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India speaks 780 languages, 220 lost in last 50 years – survey
September 7, 2013, 10:24 pm


No one has ever doubted that India is home to a huge variety of languages. A new study, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, says that the official number, 122, is far lower than the 780 that it counted and another 100 that its authors suspect exist.
The survey, which was conducted over the past four years by 3,000 volunteers and staff of the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre (“Bhasha” means “language” in Hindi), also concludes that 220 Indian languages have disappeared in the last 50 years, and that another 150 could vanish in the next half century as speakers die and their children fail to learn their ancestral tongues.
The 35,000-page survey is being released in 50 volumes, the first of which appeared on Sept. 5 to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Indian philosopher Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who was also the country’s second president. The last one is scheduled to come out in December 2014.
Ganesh Devy, who supervised the project, said this is the first comprehensive survey of Indian languages that anyone has conducted since Irish linguistic scholar George Grierson noted the existence of 364 languages between 1894 and 1928.
There is a major reason for the disparity in the government’s number of languages versus what the survey found: the government does not count languages that fewer than 10,000 people speak. Devy and his volunteers on the other hand combed the country to find languages such as Chaimal in Tripura, which is today spoken by just four or five people.
One of the most interesting aspects of the project is Devy’s view of language as a marker of the well being of a community. Languages are being born and dying as they evolve – note how Old English is unintelligible today, and how different is Chaucer’s Middle English from ours – and that is a natural process. But bringing attention to Indian languages with small numbers of speakers, Devy said, is a way of bringing attention to the societies that speak them, along with the well being of their people.
Here are edited excerpts from our interview with Devy:
Q: What is the need for such a project?
There has not been a survey of languages in the country for the last 80 years. We do not know how many languages there really are. There is no official statistics disclosed to the people since 1961.
Then there are all over the world serious alarms about disappearance of languages and culture. Considering all these, we thought it will be good to have a survey as a beginning of a much larger project. So now we have now completed the language survey of India. We will soon begin an ethnographic survey.
Q: What is the main finding?
That India has a fascinating diversity of languages unlike anywhere else in the world, with 780 languages reported in our volumes and maybe another 100 or so which we were not able to report. So it is like having about 900 living languages in a country, which is very exciting news.
Q: Who did the work?
They are linguists. Also our people are people who are linked with the language.
Q: In which areas of the country are language clusters mainly found?
In all the states and union territories, invariably, there are at least 10 languages or more, but in urban spaces, like Delhi or Bombay, or Hyderabad or Bangalore, nearly 300 language communities inhabit that space in a very substantial number for each community. In the northeast, there are more than 250 languages.
Q: On the other hand, language decline is more visible along the coast of India.
Because of change in the sea farming technology, local people have lost their livelihood. They are no longer into fishing, making of nets, ship breaking. They have migrated inward. So they have migrated out of their language zones… Wherever people move from one livelihood to another livelihood, they carry their language for a while. But in the second generation, or the third generation, a shift takes place. The third generation no longer feels related to the earlier language the same way.
Q: Where else do you find major decline?
Nomadic communities. We had a very terrible law brought in by the British called the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 (Rescinded in 1952). Under that act, many communities were described as criminal by birth, not criminal by act. So those communities got stigmatised. … They are mostly nomadic in habit, and today in India those people are trying to move away from their cultural identity. They are trying to conceal their cultural identity. Therefore they are giving up their language.
Q: Which other countries have rich language diversity?
Papua New Guinea. There is a claim that there can be perhaps 1,100 languages in that country.  But the demographic statistics do not bear out that claim.
The next is Indonesia, which had, at least 40 years back, 800 languages.
Then comes Nigeria, which has about 350 languages.
Q: How do you preserve a language?
Languages cannot be preserved by making dictionaries or grammars. Languages live if people who speak the languages continue to live. So we need to look after the well being of the people who use those languages, which means we need a micro-level planning of development where language is taken as one factor.
Q: Are you working with the government on ways to preserve languages on the brink of extinction?
There is a desire from the part of the government to understand what we are doing. There is a willingness on our part to be of help to the government if the government asks for help.
Q: Extinct languages: are they mainly from small communities?
In history, very large languages also go down sometimes. Latin is one example. The (ancient) Greek language is another, Sanskrit is the third one. A language does not have to be small in order to face extinction. That is the nature of language … In India linguistic states are created. If there is a very large language for which there is no state, then slowly that language will stop growing. This has happened.
For example, Bhojpuri is a very, very robustly growing language, but there is no state for Bhojpuri. So after some time the robustness will be lost … So small is not the condition for the death of a language. Several external elements play a role. Often smaller languages move to the centre … slowly grow and occupy centre stage …
So this equation that the government will come, will do something, then language will survive, that has to be taken out of all thinking. It is a cultural phenomenon.
Q: There is a volume on sign language. Can you elaborate?
Because deaf people speak … initially in a non-verbal symbolic system. And so if that symbolic system exists and is in practice, it was necessary for us to take note of it. It is very much a language… Similarly, transgender people have their language, thieves have their languages. We have documented the language of thieves, we are trying to document the language of transgender community.
Q: Can you explain?
The semantic rules work differently (for them). With transgenders, the interpretative ability of the brain is handled differently. They may use the same words as you and I use, but the meaning drawn out of those words by transgenders is different.
Q: What surprised you about your findings?
That India has so many languages came as a surprise for me … When I began in 2010, I had assembled speakers of 320 languages, and I thought maybe one could go up to 500 because (George) Grierson’s estimate was around that. But when I found more and more, it was a stunning discovery.
Q: What’s the outlook for languages?
All over the world there is a concern about the disappearance of languages. Languages are dying in a very big way everywhere in the world. Secondly, wherever the English language has gone in the last 200 years, it has managed to wipe out the local languages… But in India, English did not manage to do that because Indian languages have a historical experience of having to deal with two mega languages in the past – one was Sanskrit, and after that, Persian… So Indians knew how to cope with English. And that is why even today, though so many of us use English as if it is our first language, we still do not pray in English, and we do not sing our songs in English.
Q: Can you name a few rising/thriving languages?
Byari in Karnataka, Bhojpuri in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Khasi in Meghalaya, Mizo in Mizoram, Kumouni in Uttarakhand, Kutchhi in Gujarat, Mewati in Rajasthan.
Q: What about falling/declining languages?
Every state has about four or five languages that are critically close to extinction: Mehali in Maharashtra, Sidi in Gujarat, Majhi in Sikkim (four people in one valley), Dimasa in Assam.
Q: Do you see English as a threat to other Indian languages?
A: I don’t. When a language imbibes words from outside, it grows. Languages grow by taking words from other languages. Every language is from beginning to the end, a polluted language. The threat will come. Hindi has its roots – there are 126 languages surrounding the Hindi belt… Because they are feeder languages, they feed into Hindi, they are the roots for Hindi.
English is the sky. The sky will not harm the tree, but if you chop the roots, a mighty tree can fall. This happened with Latin, and should not happen with Hindi. Out attitude of neglect towards smaller languages is a threat to larger languages.
Q: How do you revive small/declining languages?
Revival is possible only if the livelihood of those people is protected. I’m emphasizing that the language disappears when the livelihood options of the speech community disappears.
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