Gain in translation

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Among the things that make humans a distinct species, the ability to use language made of verbal icons ranks very high. The ability to speak is not nature’s gift. Human communities had to spend several millennia to acquire it through an enormous amount of experimentation and an unparalleled amount of mental work. It would be entirely appropriate to view language as a cultural production and not god-given. A given language, therefore, needs to be seen as cultural heritage, an intangible possession.

A cultural possession

From this perspective, the community’s right to its language becomes a non-negotiable right to cultural possession. Similarly, the state’s obligation to secure and protect this right too becomes a non-negotiable duty. UNESCO has been promoting the idea of language as an inalienable cultural right. It has already built it into the charter of sustainable development goals. India is a formal signatory to the charter.

Against this background, it appears not just strange but even shocking that the information related to language data continues to be kept away from the public gaze. The language data of the 2011 have still not been made available to the citizens who use those languages. During the colonial times, language was treated as a ‘sensitive’ subject and was seen as a cause for breakdown of law and order. In our time, the subject continues to be handled by the Home Ministry. And it does not view sharing information with citizens as any important priority.


The concealment of language data by the Census office is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to the seventies. The last time a complete list of languages claimed during the Census as ‘mother tongues’ was disclosed was in 1961. The list had 1,652 names. One must remember here that every ‘label’ that turns up as ‘mother tongue’ may not actually be a ‘language’. Duplications with slight variations occur, and often spurious names crop up. Probably, about 1,100 of those labels were language names.

From 1971 onwards, the Census decided, for reasons never placed in the public domain and without any informed debate about the decision, to disclose names only of those languages which had more than 10,000 speakers. The result was that the list of 1971 had only 108 language names, as against the 1,652 a decade ago.

No one at all has ever said if we owe an explanation about the erased 1,544 languages. There are believed to be around 6,000 living languages in the world. This estimate is made by various international agencies and research bodies by counting 500 languages to India’s credit. A simple calculation will show that the Census decision of 1971 affected the fate of nearly one-fifth of the world’s languages.

The 2001 language data have a mixed list of 22 scheduled languages and a hundred other languages. The list is mixed as several languages are lumped together to produce it. For instance, a good dozen distinct languages are lumped together under the caption ‘Bhili’. In 1991 and 2001, at least the data were disclosed. The 2011 data are not known even when we are now getting close to the next Census, of 2021.

Does knowing or not knowing language data have any implication for the life of the ordinary citizen? It obviously does not if the speaker belongs to a linguistic majority. But if one belongs to the communities that are linguistically minority communities, the implications are far too serious to be ignored. When a community knows that its language has no future, it starts neglecting its language and prepares for a language migration, accelerating the demise of that language. The findings of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India indicate that between 1961 and 2011, nearly 250 Indian languages disappeared altogether. If the neglect of our smaller languages continues, it is likely that within the next two to three decades another 300 languages will disappear.


Does it really matter, one would say, if out of the existing 800-odd languages, 600 or 700 disappear? What use are they, and are they not a burden to the nation? These questions are easy to utter, but they are, it is necessary to point out, thoughtless questions. Have we not learnt anything at all from the depletion of our biodiversity and biosphere? Besides, the neglect of a community’s language and its language loss are among the most important reasons for induced migration. Out cities are already groaning under the burden of excess population and lack of a proportionate infrastructure. Linking livelihood opportunity with the language of the region should have long back been accepted by us as an element in planning our development.

The number of countries in the world where a substantive part of knowledge transaction and educational processes are carried out in a language that is not one’s own is relatively small. India finds itself in that class for a variety of historical reasons. History cannot be wished away; but its rather convenient use for causing a ‘phonocide’ can certainly be. Imparting education to children through the language used in their homes or in their community is scientifically considered to aid full development of their cognitive and emotive faculties. And indeed, providing access to learning one’s mother tongue, should the parents or the child wish to do so, does not require huge funding investment.

Our population stands today at 1.3 billion, with close to 15 crore children who deserve to be in school. It would be useful to know if the ones who will not be able to go to school at all, or will lag behind and drop out, are children whose mother tongues lie hidden in the concealed language data.

Since we have accepted the principle of voluntary disclosure of income as the duty of citizens, can we not press for a willing disclosure of data related to this other important currency — the languages in circulation — as a primary obligation of the state? By 2050, no trace of these may be left. Such rapid and severe shrinking of diversity shall certainly amount to an increased cultural pauperisation of India.

Compromising democracy

By trashing the languages of the coastal communities, the nomadic communities, the hill communities, the Adivasis and the minorities in every State, we are at once violating the UNESCO charter, vandalising the future of the post-2010 generation, denying citizens their linguistic citizenship and pauperising India culturally. If we had to use a single word for this condition, it would be ‘aphasia’. A country that watches silently and unmoved the spreading aphasia invariably invites upon itself a compromised democracy.

Muhammad Iqbal described India as a “gulistan (sacred garden)” and Indians as the chirping birds in it, “hum bulbulay hain is ki (we are its nightingales)”. Imagine if half the birds suddenly fall silent and sing no more, what kind of garden will it be? History shows that cultural elements that a state tries to suppress as inconvenient do return in some unexpected forms that upset the momentary equilibrium. Agitations such as the current one for Gorkhaland in West Bengal can visit other States as well.

G.N. Devy is chairman of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 9:35:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/gain-in-translation/article19319193.ece

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