The exhaustive, community-based work to bring all languages on record in the People’s Linguistic Survey of India also revealed the fate of the country’s multilingualism, says the project's chairperson
The release of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) report at Gandhi Smriti in Delhi on September 5 will mark a significant milestone for 63-year-old Ganesh Devy’s Bhasha Research and Publication Centre based in Vadodara. It is the first survey of living Indian languages as people perceive them, conducted by the communities themselves. The 780 languages revealed are in stark contrast to the 2001 Census figure of 122 languages, following a 40-year policy of omitting languages with less than 10,000 speakers. Mr. Devy tells Chitra Padmanabhan, a Delhi-based writer, that the PLSI is a rights-based movement, which sees language as crucial for the effective development of fragile communities and for stemming the erosion of India’s diverse, multilingual, and composite heritage.
What was the aim of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India?
I have always felt that Indians relate to languages very differently from people elsewhere in the world, so I wanted to know how communities across India perceive their languages.
Primarily we wanted to find out how many living languages India has. We also wanted to see if language could be made into a fulcrum of micro-planning for development in diverse ecological and cultural contexts, especially among fragile coastal, island, forest and hill communities.
Working with tribals on their languages at Bhasha since 1996 helped me realise that there was no need to unduly privilege scripts — even English does not have a unique script of its own. Hence the thought that most other languages are derivative forms of Scheduled languages disappeared from my mind. I started according smaller languages greater respect.
You looked to communities to conduct this survey as well.
This kind of survey needed to be done by the communities themselves. Also, when you have no money, only people can be with you!
Bhasha built upon and extended its networks in States, trained and mobilised about 3,500 volunteers — academics, language experts, authors, schoolteachers, farmers, activists, bus drivers, and nomads. They worked with their linguistic communities in their respective States. An 80-member editorial collective joined us later to ground the project academically.
This was not a door-to-door Census, nor a marketing survey. Importantly, the respondents’ degree of intimacy with their respective languages was 100 per cent.
How was a language identified?
Over the years we have arrived at a simple format. For non-Schedule languages each community produced a 20-25 page essay: what language name, language history and peculiar features does a community recognise? What is its language grammar?
To avoid the risk of a stray concoction, the community must provide folk songs, stories or written literature as language evidence.
The format also included kinship terms, for we are a society of relationships, and terms related to time (memory) and space (imagination), which acquaint us with a community’s unique worldview, as do terms for colours and specific geographic features (snow in mountainous areas, water and waves in coastal areas).
Scheduled language formats had more domains — cinema, music, media, technology, education, governance — and were more extensive. Sometimes, formats were adapted for special needs.
It seems to have added up to a monumental effort.
In four years we have documented 780 languages. There are 22 Scheduled languages, 480 tribal and nomadic languages, 80 coastal languages, major regional languages not yet in the 8th Schedule (Tulu, Kutchhi, Mewati), and international languages spoken in India. The survey will be published in 50 volumes by Orient Blackswan in over a year’s time. There are State-specific volumes and volumes with national overviews on themes like Scheduled, tribal, and coastal languages; Indian languages in the diaspora and international languages in India; and, kinship, time and space, among others.
This is India’s first baseline survey through a quick, non-hierarchical, public consultation and appraisal. Unlike George Grierson’s focus on language genealogies in his pre-Independence Linguistic Survey of India, our focus was on language groups in each State to know their perceptions about their languages. Acknowledging the self-respect of all, especially fragile speech communities, as enshrined in the Constitution, was an important objective.
How many of these languages are endangered?
Officially India does not acknowledge endangered languages. The 1961 Census recorded 1,652 languages. Since the 1971 Census — following the Bangladesh war when East Pakistan cited language as a reason to break away from West Pakistan — languages spoken by less than 10,000 people have been lumped as “others”. We deserve to know how many languages our country has.
What does the survey indicate about the state of Indian society?
Kinship terms are shrinking in most languages — ‘mummy’ has replaced amma, and papa, bapu. Terms for distant relations are losing ground, reflecting kinship erosion. Weakening ecological bonds are reflected in people’s inability to name surrounding trees or birds. Terms for forms of prayer are also shrinking. Interestingly, while migrations are encouraging a growing multilingualism, we are talking more using fewer words.
How fragile are India’s tribal speech communities?
In Jharkhand, where Hindi is understood by all, 16 major tribal languages are thriving. Across Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, Bhili language varieties are in ascendance, a pointer to the Bhils’ economic betterment and greater self-confidence about their language not being useless. Unlike Santhals, Mundas and Gonds, Bhils have not experienced Naxal activity. Due to some links to land-related activity, tribal languages seem reasonably intact.
Have any communities suffered a dramatic loss of language?
For coastal communities, hit adversely by changing sea farming technology, a wonderfully abundant terminology for fish and waves is of no use in inland areas. Similarly, nomadic people, formerly stigmatised as criminal tribes, try to conceal their language to get away from their stigmatised identity.
Is there a link between a State’s development and its language status?
Prosperous Haryana has very little linguistic diversity, unlike developed Maharashtra and Karnataka. Language diversity survives only in States with more inclusive prosperity. Encouraging inclusive development is one way of averting the extinction of linguistic, cultural and biological diversity, nurtured over centuries by speech communities.
If Planning Commission data — the Rural Development Ministry probably has the most reliable data about people in India — were combined with the PLSI, effective micro-level planning for economic growth and language conservation would be possible. Local languages can be used for education and healthcare. Local growth can be a global developmental principle, not the other way round.
Why has language never been seen as a fulcrum of development?
A 200-year-old predominance of printing gives languages with written literature more importance. Only those languages entered the 8th Schedule, got state recognition. Decision makers, too, emerged from these languages. If every language is a unique worldview then statistically not more than four per cent of Indian worldviews have been articulated in Parliament. We need to reverse this colonial amnesia.
We have begun a people’s ethnographic survey of India to compile 800 monographs in three years. Let communities tell us who they are and their ideas of enmity, friendship, suffering and joy. On September 7, in an event planned with the Sahitya, Lalit Kala and Sangeet Natak Akademies, we will launch a people’s eco-cultural survey of India. Let the culturally cohesive communities articulate their deep-rooted affinities to ecological, linguistic and culture areas extending beyond administrative districts. The three surveys can help build bridges among diverse language communities, strengthen Indian multilingualism and cultural pluralism, as well as the process of building India as a composite linguistic and culture area.
Many well-intentioned initiatives flounder as we don’t know what India really is. In my small way I’m trying to bridge the divide between thought and life created by colonialism. This method will have mistakes, but I have faith in my mission and the hope that future generations will improve on my work.