Those unheard VOICES

Linguist Anvita Abbi is on a mission to document dying languages. She says that languages offer missing links to genetic and social evolution.

Published - June 10, 2015 05:15 pm IST

Above, Prof. Anvita Abbi with the late Boa Sr. the last speaker of Bo, one of the 10 Great Andamanese languages.

Above, Prof. Anvita Abbi with the late Boa Sr. the last speaker of Bo, one of the 10 Great Andamanese languages.

Many languages are teetering on the brink of extinction, and when they die it is not just words that are lost but a major slice of culture and knowledge system. Linguists like Prof. Anvita Abbi are scrambling to document and archive the diversity of these fast vanishing languages.

“We, the government included, must work on a mission mode to save languages as we are losing time. There is a considerable dropout in village schools because the children do not understand the medium of instruction and this in turn makes them uncomfortable ,” says Prof. Abbi, who has spent a lifetime devoted to the study of languages. She retired from the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is now Director, Centre for Oral and Tribal Literature at the Sahitya Akademi. She was at the Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre in Kalady.

Winner of the Padmashri and the prestigious Kenneth L. Hale awards, Prof. Abbi has some interesting information on the languages in the country. Her research says that out of 454 languages listed by Ethnologue we have only 100 languages that are scripted. A large number of languages are neither recognised, nor written, or identified because schools do not teach them. “The hegemony of the State language is the death knell for many of the dialects. I have initiated a plan to create a House of Voices on small and tribal languages of India, primarily spoken languages. Today, there is no systematic way to listen to the oral traditions that have immense value and cultural history. Languages of the tribes and the marginalised minorities need to be scripted. This will assist the Saksharata Abhiyan, which otherwise will be incomplete,” adds Prof. Abbi, whose work in the Andamans first brought her into international limelight.

“It happened in 2000. I was a Visiting Scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany and was working on A Manual of Linguistic Field Work and Structures of Indian Languages . I made a proposal to the Institute for a project on the Andamanese languages. My first field trip there was sometime in 2001-02 along with two of my students. The book Endangered languages of the Andaman Islands and the CD-Rom was published in 2006 from Germany. This was the first comparative study of the three most endangered languages of the Andaman Islands- Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese. I proved that Great Andamanese is a different language group and that there are six and not five language families in India, the sixth being Great Andamanese.”

Almost a year later the geneticists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, established through mitochondrial DNA analysis that the early human who had migrated out of Africa and had reached Andamans Islands, some 70,000 years ago, comprised two distinct haplogroups, Great Andamanese being separate from Onge-Jarawa. It was also proved that the Great Andamanese was a very ancient tribe. This was, as Abbi says, a case where the linguists were a step ahead of the geneticists.

Prof. Abbi evolved a script based on Devanagari with modifications to suit the sounds of the language. This English-Great Andamanese-Hindi dictionary, the first of its kind, is a virtual treasure trove, which took her five years of painstaking work.

“There are more than 1,000 languages still to be scripted. We are at present, working on the Toda language as well as other minority languages of the Nilgiris. In the case of Todas, the State language Tamil does not seem to work as some vowels and consonants of Toda can not be represented in Tamil script. There are 157 languages in the country that are spoken by less than 10,000 speakers but are not reported by the Government. Jammu and Kashmir alone has 56 languages that are unrecognised and unscripted.”

The Andamans project came at the ‘fag end’ of Prof. Abbi’s career. Earlier, she published her seminal work, Reduplication in South Asian Languages: An Areal, Typological and Historical Study , which won her wide accolades.

“This research work, funded by the UGC, looks at nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verb structures of 51 languages. It investigates complete or total reduplication in some of the minor languages too such as Khasi, Khariya, Birjiya etc. as well as major languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Bengali and classical languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Avestan and Iranian. There is this unique feature in Indian languages where there is repeated use of verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives for intensification or attenuation or continuity. For instance, in Malayalam we have melle, melle , vari vari , karanju karanju . Modernisation is killing the pattern of reduplication in major languages in South Asia and this is evident in more developed languages. The written forms are either devoid of such constructions or have them marginally.”

Linguistics, at least when Prof. Abbi started off was in embryonic stage. She took it up as a subject of study and passion of life after she had gained admission for her post-graduation at the Delhi School of Economics.

“Linguistics was not my choice. I graduated in Economics and was planning to pursue it when my father felt that I study some sort of literature. As a sort of via-route the choice fell on Linguistics. After my MA, I chose Cornell University from where I completed my PhD in 1974 and began working on Indian languages. I always wanted to come back and work in my country and joined CSIR as Pool Officer and when the Centre for Linguistics and English (CLE) was created in JNU, I joined as one of the founder faculty.”

Linguistics, Prof. Abbi feels should be related to life.

“It is a life science that connects the macro and micro levels of life. It is a link from genetics to social structure. I’m sure if it is taught and presented in this way many young people will come to love it.”

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