The sprawling linguistic tree we wrote about a couple of months ago revealed that as of 2013, there were only 7, 000 living languages in the world. What the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) dug up, though, was that people in India speak a whopping 780 of these languages - as opposed to the official tally of 122 - with a 100 more that its authors believe exist. That’s not all; the survey, the first of its kind since Irish linguistic scholar George Abraham Grierson conducted the Linguistic Survey of India from 1898 to 1928, also unearthed that the country has ‘lost’ 250 languages from its cultural fabric in the past 50 years alone - with another 150 likely to vanish in the next 50 years as speakers from this generation die, and future ones fail to learn their native tongues.
You’re probably wondering about the gross disparity in numbers - the considerable gap between the official number and the actual one can be put down to the fact that the government does not count languages that fewer than 10,000 people speak. The supervisor of the PLSI survey Dr. Ganesh Devy, though, has really combed the country over the four years of his research - in collaboration with a team including 3,000 volunteers and staff of the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre, and 85 institutions and universities - to track down languages like Chaimal in Tripura, spoken by no more than four or five people. One of their 50 volumes is even dedicated to sign language - which is a non-verbal symbolic system, and hence has been taken note of as a language in itself. Also documented is the language of thieves, while the language of the transgender community is still being investigated. Can anybody say comprehensive?
“While the actual survey - the first such exercise undertaken in independent India - took four years, it took 17 years of preparatory work. So the reports are a fruit of 21 years of hard work that too without any governmental assistance,”
said Devy. “From their historical and geographical details, to their origin and grammar as well as literature and other artistic and cultural works including folk songs would be available in the published work.” said Devy.
According to the survey, West Bengal emerged the richest in the country in terms of number of scripts used.
”While 38 different languages are spoken in the state, Bengal by far is the richest in the country when it comes to scripts. As many as nine different scripts are used here and efforts are on to develop several other scripts,”
said Devy. Of these 38 languages, though, about 10 were endangered and needed urgent attention to survive. Overall, though, the Northeast emerged as having the highest per capita language in the world, with 250 languages in the region. Bhojpuri in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Khasi in Meghalaya, Mizo in Mizoram Byari in Karnataka, , Kumouni in Uttarakhand and Kutchhi in Gujarat were other languages that are apparently thriving in the country.
Meanwhile, it is the coastal regions of India where a language decline is found, a phenomenon which Devy attributes to the local people moving inland after losing their livelihood (largely to technology) and thus moving into a new region seeking a new means of earning. While the language is carried with them for a while, the subsequent generations eventually can’t relate to their mother tongues and thus the speakers of the languages wane over the years. Another decline was found in nomadic communities which, because of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, enforced back during the British rule in India, have been accorded the the status of criminals by birth, not act; these communities are thus trying to detach themselves from their cultural identities now.
Devy interestingly links language as being indicative of the well-being of a community - his theory is that by shedding light on languages spoken by a smaller number of people, the community’s societal characteristics and well-being present themselves as well. Out of the 780 Indian languages, 22 are scheduled Indian languages and only 122 are spoken by a population of more than 10, 000. ‘Endangered’ languages is something Devy doesn’t wish to elaborate on, though, suggesting instead that the government and public come together to ensure that all the languages continue to thrive.
Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari