Towards the end of her life, Boa Sr spoke to the sparrows gathered around her hut in the Andaman Islands. For the last of the speakers of Bo, a Greater Andamanese language believed to be 65,000 years old, it was a way to keep in touch with a tongue no one understood any more. When Boa Sr died on 26 January last year, her language, with its unbroken history dating back to one of the oldest human cultures on the planet, came to an abrupt end. If it wasn’t for London-based Anvita Abbi, a linguist from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who spent almost five years with Boa Sr, the Bo language would have died unnoticed and unrecorded.

The Unesco-endangered languages list says 198 languages in India are threatened with extinction, more than anywhere else in the world. But just how many languages are spoken in India, and which are they? Despite being one of the richest multilingual countries in the world, India has no accurate record of the diversity of its living languages. An ambitious new project, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), is set to answer this fundamental question that defines ethnic and cultural identity. Led by Ganesh Devy, a 61-year-old linguist and the 2011 Unesco Linguapax laureate, an army of over 2,000 volunteers comprising academics, farmers, authors, schoolteachers, linguists, publishers, polyglots, nomads, translators and activists, is mapping the linguistic contours of India.

“We are aiming at a clear snapshot of languages in contemporary India," Devy says.

Speak out: (top) Ganesh Devy, the founder of the Bhasha Trust; and tribal children in Tejgadh, Gujarat, study their language. Photographs by Vijay Soneji/Mint

The last time a linguistic survey of India was completed and published was in 1923, under Sir George Abraham Grierson, an Irish linguist who was also the Opium Agent of Bihar, entrusted with the purchase of poppy for the East India Company. Grierson’s survey identified 179 languages, but this number suffers from a few glaring flaws, not the least of which is the use of untrained field workers. Grierson neglected a large part of southern India after the nizam of Hyderabad refused his team entry into the province. He also kept nomadic tribes outside the purview of his survey.

The PLSI’s projections of India’s linguistic diversity are not just light years away from Grierson’s results, they are also radical. It expects to find close to 900 distinct languages in the country. Compare that with the 2001 census, which lists 122 languages, of which 22 are part of the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, ensuring that these get government funding, and fall within the educational ambit.

“We don’t have proper language policies in India because we don’t really know or understand our linguistic diversity," says Pramod Pandey, a professor at the Centre for Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and an author. “When the language of a community is recognized, the chances are high that it will lead to both cultural and social progress, because the two go hand-in-hand."

The PLSI, which is currently in action in 15 states, promises to have deep ramifications. Not only will it be an invaluable tool for academics and a powerful weapon for social and cultural progress for neglected communities, it will also nip at the colonial definitions of ethnicity that still exist in India. Linguists and policymakers around the world recognize the need to impart primary education in a child’s mother tongue, after years of research established a strong correlation between improved cognitive abilities in children when the medium of instruction in primary school and the language spoken at home were the same. The Indian Constitution recognizes the right to primary education in the mother tongue, though it has never been implemented.

“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," says Devy.

Debi Prasanna Pattanayak, former director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) in Mysore, who is also working on the PLSI, says basic education in the mother tongue builds bridges between the official state languages and native languages, which in turn reduces gaps in governance, education, and communication, and ensures that a language and its culture do not die out. According to K.K. Chakravarty, chancellor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration, Delhi, introducing primary education in the mother tongue and generating education kits in these languages will not be a difficult endeavour, and will not need massive funding. “But for any of these things to happen, you need to know what languages are spoken in the country, and that’s where the PLSI comes in," says Chakravarty.

The silent voices

For the last nine months, 49-year-old Damodar Jain, a lecturer at the National Institute of Technical Teachers’ Training and Research in Bhopal, has been travelling the length and breadth of Madhya Pradesh, contacting teachers, authors, tribal welfare workers and traditional storytellers, dispensing survey material for the PLSI and collecting data on languages spoken in the state.

“When we started work, we knew about five major languages in the state, like Malwi, Bagheli and Bundelkhandi," Jain says, “but as we went deeper and deeper in our survey, we were amazed at the number of languages we found. It was an incredible thrill, the kind I would imagine explorers used to feel when they discovered new lands, and all this in our own backyard!" Jain claims they have gathered enough material to prove the existence of 21 separate languages in the state, and are trying to establish the status of four-five more tongues.

“There is little or no documentation, and certainly no primers on the multiple tribal languages in the state," he says. “We will be the first to study these languages." Chakravarty says it’s difficult to put an estimate on the number of undocumented languages in the country, but believes the PLSI will catalogue nearly 200 languages which have “not been described outside the immediate locality of the people who speak it, and all these languages are probably facing extinction".

“Nomadic tribes like the Madaris, Chharas and Garudis, who are spread out between Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan, the Kaikadis who roam between Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the Nats in Bengal and Orissa—their languages are not described, even their basic grammar is not documented," Devy says. These communities, which were branded “criminal tribes" from 1871 till 1952, and have been subjected to discrimination for thousands of years, also developed code languages, which have evolved into complex structures of their own.

“We are also documenting these code languages," says Devy. “The Kanjars of Rajasthan speak a language called Bhantu, but when they are in trouble, and they think people around them understand Bhantu, they switch to a code called Narsi-Farsi."

A linguistic citizenship

Part of the reason for the massive disparity between the number of languages projected by the PLSI and Grierson’s survey and the Indian census list is the debate over dialect and language. “We still suffer from a colonial hangover when it comes to dialects," Devy says. “The concept of dialects originated in British socio-linguistic practices to politically dominate people."

Grierson’s survey, for example, lists Punjabi, Konkani and Maithili as dialects of Hindi. All three are recognized now as major languages.

PLSI considers a tongue as a language when 70% of its basic vocabulary, which consists of words used to describe space (length, breadth, distance, etc.) and time (minutes, hours, days, etc.), kinship terms, terms for colours, flora and fauna, basic verbs, geographical and anatomical terms, are original.

Through this, deliberate misconceptions, like people in Himachal Pradesh speak a language called “Pahari", are being overturned. “Pahari is a link language used for administrative purposes in the state," says Pattanayak. “There are actually 28 languages in Himachal Pradesh, and Pahari is a mixture of these."

“In India, 4% of people speak 96% of languages, and 96% of people speak 4% of languages—basically the Scheduled ones," says Chakravarty. “We understand that the government can’t have a Schedule of 600 languages, and that having a lingua franca like Hindi or English is important for the country, but that doesn’t mean we destroy the diversity of cultures and languages. Multilingualism in India is the norm, and many languages can co-exist."

Unlike the census, the PLSI does not have the means or the scope to count the number of people who speak a certain language, but it does aim to throw light on how various speech-communities in India perceive themselves and are perceived by others. “If you look at the Oriya language, people from northern, southern, western and eastern Orissa all differ and argue about the language," says Pattanayak. “We are studying the relationships between these varieties, and how they interact."

Devy proposes a dramatic conclusion to his enormous project.

“In 2016, I would like to visit Ajmer and go to the tower where Sir Thomas Roe was given the licence to do commerce in India in 1616," he says, “and present the 21 volumes of the PLSI there as a return compliment."