Linguist who led path-breaking survey of living languages in India explains importance of diversity
New Delhi: India is celebrated for its rich linguistic diversity, but has never had an exhaustive record of its languages—till now. The ambitious People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), a project that began in 2010 with the aim of documenting every living language in the country, has been completed. Led by Ganesh Devy, a 63-year-old linguist and 2011 Unesco Linguapax laureate, a team of over 3,000 volunteers comprising academics, farmers, authors, school teachers, linguists, nomads and activists, have mapped the linguistic contours of India. The count is a staggering 780 distinct languages. What makes PLSI unique is that it maps those languages that may have less than 10,000 speakers, and are thus not recognized by government census surveys. The 2001 Census lists 122 languages.
In an interview, Devy spoke about the results of his survey and why linguistic diversity can also be economic capital. Edited excerpts:
How many languages did you find that had never been documented before?
We were able to study 780 languages, but there are approximately 850 languages. What we have done is prepare a baseline—the first survey of living languages in modern, independent India. Of these 780, we have collected the grammars and dictionaries for around 400 languages. Let’s say a 100 more have been studied before sometime or the other. So around 300 of these languages have never been studied or documented by anyone outside the community that uses the language. But we did not find a language, it is not a discovery. Columbus might think he discovered America, but America was already there. It is a revelation for us, not a discovery.
PLSI found 90 languages in Arunachal Pradesh, almost double that of the next most diverse state, Assam, with 55. What are the reasons which lead to so many languages?
Languages are caused by five factors—work-practice, geographical relief, political forces and history, outside influence, and the social organization of communities. Suppose you have strong endogamy in a community, then that would be a big reason why its language will not spread.
Arunachal has had a long history of very unsteady political forces, and both geography and politics isolate and fracture the communities there. Their inner social organization does not allow sharing of languages either, which gives rise to many languages. It is similar in Nagaland, where communities are not willing to share their mother tongues, and so a language, Nagamese, has to be concocted for functional reasons. Nagamese is the pan-Nagaland language, but no one from Nagaland will say that it’s their mother tongue. Like English in India—because all Indians will not agree on sharing any one Indian language as the national language. The answer to the Arunachal question is the same as the answer to the question: “Why does India have so many languages?"
How many of these languages are under the threat of extinction?
In the long-term view, what is a threat? Having very few speakers is not necessarily a threat to a language. Sanskrit has very few speakers, but its perpetuation is not in doubt. Latin was a powerful state language, but it died. Why? Because of the vernaculars, or minority languages. In Latin, the word vernacular was derogatory. It came from the word “verna", which meant “slave". Yet, those languages overthrew the mighty state language. So in the long term, it is not unlikely that tribal languages will overtake Kannada or Hindi. Every mighty language was once spoken by a minuscule number of people.
India has the innate capacity for handling mega languages—it dealt with Sanskrit, it dealt with Persian, and it is dealing very well with English without losing its own diversity. We should celebrate the fact that so many languages are alive in this country. Our linguistic diversity can thrive, provided the government changes the policy of not declaring the languages spoken by less than 10,000 people. One achievement that this survey might have is that it may compel the government to disclose the languages it has been concealing since 1971.
Why does the census not acknowledge languages spoken by less than 10,000 people?
This was a decision taken in 1972, after the Bangladesh war took place over the language issue. The government then felt that India might fragment if it acknowledged too many languages. It was this that led me to languages in the first place. In the 1980s, I first noticed the discrepancy between the number of languages in the 1961 Census, which listed 1,652, and the 1971 Census, which has 182. By 1996, I was obsessed enough to resign my professorship at Baroda University and start the Bhasha Centre in a tribal village near Vadodara. For the next 13 years I worked on languages, and I developed a large network of friends and colleagues at the grass-roots level. In 2010, there was a linguistic conference that Bhasha arranged. It was attended by representatives of 320 languages, and all of us felt that we had it in us to do a linguistic survey.
Our survey was carried out by people from the state, from the communities. For them, the travel was through their own history. Bhils have contributed, Raltes and Tulus have contributed. And then we had an 80-member national editorial collective which compared, peer-reviewed, assessed and communicated with everyone working on the field to give it the academic grounding.
How did you distinguish between languages and dialects?
We set aside the widely held notion that a language without a script is a dialect. Most languages in the world don’t have their own scripts. There are about 6,000 languages in the world, but not more than 300 scripts. English does not have its own script, it uses the Roman script.
A distinct language must have a grammar of its own, the rules of its usage must be innate. Another criterion was that 70% of the wordstock of a language had to be unique. We made a detailed record of the vocabulary, and also collected songs and tales in the language.
Each language is a unique world view. It captures the imagination and the memory transactions of its speakers, and so you have over 130 words for snow in the Himalayan languages for example.
Apart from the cultural aspect, why is linguistic diversity desirable?
Language today has become an economic capital around the world. The future technology—computers, mobile tech—their basic material is language. Having many tongues will come to be seen, in a not so distant future, as great economic capital.
Computer language is based on the distinction between 0 and 1. Zero is absence, 1 is presence. This understanding is derived from the Greek system. In Sanskrit we have a word, Kha, which means space, or a zero that includes everything, a place where things take birth and perish. There is another word for zero, shunya, which means empty. There’s a third word, purna, which is a zero which has things in it, but they are neither born nor do they die. Corresponding to these three, there are three ideas of the unit, of 1. Supposing we bring these into computer technology?
Research has shown a strong correlation between improved cognitive abilities in children when they are taught in their mother tongue in primary school...
If you don’t teach a child in the language that he or she uses at home, then what you impose on the child is called “aphasia"—the cutting of the child’s tongue. How do we teach young children in their own language? I don’t know that. But we haven’t even figured out what kind of institution, what kind of system we need to impart primary education. If we have foodgrains, but not enough godowns, are we going to throw them in the ocean? Or should we look for innovative ways and systems to save them and use them? We should not be looking at language as a developmental liability, but as an economic asset.