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India speaks…780 ways

115 years after the Linguistic Survey of India,a Vadodara-based NGO has compiled a list of every single language spoken in the country,however few who speak it.

Written by Kumar Anand |
August 11, 2013 5:09:37 am

In 1898,an Irish linguist,George Abraham Grierson,took up the first-ever Linguistic Survey of India. Over three years,he would come up with a record of 179 languages and many more dialects spoken in pre-Independence India. In 2005-06,more than 100 years later,the Human Resources Development Ministry attempted a similar feat,setting up a ‘Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana’. The project was dropped due to technical reasons. In 2007,the government again proposed to conduct what it called the New Linguistic Survey of India. The project did not take off.

In 2009,the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre,a Vadodara-based NGO,took up the task. After what can easily be called the largest-ever survey of languages in the world,spread over four years,involving around 85 institutions,roping in as many linguists,sociologists,anthropologists and cultural activists,and tapping over 3,000 volunteers,the centre has compiled its findings. In the year 2013,shows the ‘People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI)’,there are 780 languages spoken across the length and breadth of the country. In contrast,the 2001 Census listed just 122 languages.

While the Census does not put on record languages spoken by less than 10,000 people,the Bhasha chronicles,or at least attempts to,every single language in India,however few the numbers who speak it. More than 400 of these languages are spoken by tribals and nomadic-denotified tribes. If Hindi is spoken by around 40 crore people,Majhi has just four practitioners,living in Sikkim’s Jorethang valley.

The result is a compilation in 68 volumes spread over 35,000 pages,to be dedicated to the nation on September 5,the birth anniversary of India’s first vice-president,Dr S Radhakrishnan,celebrated as Teachers’ Day.

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Around 96 per cent of these languages have never been mentioned,forget spoken,in India’s seat of democracy,the Parliament,says academic and activist Ganesh Devy,the man behind the project.

“We are not here to dig up any graveyard of languages but to celebrate and admire the finest of languages that India has. Languages are made and maintained by people through songs,stories,words,and we have tried to capture them,” he says.

Devy was chairman of the Committee on Non-Scheduled Languages formed by the HRD Ministry when it mooted the idea of the Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana. A professor of English literature at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda,Devy had earlier quit his job to launch the Bhasha Research Centre in the tribal village of Tejgadh in Vadodara district in 1996,with a focus on conserving and promoting non-scheduled languages and empowering tribal and nomadic communities.

In order to ensure easy and authentic access to languages spoken by disparate communities as part of their linguistic survey,the centre involved people of those particular communities or region. The volunteers were told not just to trace the language but to establish the time period of its evolution,how it had survived in culture,literature,songs,rituals,words of endearment,kinship etc,or in names for weekdays or colours and words in daily life.

“We call it the ‘people’s’ survey to differentiate it from a government survey,and also to indicate that people from various communities were involved,” says Devy. The project did not seek any government assistance in terms of funds and cost around Rs 1 crore.

While the actual survey took four years,it took over a decade to evolve the format,particularly as no other language survey of this scale had been done before in India,he says.

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Their surveyors visited communities,worked with them to understand their unique qualities,as well as scouted for volunteers from among them,through formal and informal meetings.

After this process of several years,a network of volunteers for every part of the country was created. The volunteers were then trained to formulate questionnaires of their own for people of their community. “A description of the self”,as a linguist put it.

Several meetings were conducted with representatives of different languages in 2010 and then again in 2012 to engage them. The January 2012 meeting in Vadodara saw participation from representatives of over 900 languages from different parts of the world. Overseas participants were involved so that linguists working on the project could understand their literature,culture,and various discourses surrounding their language. Interactions were held to help evolve a theoretical linguistic base for the survey.

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When they started the groundwork,the surveyors were in for surprises. Like the fact that tiny Arunachal Pradesh has the largest number of languages spoken in a state (90),while Goa has just three. A total of seven languages each are spoken in Punjab and Haryana,while more than 50 are spoken in Gujarat,Maharashtra and Assam each.

The survey would stumble on languages never before put on record. Gorpa,a language spoken in Dadra & Nagar Haveli,for example,represents the vibrant cultural life of a community of fishermen involved in agriculture in coastal areas.

“It was not easy to find the right person from the community who could talk about Gorpa as younger members mainly speak Gujarati and know little about their language. Older members of the community,who did not know Gujarati at all,told us a lot after we approached them,” says Kanti Mahale,one of the volunteers. Volunteers like him worked for over a month on each language.

Balaram Pandey,who worked on the anthology of languages in Sikkim,says at least three out of the 15 languages recorded in the state—Phujel,Majhi,and Thani—were never talked about as being spoken there. Very few who remain now know the language.

“Majhi,a language spoken by a handful of people,is surviving in its folk heritage. The younger generation now speaks Hindi,English and Nepali,” says Pandey. The language was traced using the ethnographic record of the state government. “We tried to find out the phonetic structure of a language that was never supposed to exist on record,” he says.

Dr Bibha Bharali,who teaches Assamese at the Department of Assamese,Gauhati University,compiled the volume for Assam,with about 75 people recording about 55 languages.

Hardly 300 persons in Kashmir speak Burushaski,a language carried to the region by migrants from the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan,bordering Afghanistan,says linguist Omkar Koul,the former director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages,Mysore,who worked on the volume for Jammu and Kashmir with the help of about 15 scholars.

“The community speaking Burushaski settled here some 125 years ago,but has preserved its language and culture,” Koul says.

Publisher Arun Jakhade,who compiled the Maharashtra volume of the survey with about 70 persons,says of the 60 languages placed on record from the state,several are on the verge of extinction. “Mehali is spoken by hardly 130 people in a region in Buldhana district,while Noling is limited to just one village. Several languages are getting marginalised as communities are losing cultural and social respect for their languages and are,in large numbers,embracing languages existing in the mainstream,” says Jakhade.

Dr Shekhar Pathak,an environmentalist and his wife,Dr Usha,compiled the Uttarakhand volume with the help of about 30 people.

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The survey also traces communities which have lost their language even though they continue to preserve their culture through dance and other folk traditions. Litterateur Kanaji Patel,who compiled the Gujarat part,gives the example of Siddi community,which migrated from Southeast Africa to settle in different parts of India,including the coastal regions in Gujarat and Maharashtra. “They have their dance,musical instruments intact,but have lost their language,” Patel says.

A nomadic community called the Naika,living in a forest area in tribal-dominated Lunawada taluka of Panchmahals district,is only precariously holding on to the remains of its language. “They have no thoughts about their language,” Patel says,before going on to add why that may be the case. “They have no forest,no land to till,no job either because they are counted as OBC and cannot compete with their peers.”

Based in the north,central and parts of south Gujarat,Naikas are not the only ones slowly losing their mother tongue though. Despite at least 53 languages spoken by as many communities in Gujarat,the over-dominance of Gujarati,like the over-dominance of other languages in the country,leaves little space for these to grow.

On the other end,says Patel,are the Kolis of Gujarat,living mainly in the coastal regions in Saurashtra and Kutch,who have preserved their vibrant language. “As many as 30,000 people from this nomadic group speak Koli in Gujarat,” he says.

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The surveyors were struck by examples of communities who refused to own up to their languages so as not to reveal their identity. Such communities belong mainly to denotified tribes who were once tagged criminals by the British and continue to be perceived so by the police and society at large. “They fear that their language will reveal their identity,which will give a chance to the police to go after them,” Patel says.

Against the onslaught of outside influences,their work couldn’t be more important or relevant,the linguists stay. With development,people tend to throw away their own language and embrace the language of the mainstream. Recognition of their intangible linguistic heritage,particularly if it is perceived to be marginalised,can help a community realise its own potential and assert its status,they say.

“People using these languages are overawed by the dominant language,” Patel says. “Empowering people is possible by giving them their language.”

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