[lg policy] India: fight to preserve dying languages
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Mon Sep 19 14:16:10 UTC 2011
India: fight to preserve dying languages
A new survey of India's hundreds of languages could have far-reaching
Jason Overdorf September 18, 2011 08:12
NEW DELHI, India — This fall, a plucky Indian professor of English
will fire the first shot in a battle to revolutionize how this large,
diverse country perceives itself. The key to his project: an army of
some 2,000 volunteer linguists, translators and typists. For the first
time since the British Raj, Ganesh Devy's People's Linguistic Survey
of India will catalog the nation's myriad tongues. The enormous
exercise will call into question colonial definitions of civilization
and ethnicity that have persisted through the 60-year history of
“This is one of our heritage treasures that we have not been overtly
aware of,” said Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at the School
of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
“It's very important to conduct these surveys and catalog [these
languages], because it will help us formulate the appropriate language
policy. We do not have an appropriate language policy [in India]
because we don't have an idea of the breadth and length of lingusitic
Reminiscent of Sir James Murray's Oxford English Dictionary project —
which drew on the knowledge of hundreds of volunteers, including a
prolific murderer, for information about the origins of English words
— the People's Linguistic Survey promises to be a remarkable resource
for academic researchers and a vital aid in the struggle to preserve
But the growing stack of tomes may have broader implications, too, for
India's education system, and even the political organization of its
28 states and seven union territories.
“This will provide good material for fresh thinking about cognitive
categories in every walk of life,” said Devy, who is a professor at
the the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication
Technology in Gujarat.
“If I may say so, in all modesty, perhaps this will come to be seen as
one of the more important linguistic projects during the last 100
years in India,” he said.It is indeed a huge endeavor.
The original British language survey took some 30 years to complete.
More recently, India's registrar general, which conducts the census,
has taken 15 years to survey just four states.
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But Devy's army of volunteers have already finished work in nine
states. Progress is underway in seven more. The first results are
slated, from Jharkhand, to be published in November — with Gujarat and
Maharashtra ready for the World Languages Meeting in Gujarat in
Devy expects the entire project — including a series of books in
English — to be finished by the end of 2014.“I have been working with
the languages of the tribal communities of India for the last 20
years, working with the tribal communities, so I have been able to set
up quite a large network of individuals interested in looking at
language identity, language loss, language empowerment, and issues
like that,” said Devy.
It was through that network that the professor recruited an army of
volunteers whose efforts have already put the government to
shame.“These volunteers include professional linguists, teachers,
cultural activists, farmers and villagers. It is a cross-section of
Indian society,” Devy said. “Of course, my list is deficient: I don't
have any criminals or black marketeers.”
To aid researchers, each language will be detailed with a 1,000-word
history, a brief glossary and some examples of poems and stories. And
based on preliminary findings, the official number of Indian languages
will likely rise from the Raj-era figure of 179 — of which a paltry 22
are officially recognized by the constitution — to nearly 900.
However, it's the main reason for the expected increase that makes the
When British linguist George Abraham Grierson conducted his Linguistic
Survey of India in 1894, he ignored the languages of many nomadic
tribes. He classified as dialects many other tongues that local people
used to define their ethnicities. And he neglected a large part of
South India because the Nizam of Hyderabad in what is today the state
of Andhra Pradesh refused to cooperate.
At least partly as a result, when first the British and then Indian
authorities divided the country into language-based states, many
sizable groups found themselves split by separate administrations and
robbed of political influence in keeping with their numbers. For
instance, planners deemed the Gond tribe insignificant because the
Gond language had no written literature or written script (until 1928)
— so the group was scattered across five different states.
“These states were formed irrespective of the number of speakers of
languages,” said Devy. “To give you an example, the Munda group, the
Santhal group, the Bhil group – they did not get their states.”
These linguistic boundaries have already proven controversial. Since
1960, when language-based agitations forced the Bombay State into
today's Gujarat and Maharashtra states, nearly a dozen new states have
been carved out on linguistic or ethnic grounds, and the troubles
Ethnic rebellions still simmer across the country, demanding separate
states, or even nationhood, for the speakers of Nepali, Bodo and other
languages that borders — and, too often, government budgets — have
At the same time, Grierson's language survey, and independent India's
subsequent propagation of its inherent prejudices, has had a
disastrous impact on India's many indigenous tribes.
“The marginalized people are speaking marginalized languages,” said
the University of London's Abbi.
In the most dramatic instances, languages — and sometimes the people
who speak them — have simply ceased to exist. Last year, for example,
when an 85-year-old Andaman islander named Boa Sr gasped her final
breath, the Bo tribe and the Bo language were irrevocably lost.
“With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a
unique part of human society is now just a memory,” Survival
International's Stephen Corry remarked at the time. “Boa’s loss is a
bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other
tribes of the Andaman Islands.”
But even where tribal communities remain robust in numbers, the low
status afforded to their languages has helped to keep them isolated
and excluded from India's snowballing economic development.
"Only around 15,000 people in India speak Sanskrit, while some 80
million speak various tribal languages in central India alone,” said
Shubhranshu Choudhary, founder of CG Net Swara, a mobile-phone based
news platform for Indian tribal peoples. “Yet All India Radio, the
only source of news for many rural Indians, broadcasts frequent
bulletins in Sanskrit and none in these tribal languages."
Though various studies have shown that children learn better when
taught basic concepts in their mother tongue before attempting to
master a second language, India prioritizes just 22 out of the 900-odd
languages that Devy seeks to catalog, and the state's promised free
and compulsory education is most often available in fewer still.
“In the Constitution of India, there is a special schedule of
languages, which alone receive official support,” said Devy. “When the
schedule was created after independence, it had 14 languages. Now it
has 22. All the funds for primary, secondary and higher education can
go only to these languages.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, tribal literacy rates lag behind those of
the general population, and only about one-fifth of the so-called
“Scheduled Tribes” noted by the Indian constitution as historically
underprivileged are attending school, according to the latest census.
“If we don't include these langauges in our education policy,
obviously we are discriminating against them,” said Abbi. “We have a
reservation policy [that mandates quotas in jobs and higher education]
for the [historically underprivileged] Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes. But the reservations are for the tribe, not the language. This
is the reason why tribals want to forget their languages.”
Meanwhile, the proportion of tribal peoples living below the poverty
line, at nearly 50 percent, is also “substantially higher than the
national average,” according to the National Commission for Scheduled
“My aim is not to find which is the language that is spoken by fewer
than 5 percent, and how will I revive that language,” said Devy, who
founded a university for tribal peoples known as the Adivasi Academy
“My aim is to see where a sizeable number of people exist, have a
speech tradition, a language of their own, but because of the denial
of the language in legitimate educational spaces this community is
suffering on the developmental scale.”Making sure the world knows that
these languages exist is the first step.
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