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Speaking of resilience

The question is not: how many languages has India lost? It is: why did so many Indian languages survive colonialism?

Written by G. N. Devy |
August 19, 2013 3:16:02 am

The question is not: how many languages has India lost? It is: why did so many Indian languages survive colonialism?

The world over,there is an anxiety about languages dying or,more accurately,language itself dying. There are several estimates for the number of dying languages,for no one really knows how many natural languages exist. In India,too,no one really knows how many languages we speak. Ditto with Papua New Guinea,Indonesia and Nigeria. It is claimed that these four countries hold nearly half of the world’s language stock.

If no precise numbers can be attributed to the living languages in these countries,how would we know the global figure? Against the assumed figure of 6,000 natural languages,it is estimated that two-thirds will vanish by the end of this century,and of the remaining 2,000 odd languages,a few hundred will function with all their domains intact. The spectre is terrifying for whoever speaks and is human. Our century will alas be remembered by the memory chip of the future as the aphasia century,during which natural languages were silenced.

In India,the language scenario is somewhat perplexing. While India tops the Unesco list of “languages in danger” with a good 197 languages having gone past the danger signal,there are about 850 living languages in sight. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India has identified and described 780. The PLSI admits that it may have overlooked about 80-100 languages still in existence. The survival rate of Indian languages is certainly much higher than for indigenous languages in other countries that have experienced colonial domination. On the other hand,the rate of decline of languages in the country over the last 50 years is alarming,for about a quarter of the language stock has been wiped out. If we do not appreciate the complexities involved,and do not go for well calibrated micro-planning for each of the remaining languages,the loss can easily be twice as bad in the coming half century.

While trying to understand the language situation in the country,four factors need to be taken into account specifically for India. The first is the fact that at the beginning of the second millennium,a large number of “new” languages started emerging in all parts of the country. Though the antecedents of many of these can be stretched further back,these include languages like Kashmiri,Punjabi,Bangla,Oriya,Marathi,Gujarati,Malayalam and Telugu. At the time of their origin,they had to face the cultural domination of Sanskrit or Tamil. Later,for several centuries,they had to deal with the more powerful Arabic and Persian. And over the last two centuries,they have had to deal with English. They have survived these three phases and today,despite the anxiety of semantic erosion,many appear to have numerically overtaken several international languages such as Japanese,Russian,Italian,German and even French. The innate strength of these languages needs to be understood more fully.

The second factor is the false segregation resulting from the exposure of only some languages to printing technology at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. When the colonial printing department at Fort William in Kolkata started printing books in Indian languages,the selection of languages was quite arbitrary. Subsequently,those bhashas that got printed started producing literature amenable for the print medium. The ones that did not get printed came to be unfairly branded as “oral languages”. The language “caste” resulting out of this historical accident continues to haunt the bhashas.

On the eve of Independence,the language question surfaced in Constituent Assembly debates. Language-related discussions took place in every session of the Constituent Assembly. Alas,these did not lead to a consensus. And,like several other unfinished discussions,the language debate assumed the form of a schedule. The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution,which initially had 14 languages and which now lists 22,has caused the emergence of a completely non-linguistic category described in official terms as “non-scheduled languages”.

The fourth and far more significant aspect of the language situation in India is the reorganisation of states in terms of language identity. Though the 28 states (soon to be 29) are not all purely linguistic,the majority of them are. Obviously,the language identities forming the basis for the states have been quite detrimental to the existence of the other languages,particularly the ones spoken by smaller numbers.

The PLSI was a huge exercise. My experience of conversing with such a large number of speech communities across all states has taught me humility. The awareness that smaller languages are close to extinction was writ large in every conversation,but there was no sense of panic such as one notices on the websites of language researchers. Rather,in their simple way,many communities tried to convince me of the importance of the perpetuation of their languages. They taught me respect for the living,rather than mourning for the dead.

I have often been asked the questions,“How many languages has India lost?” and “How many languages does India really have?” To me,they appear somewhat naïve. Far more meaningful would be the question: “While colonialism managed to wipe out most indigenous languages elsewhere,why is it that so many Indian languages survived?”

The importance of language diversity can more easily be understood in the area of ecological security,as every language contains within it ecological wisdom gathered over centuries. Despite the unfortunate historical factors that have stratified our languages,we need to view the diversity not as a liability,but as the very essence of India becoming a prosperous nation,a great and rare asset. Do we want to squander it?

Devy is a writer,cultural activist and chair,People’s Linguistic Survey of India

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