The declining power of Babel

Nearly 300 languages have gone extinct in the country since the time of independence.

Close to 800 languages and dialects exist across India, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, an independent study conducted by Bhasha Research Centre, an NGO, under the leadership of Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer Dr. G.N. Devy. Reviewing the findings of the four-year survey that began in 2010, involving 3,000 scholars, researchers and historians, Dr. Devy suggests support for ‘linguistic cities’, just as for Smart Cities.

Bhasha’s language count includes all those in currency, irrespective of the number of users. What makes the PLSI findings unique is that Census of India surveys found close to 1,600 languages in use in 1961, 108 in 1971 and 122 in 2011. Those spoken by less than 10,000 people were excluded after 1961.

The UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation has been counting too, and found there are 197 endangered languages in India, with 42 classified as Critically Endangered. Included in the list is Nihali, traced to the pre-Aryan and pre-Munda period.

Conserving languages should be seen as an opportunity and not a burden, since languages represent cultural and economical capital, says Dr. Devy.

Nations that neglected indigenous languages suffered extinction of aboriginal culture, he points out. Languages are a collection of memories, helping to cultivate a science that would help future generations, the scholar says.

The government could develop institutions and programmes to help people learn languages and explore culture. “Schools and colleges can adapt their medium of instruction to the mother tongue of the student, and technology can bridge any gap. University grants and scholarships could create awareness and encourage people to explore languages, Mr. Devy said.

On Nihali, Professor Shailendra Mohan of Deccan College, Pune, who is documenting the language says, “It is considered a Language Isolate, with no relation with other languages.”

Spoken by some 2,500 villagers on the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border, the language is on the verge of extinction as speakers are migrating to find work, and merging with other communities.

Similarly, Professor Anvita Abbi, who has documented Great Andamanese, is now recording the oral tribal languages in Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. The number of speakers was reducing and intergenerational transfer was low. “We worked on Todi in Chhattisgarh, but it is difficult, and we don’t have the technology. The Education Ministry must take it up,” she adds.

Another linguist, Prof. K. Shrikumar of Lucknow University, is documenting the Jad language of Uttaranchal, with less than 2,000 speakers. He has been commissioned by the HRD Ministry’s Central Institute of Indian Languages. The government plans to develop a trilingual E-dictionary which will contain audio-visual elements as well as the grammar of the language.

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Printable version | Oct 11, 2021 11:10:42 AM |

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