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Mind Your Languages

Dwindling populations, social pulls sound the death knell of India's rare tongues

Mind Your Languages
Mind Your Languages
It sounds incredible. But according to linguistic experts, one language dies somewhere in the world every 14 days. That's a higher rate of extinction than of plants, birds, fish and mammals. India, which has hundreds of languages, has several dozen endangered ones too. As rare speech forms face the risk of sliding into oblivion, the situation calls for an urgent, and well-informed, intervention—in policy and practice. Luckily, the Mysore-based Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) has now drafted the Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana (BBVY) with precisely that objective.

"Several Indian languages are on the verge of extinction," says R. Elangaiyan, head of CIIL's Centre for Endangered Languages, explaining the rationale behind the project. "We will first look at surveying and identifying the endangered languages. Then we will go on to document and study them for their structure, and prepare dictionaries, digital recordings and books for schools as well as for adults." The BBVY will be launched soon and hopes to revitalise these languages. Training of personnel in linguistics for BBVY has already begun at the centre.

Being a thorny issue, there is no official list of endangered Indian languages. But Elangaiyan says there are "more than 100 communities which use speech forms endangered in varying degrees". These are spread across the country and include Raji and Bangani in Uttarakhand, Ahom in Assam, Kurux across the Chhotanagpur Plateau (Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh), Nihali in Maharashtra, Toda in the Nilgiris and Great Andamanese in the Andamans.

So, how does a language become extinct? Besides the obvious reason of a depleting population of speakers, small languages face a subtler but more pervasive threat when its speakers are exposed to a more dominant speech form—they often find their mother tongue socially inferior and economically unrewarding. This leaves them with no choice but to switch to the majority language for better integration and economic opportunity.

Great Andamanese is one of the most acutely threatened languages in the country, with only seven living speakers of this language of the Andaman Islands. Anvita Abbi, a linguistics professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), is one of those working on it, hoping to document it before it's lost beyond retrieval. Says she: "Every language is a storehouse of indigenous culture and knowledge. It reflects a peoples' worldview. English and Hindi have words for someone who loses their spouse or their parents but they do not have a word for a person who loses a sibling. Great Andamanese does—raupuch. This tell us a lot about this society and the emphasis it places on family kinship."

Great Andamanese finds itself threatened mainly because of a dwindling population but also because the 53 surviving members of the Great Andamanese tribe have adopted a local variant of Hindi to survive in the mainstream. Other endangered languages of the Andamans include Jarawa and Onge, with about 250 and 100 speakers respectively.

When a language dies, it's not just a loss of words and grammar. It takes along with it a vast repository of knowledge, oral literature and the history of a people. Many of these threatened languages also offer formal linguistic rarities. "Raji, spoken in Uttaranchal, for instance, has the past tense assimilated into its present tense. They talk of the past as the present," says Kavita Rastogi, a linguistics reader at Lucknow University.

There are no definite criteria to label a language endangered. Many would base that purely on the number of speakers, but others, like Elangaiyan, believe even languages like Kurux with lakhs of speakers in the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh region is also endangered. "The Oraons who speak Kurux are a very mobile people and they have travelled far in search of better economic opportunities. What threatens this language is the rate at which the Oraons have given up Kurux to speak other languages. Nearly 50 per cent of the Oraon do not speak their original mother tongue any more," he says.

Often linguistic complexities too speed up the process of endangerment, as in the case of Ahom that counts less than 20 fluent speakers. "It is a complex tonal language where a word if pronounced in different tones can take on different meanings. So people have switched to Assamese, a simpler non-tonal language," says Dipima Boragohain, working on a doctoral thesis on Ahom at JNU.

The Indian census does not recognise speech forms spoken by less than 10,000 persons as languages. The 1991 census records only 114 languages whereas the 1961 census registered as many as 1,652 languages. A finely detailed language atlas would probably take that as half the truth, though some experts like to peg it around 400. Many even blame India's 8th Schedule, which recognises only 22 languages, as one of the main reasons for the dwindling linguistic variety. "It empowers certain languages at the cost of others," says Abbi. "I've seen Oraon mothers beat their children if they speak Kurux, not Hindi."

The 8th Schedule is also the main culprit for the divide between "major" and "minor" languages. Or between dialects and languages. Notes Abbi: "Look at Braj Bhasha. Once a language, it has now been made a dialect. On the other hand, Hindi, which is basically Khari Boli, has been developed into a language from being a dialect. The tables have been completely turned."

Gregory Anderson, director of the US-based Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages (LTIEL) which seeks to promote global linguistic diversity, says materials must be developed to teach threatened languages in Indian schools. "If the state supports this process and also the development of multimedia educational materials, the status of the languages will be significantly better and with that the likelihood that they will survive," feels Anderson, who has studied the Munda language family in eastern India extensively.

In September, the LTIEL placed India at a "low" level of risk on a list of global linguistic hotspots. "Many of the threatened languages are not past the point of no return. If sufficient funding is made available to support them, India would definitely have among the best chances in the world of maintaining its magnificent linguistic diversity and heritage," says Anderson. In any case, insists Abbi, funding should not be a constraint when it comes to preserving languages. "No cost is high to teach a child his or her mother tongue," she says.
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