A speaking tree — of languages

Ganesh N. Devy provides insights into different dialects, his linguistic survey and how his team wrote grammar for different visual-gestural communications

Updated - January 20, 2018 02:55 pm IST

Published - January 18, 2018 04:09 pm IST

02bg- Dr G.N. Devy, Chairperson, PLSI

02bg- Dr G.N. Devy, Chairperson, PLSI

Although Sahitya Akademi Awardee Dr. Ganesh N. Devy’s interest is language, he clarifies that he is not a linguist. “I am a literary critic and a cultural activist,” he says. Devy gave up his job as Professor of English and began working with tribals, and his friendship with Mahasweta Devi made him a committed crusader for tribal causes. Devy was in Chennai to deliver the G.S. Srinivasan Memorial Lecture at C.P.R. Foundation.

The culture, the rights of tribes and their languages have been major concerns for Devy, who founded the Adivasi Academy, in Tejgadh, and also the Bhasha centre. In 1996, he came up with a magazine for tribal languages called ‘Dhol.’ Tribals rallied round the magazine, although they could not read. A language not having its own script is no big deal, says Devy. English, after all, uses the Roman script, and Sanskrit has gone through several scripts. He points out that Malayalam, Kannada, etc., were used to write Sanskrit as Sanskrit.

Devy says Panini was the originator of the Indian tradition of linguistic survey. “Panini studied different languages and came up with a shared grammar for all of them. His work is a grammar of grammars.” Panini standardised different varieties of Sanskrit that were in vogue, and gave Sanskrit a theoretical construct. He adds that Matanga’s Brihaddesi was a survey of Indian languages in their musical aspect. In British times, there was Grierson’s Survey. In the 11th Five-Year Plan — 2007 to 2012 — the Government of India allocated funds for a new linguistic survey. But language often being a bone of contention, the Government was afraid that the survey might trigger linguistic dissensions in the country. So, it did not take off.

Devy then decided that a linguistic survey did not have to depend on government initiatives, but could be done by the people themselves. And thus was born the PLSI — People’s Linguistic Survey of India — the operative word being ‘people,’ because the entire effort was driven by the voluntary spirit of people. Three thousand people were involved, and they included labourers, shopkeepers, etc. A driver of a civil servant used to note down words and their meanings in his interactions with different people, just out of sheer interest. He and others like him were roped in. The survey began in 2010 and the first compilation with 450 languages was ready in about 20 months.

Tribal languages

In 2012, the Tata trust offered ₹80 lakhs for further work. Different volumes were compiled for scheduled and unscheduled languages. For the unscheduled languages, like tribal languages, details included history of the language, its grammar, a song or story popular in that society, proverbs, and words relating to nature. “Words relating to kinship are many in some tribal languages,” says Devy. The Gonds, for example, have seven words for different maternal aunts.

G.S. Srinivasan

There are volumes for different States too, which also have details about the scripts prevailing in the state. In West Bengal, there are 11 scripts in all, for languages like Nepali, Santali, Urdu, besides Bengali. Twenty national volumes have also been brought out. One of them is about the different sign languages used in different States. “We even wrote the grammar for these sign languages,” says Devy. One volume was about shared Indian languages. For instance, Karen, a language spoken in the Andamans, is also spoken in Myanmar.

Three national volumes are devoted to English, German, French, Portuguese, etc. Why did Dr. Devy have to cover foreign languages? “Because there are people in India whose mother tongues are foreign languages. In 1961, more than 100 foreign languages served as the mother tongue of Indians.”

One volume is for Sanskrit and Hindi; one is about language census and language policy, and there is also one on the future of Indian languages. “In all, we have 92 books, 50 volumes, roughly 35,000 printed pages. The raw manuscripts were placed at the spot where Gandhi was assassinated, symbolically presenting the work to the nation.”

Can Indian languages withstand the English onslaught? “My guess is that maybe a hundred years from now, English will have a place as a scheduled language, but Indian languages will have a way of negotiating with English at par. Indian languages are catching up in the cyberspace. Besides, no language can completely wipe out other languages. Every language, including English, has a carrying power, beyond which it will crack. There was a time when it seemed that Sanskrit would dominate the other Prakrits. But the other Prakrits survived and Sanskrit is not spoken.”

But Sanskrit survives in a different way. It may no longer be spoken, but it lives on in many Indian languages, I point out. “I agree. My great grandfather may be dead, but I carry his genes, and so does Sanskrit continue to live. Which is why I say that you should never try to learn Sanskrit. Just pick it up. If you know any Indian language, it’s easy to pick up Sanskrit. You just have to get the knack of splitting the Sanskrit words.”

Devy believes that Indians are essentially multi-lingual. “In Europe, people are self-conscious when they hear languages they can’t understand. But we don’t react that way.”

Devy says that his image of India is like artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh’s speaking tree. “In my tree, the minor tribal languages are the roots. They are not visible, but nourish the tree. The majestic branches are the scheduled languages. The sky is the English language, and the sky is not going to fall on the tree.”

Knew 14 languages

Dr. Devy delivered the G.S. Srinivasan memorial lecture at C.P.R. foundation. Dancer Padma Subrahmanyam said that civil servant G.S. Srinivasan was proficient in 14 languages, and books filled every inch of space in his house. Srinivasan, a self-effacing scholar, was working towards a Ph.D. in Sanskrit when he passed away.

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