International Mother Language Day | Here’s how Karnataka’s Soliga community is protecting its language from erasure

Karnataka’s Soligas make a chart to save their mother tongue

Soliga youth have devised a chart with pictures representing the sounds of their language

February 21, 2024 05:39 pm | Updated February 23, 2024 12:08 pm IST

A language getting lost is an entire culture getting lost,” says Jadeswamy, a senior member of Karnataka’s Soliga community that lives in BR Hills in the southern part of the State. It is something Jadeswamy sees happening around him all the time. “The forest is endangered, animals are affected, the climate is changing, and our language is going away,” says the long-time employee of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment’s field station here.

In India, one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, around 197 languages are now endangered while over 200 languages have gone extinct in the last 50 years. If not actively preserved, the Soliga language could be in danger of extinction too, believe the community’s elders.

It is why Jadeswamy thoroughly approves of ‘Soliga Sounds’, a chart developed by the youth of his community. It shows the sounds of the Soliga language, written in the Kannada script (since the Soliga do not have one). “If we want to keep our culture, we need to make an effort,” says Jadeswamy, who actively contributed to the chart.

Released last year, the pictorial is part of Aadhia programme facilitated by the Punarchith Collective and supported by the Rainmatter Foundation that seeks to revive intergenerational sharing of knowledge and culture.

Punarchith’s Samira Agnihotri, who has been working on this initiative along with Lakshmi M. from the Soliga community, hopes that the chart will help people realise that the Soliga language is a distinct one. “Indigenous languages are often oral with no script. Perhaps that is why it is so easy to dismiss or ignore them,” she says. “It is not just about archiving it, like a photo album that you look at once in a while,” says Agnihotri, also one of the founding and administrative members of the Coexistence Consortium. “It will only sustain if used continuously. It is not documentation to archive. It is documentation to revive.”

Changing lifestyles

The Soliga, also spelt Solega, are a group of indigenous, forest-dwelling people found mostly in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Around 40,000-odd Soligas live in Karnataka, mostly in the Chamarajanagar district, with many families coalescing in small settlements in and around BR Hills. In 2011, they became the first tribal community living inside a tiger reserve to get legal rights to the forest. The Soliga language is a Dravidian one, closely related to Kannada, and often referred to by the community as ‘namma Kannada’ (our Kannada), ‘namma baase’ (our language), or ‘Soliga baase’, says Aung Si, a linguist who has been working with the community since 2008, even developing a dictionary in the Soliga language.

Like many indigenous people around the world, the Soligas’ unique traditions and culture, including language, are fast-eroding, catalysed by several factors, including changing lifestyles, exposure to the outside world, limited access to forests and their products, social hegemonies, ecosystem degradation and cultural alienation among the youth. “I think the main cause of language attrition is lifestyle change and increased contact with the outside world,” says Aung, also one of the Aadhi programme’s key advisors. While development is not bad in itself, perhaps even inevitable, “in small, marginalised communities that struggle with poverty and have no resources to document or preserve their culture, it can easily lead to a loss of language and traditional knowledge,” he says.

The Soligas’ lives are closely linked to the forest where they live.

The Soligas’ lives are closely linked to the forest where they live. | Photo Credit: Ravichandran N.

The incursion of the outside world, whether through young people leaving the forests and moving to cities for higher education and jobs or the insidious advent of mass media, has affected the language considerably, says C. Madegowda, secretary of the Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivruddhi Sangha, a community welfare organisation. “We began speaking other languages and gradually lost fluency in our own,” he says.

Lakshmi, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management, discusses her own encounter with language erasure. “I almost forgot my language when I moved to Mysuru for work,” she says, adding she was expected to learn and speak Kannada a certain way. “We are discriminated against if we don’t. People laugh and look down upon us when we speak in our dialect or language because it is an Adivasi one,” she says.

Lessons from the forest

At first glance, the Soliga chart looks like an ordinary alphabet chart, consisting of row after row of pictures, each representing the various sounds of the language. Look carefully, and you will realise how closely attuned the images on the chart are to the lives the community leads in the forest — there are photographs of a Malabar giant squirrel, a bee hive, a cockroach, ragi, and even a tiger.

(L to R) Soliga community members C. Madegowda and Lakshmi M. with Samira Agnihotri of Punarchith Collective.

(L to R) Soliga community members C. Madegowda and Lakshmi M. with Samira Agnihotri of Punarchith Collective. | Photo Credit: Ravichandran N.

“We chose objects that we could easily photograph... those that have a strong link to our culture and stories,” says Lakshmi, who, along with several other community youngsters, took these pictures on mobile phones. They are now using this chart to introduce the younger children to their language and all the knowledge it holds by conducting classes every Sunday. “It isn’t just a chart, but a tool to take people through other domains of our culture and tradition,” she says.

Siddaraju, one of the latest entrants to the Aadhi programme, believes that the chart is an excellent way to deepen the next generation’s understanding of their own culture. “We can teach children the names of our trees, and the hills and lakes around us, how to harvest honey and forest tubers, and so on,” he says.

As Siddaraju implies, the community’s language, knowledge systems and the forests they belong to are inextricably entwined. “Our people have been living here for centuries,” says Madegowda, recalling a time when learning happened through songs and stories, all set in the forest.“We sing about birds, butterflies, elephants, tigers, leopards, rain, and agriculture... through these songs, we transfer knowledge from one generation to another,” adds the social scientist and tribal rights activist, breaking into a song traditionally sung during honey cultivation. “Our language is linked to us being in the forest area,” he smiles.

(With inputs from Nalme Nachiyar)

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