,” says Chakravarty.

The search for a voice

Devy’s next mission is to map 6,000 world languages by 2025. He believes that 4,000 of these will disappear in the next 50 years. Again, his Global Languages Survey (GLS) will be independent of government support and volunteer-driven. Having completed the survey in Kenya and readied a blueprint for 20 other nations, he likes to call this effort “a forecast that will glance into the future of these languages”.

Little wonder then that Devy has been called the “theorist of democracy” by sociologist Shiv Viswanathan. The world today is besieged by three types of silences, according to Devy. Political silence is the first, stemming from political suppression, which is not just in India but also Egypt, Turkey, France and the US, among other places. Secondly, humans are giving up languages at an alarmingly pace. Third is the silence brought by the onslaught of technology. “Silent communication has become the preferred mode instead of meeting people or speaking over the phone. You feel less stressed sending text, as it does not compel you to reveal all your emotions,” he explains.

So, what exactly does Devy hope to achieve from this worldwide quest? What will these volumes of surveys culminate in? “Voice,” he says. “This is a slow project. Democracy is facing a crisis all over the world. The first phase of democracy was majoritarian, British parliamentarian. The second was American plurality or management-style democracy. Now we need a democracy for diversity. I’m seeking the voice of the people. How can they raise their voice without the medium of language?”

At the IIC, where the PLSI report has just been released, as the afternoon draws to a close, Viswanathan talks about the need for a new language to counter the deafening silence around the political injustices of today. Hindi literary critic and writer Ashok Vajpayee says, “Language is the first weapon we have to bring on a revolution.” The audience bursts into applause before quickly whipping out their phones to check if they have missed anything important in the meantime.

Published on September 22, 2017
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