A dictionary to save a language from extinction

September 28, 2023 03:33 pm | Updated September 29, 2023 02:34 am IST - Kolkata

Toto Shabda Sangraha will be released in Kolkata on October 7, 2023

Toto Shabda Sangraha will be released in Kolkata on October 7, 2023 | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A language spoken by barely 1,600 people living in parts of West Bengal bordering Bhutan is ​to get a dictionary, thanks to the efforts of a professor at the University of Calcutta.

Toto is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by the tribal Toto people and is written in the Bengali script. Even though prominent community member Dhaniram Toto developed a script as recently as in 2015, most people either write it in Bengali script or write in Bengali language. A book by the Padma Shri-decorated Mr. Toto, titled Dhanua Totor Kathamala, was written in Bengali.

The dictionary is a step in the direction of preserving the language, alive so far only orally, by putting its vocabulary in print. Here too, Toto words, to be translated into Bengali and English, will be composed in the Bengali script, considering that the Toto script is still in a nascent stage and members of the tribe are more familiar with the Bengali script.

“The book [dictionary] is historic, in the sense that the community does not have any collection of words or published primer. Mr. Toto’s book is in Bengali,” said Mrinmoy Pramanick, assistant professor of Comparative Indian language and Literature in the University of Calcutta and chairman of Calcutta Comparatists 1919, a trust he founded along with his students to save marginal languages from extinction.

Calcutta Comparatists 1919 was formed in September 2020 (suffixed with 1919 because that year Sir Asutosh Mukherjee introduced Indian vernacular language department in the university) and the trilingual dictionary, Toto Shabda Sangraha, will be released in Kolkata on October 7, at a function marking its founding.

“I found that every decade, India is losing languages and knowledge. I realised that I could use my position to organise collaborative workshops and translate literature of marginal languages to include them in university curriculum to make them survive and bring them under academic spotlight,” Mr. Pramanick said, explaining the setting up of Calcutta Comparatists 1919.

“Dhaniram Toto, who is like a cultural father of the Totos, got a Padma Shri in 2023, but Calcutta Comparatists 1919 honoured him in August 2022,” added Mr. Pramanick, who runs an MA course titled “Language Situation in India and Other Literature of West Bengal” teaching marginal languages such as Toto, Sadri, Limbu, Lepcha, Shabar, and others.

The dictionary was compiled by Bhakta Toto, a bank employee-cum-poet.

The dictionary was compiled by Bhakta Toto, a bank employee-cum-poet. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The dictionary has been compiled by Bhakta Toto, a bank employee-cum-poet, and published jointly by the trust and Bhasha Samsad, a publishing house run by Bitasta Ghoshal. Said Bhakta Toto’s daughter Sanchita: “This book will protect the language from vanishing. Even those studying in English and Bengali can stay in touch with Toto because of this compilation.”

The trust will soon publish Uttal Torsa, another Bengali novel written by Dhaniram Toto. “Also, in the beginning of 2024, I am planning to organise a collaborative Toto-Bengali-English translation workshop at the university. My job is to serve literature,” Mr. Pramanick said.

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