310 INDIAN LANGUAGES ARE NEAR EXTINCTION
TNN | Jan 15, 2012, 06.52AM IST
More than 80 years after the first Linguistic Survey of India was conducted by British officer George Grierson, six volumes of the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) were released at the Bhasha Vasudha global languages conference in Vadodara on January 7. Ganesh Devy, who chaired PLSI, tells Robin David that about 20% of Indian languages are now missing
How many languages has India lost so far? Have we gained any in the last few years?
The 1961 Census had listed 1,652 'mother tongues'. The 1971 Census listed only 109 'mother tongues'. It is important to note that every mother tongue claimed by a person reporting it may not be what linguists consider a 'language'. In 1971, the linguistic data offered in the Census was distributed in two categories - the officially-listed languages of the eighth Schedule of the Constitution, and the other languages with a minimum of 10,000 speakers each. All other languages spoken by less than 10,000 speakers were lumped together in a single entry 'Others'. That practice continued in subsequent enumerations. Considering how complicated census operations are in countries with large migratory populations, and particularly how much the accuracy in census operations is dependent on literacy levels, it is not surprising that the data collected remains insufficiently definitive. What is surprising, however, is that as many as 310 languages, including all those 263 claimed by less than 5 speakers, and 47 claimed by less than a 1,000 speakers, are nearing extinction. These 310 'endangered' languages were included in the 1,652 mother tongues of 1961. Only ten of these appear to be around at present. In other words, a fifth part of India's linguistic heritage has reached the stage of extinction over the last half-century.
What is the rate at which we are losing languages?
There is no scientific measure to decide the rate of language loss. But in recent years, the 'language gap' between the older generation (60 to 80 years) and the younger generation (10 to 30 years) has increased as never before. Today's 20-year-olds can't string together a single sentence in the same language. They will mix Gujarati with English, Marathi with Hindi and so on. This is alarming.
What are the main findings of PLSI?
The PLSI is not fully complete. We have so far completed the work in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. However,the trend we have noticed in the states where the first LSI was carried out indicates that about 20% of the languages assumed to be around are missing. One aim of the PLSI is to examine the sociological composition of multilingual spaces. From that perspective, large cities in the country no longer match the character of the linguistic states. Thus Maharashtra is Marathi-speaking, but Bombay needs to be seen as a multi-lingual city, and therefore linguistically a 'national city' rather than a state capital.
Have the languages that we have lost totally disappeared or do traces remain?
Often, when gaining livelihood becomes impossible within a given language, large-scale 'language migrations' happen and whole communities take to speaking some other language. These communities carry traces from their earlier language to the new language zone. For instance, Indian migrants to English have brought to it 'ki' and 'hai na' (example: "I told her ki I am glad"; "This is not correct, hai na?"). Words from ancient times and languages that are no longer in use keep circulating in new languages.
Which state has the maximum languages?
The northern and the eastern states in India have generally greater language diversity. Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are perhaps the states that come at the tail end of the language diversity graph.
Can you briefly explain the methodology?
This is a survey of languages by persons belonging to the language community. We have used a 'minimum format' for the non-scheduled languages. It includes features like name, location and local history of the languages; some samples of songs and stories, kinship terms and nominal grammar. For the scheduled languages the entries are very elaborate - almost a book length for every language. The 12 volumes that are ready run into about 6,000 pages. The completed work in 42 volumes will have about 20,000 printed pages. The work is done with the help of a large team of nearly 1,800 persons and a large multi-disciplinary National Editorial Collective of scholars.
You have planned a global survey of languages too. How many countries will be covered?
All countries eventually, but to begin with Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, Congo and Australia -- the countries with the largest number of languages. Scholars, cultural activists and literary persons will be the collaborators. We have created an International Bhasha Presidium for this purpose. I will function as the international secretary general for this loose federation. We hope to give a snapshot of the languages that exist around the world.