What shall we say after we have lost our languages, asks Mini Krishnan.

Every year millions of young Indians emerge clutching high-school certificates without a word of their mother-tongues and equipped only in English. Many South Indian families pride themselves on speaking Hindi well enough to be understood by native speakers but fall silent when they visit their own villages in South India. Will this one day be the silence of a graveyard?

Imagine your loneliness if you were one of the world’s last fluent or semi-fluent speakers of a vanishing language as is the case with the dwindling speakers of many of the world’s 7,000 languages today. The prediction is that by the middle of the next century, this number would have dropped to less than 4,000. This linguistic genocide as Sheldon Pollock called it, seems to be unstoppable; and because vast populations are functioning in a globalised market driven by the needs of their dominant nations, languages like Mandarin, English, Russian and Spanish are swallowing whole communities in the span of a single lifetime.

Need of the hour

I will not bore anyone with data but wish to share some terms and meanings from some languages that will carry a whole world-view away with them if there are no users and speakers of them left in the next generation. And this calls for urgent action if we cannot preserve those languages at least to translate them into a language that has a strong following.

Consider a people who have no notion of being employed! The Aka language in Palizi village situated on a mountainside in Arunachal Pradesh has no word for “job” in the sense of someone being paid for work done. Now what does this mean? That in the world-view of these people, everyone is so self-sufficient that no one works for anyone else or needs to. The Seri people of Mexico who live in the western portion of the Sonoran Desert are so suspicious of anyone who tries to touch their language or teach them another that they killed a priest who tried to establish a mission and Catholicize them by an exchange of languages and the preparation of dictionaries and translations. Seri brothers and sisters use different words to address their father. If a Seri speaker wants to know where you are from he will ask you: “Where is your placenta buried?” Does that make you smile?

There are less than a thousand Seri speakers left. One day, will anthropologists struggle to make sense of what Seri speakers leave behind for us when we can no longer hear their voices? Because that is what they are doing with scripts whose speakers have disappeared forever.

Every mother-tongue carries a world of images and idioms, proverbs and similes that places its speakers in a cultural continuum, linking them to their past and to future speakers of the same language. Languages guard memories.

So the death of a language, a mother-tongue is essentially the loss of an intangible world which binds, networks, dramatises, and provides a way of telling and storing its stories. We cannot afford to lose languages, because then we lose our stories.

Let me make a plea here for preservation of our languages at least through translations of them if we cannot arrest their fading away. After all no one can insist that certain numbers of people or groups speak or use only a particular language. Like food, like faith, language-use is a highly personal thing.

What is unique and interesting about writing by Indian-language users is that no single person’s work can be held up with the claim: “This is Indian writing” or “This is the real thing.”

A lot of work is going on in as many languages as there are presses in the country. Like writing everywhere, some of it will become well known. Most will remain unknown. But that is the fate of writing everywhere.

In times when everything around us is becoming dehumanised writing is one of the ways in which humanity regroups to move forward, resisting the imposition of reinvented traditions, refabricated myths, manufactured cultural hates… and instead faithfully reflects how our country works.

Though the ability to be at ease with differences is the cement of India one must know where one’s placenta is buried.

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