India becoming graveyard of languages: Ganesh Devy

Tribal activist and writer Ganesh Devy talks in an interview about the People’s Linguistic Survey of India
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First Published: Fri, Feb 22 2013. 11 16 PM IST
Devy says conducting the People’s Linguistic Survey of India was like going for rehabilitation work after an earthquake. It should have been done 50 years ago. Photo: Mint
Devy says conducting the People’s Linguistic Survey of India was like going for rehabilitation work after an earthquake. It should have been done 50 years ago. Photo: Mint
Updated: Fri, Feb 22 2013. 11 38 PM IST
Vadodara: The Bhasha Research and Publication Center headed by tribal activist and writer Ganesh Devy has completed a language survey that identifies 860 Indian languages, with Arunachal Pradesh having the maximum. Devy spoke in an interview about the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI). Edited excerpts:
How did you come to conduct this survey on your own without any government funding?
In the census report of 1961, a total of 1,652 mother tongues were mentioned. The 1971 census mentioned only 108 languages. This was because the government decided not to disclose languages that are spoken by less than 10,000 people. As per latest government figures, there are 22 scheduled languages and the remaining fall under the “all others” section or the non-scheduled languages.
At least 300 languages are no longer traceable since independence. Most languages that are not disclosed are on the state borders and are the voices of tribals and other poor people that usually get suppressed. In 2007, the Union HRD (human resource development) ministry formed a committee for non-scheduled languages and I was made its chairperson. The Planning Commission provided a grant of Rs.240 crore under Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana. This could not be implemented as the government authorities said that they did not have an official, authentic list of languages.
The Seventh Five-Year Plan (1985-90) had mooted a language survey, but it has covered only four states in the last 20 years. The Mysore-based Central Institute of Indian Languages proposed a survey in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2007–12)‎and asked the government to provide 2,000 linguists for 10 years.
The government approved this plan and also gave a budget of Rs.600 crore. Due to some internal issues, this project got dropped in 2010. This is when I decided to step in. Today, with help from 3,500 people, including 2,000 language experts and social historians, we have completed the survey in less than Rs.1 crore.
What are the key findings of the survey?
While PLSI would easily be the world’s largest language survey, let me tell you that I am not proud of doing it. It was like going for rehabilitation work after an earthquake. It should have been done 50 years ago.
The last time a linguistic survey of India was completed and published was in 1923, under Sir George Abraham Grierson, an Irish linguist.
We called a confluence of language experts in Vadodara in 2010 and called the place ‘ground zero’. This term (ground zero) was widely used by victims of the nuclear attacks in Japan in World War II. India, and the world, is becoming a graveyard of languages and we wanted to draw attention to that.
The findings of the survey will be published in 50 volumes in a year’s time. Arunachal (Pradesh) is the state with the highest number of languages—66. States such as Assam, Gujarat and Maharashtra have 50 languages or more.
A script does not make a language. It is a myth. English has no script of its own; it uses Roman. In fact, the moment a spoken language is put to script, it loses variety.
Of the total languages covered under the PLSI, 22 are scheduled languages, 480 are languages spoken by tribal and nomadic tribes, about 80 are coastal languages, and the remaining are languages spoken by other groups in India.
Hindi remains the most popular language. It is spoken by 40 crore people; five years ago it was spoken by 37 crore people and 50 years ago it was spoken by 14 crore people.
What is the format for identifying non-scheduled languages and why is it so important to conserve them?
A language gives a unique world view and no two languages have the same world view. By world view I mean how one looks at time, space and man’s relationship with oneself, society, nature and God.
On 26 January 2010, a lady who belonged to a community called Bo died in the Andaman Islands and she was the last speaker of her language that was also called Bo. It is said that she was talking to birds in her last days as no one else could understand her. Sadly, along with her, the continuous line of wisdom of 65,000 years was also gone.
The Sidi community, residing in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka and who are of African origin, have stopped speaking the Sidi language, a very old language. Sanskrit is also under threat.
The Himalayan languages have over 130 words for snow; the tribes in the Andamans have many words for waves. Say if the glaciers start melting or if there is a tsunami, knowing these languages could be very useful.
The PLSI offers a brief history of the language, songs, stories and folklore, names of colours, names of months, different shades of seasons, etc.
Although not an exhaustive survey of each and every language in existence in India, PLSI can be used for further study of the society.
Last year, the HRD minister had called on me to find out about the progress of our survey. We will submit to them a copy of the findings and they can use it as a reference for further studies or while framing language policies in future.
A language gains or loses prominence depending on the scope of livelihood.
The number of people with English as their mother language has gone up from 1.87 lakh in 1971 to at least 1 crore in 2011.
Similarly, Bhojpuri is also gaining popularity; it offers better livelihood options than Bagati or Bagheli.
We have to also revive communities that have become demoralized. I have worked in conserving the Bhili language in western India. Bhili, used by the tribals, is the mother tongue of 2.1 crore people today. In 2001, it was spoken by 87 lakh.
What is your role at Unesco and what is your view on the global scenario for languages?
I prepared the concept note for the (proposed) Unesco Institute in January 2011, including the institute design, space required, salaries and responsibilities of the staff and the faculty.
This will be a world-class institute on language diversity to be built at a total project cost of €30 million (around Rs.215 crore today). It will work on conserving languages. As many as 16 countries have come forward for hosting this institute. India did not show any interest and hence a great opportunity has been lost for us. A decision is still pending.
There are 6,000 languages in the world, of which less than 300 languages may survive by the end of this century with full functioning domains. This means these languages will be used in communication, law, market, music, etc.
Papua New Guinea has 1,100 languages, Indonesia has 700, while Cameroon has 300. Europe is a desert with 60-odd languages. Spain has five.
This means that the Indian way of anarchic, nature worship, etc. has some strength, which is why we have so many languages.
Computers and cyberspace pose a major challenge to human languages. Try to understand this. Human languages segregate time, something which is not in the case in the cyber world. The artificial intelligence of computers mixes the future and the past, and this is a big threat to natural languages.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 22 2013. 11 16 PM IST
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