“Language is my whore, my mistress, my wife, my pen-friend, my check-out girl. Language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wippette. Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple, it’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning sun when you pull from an old bookshelf a forgotten volume of erotic diaries; language is the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer shorts, it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party, a creak on the stair, a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, the warm wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl, cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.”
― Stephen Fry
“When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world.”
― George Steiner
I took an undergrad course in linguistics, and to be honest, I took it just for kicks. I thought it would be an inconsequential course that might tick the box for another three credits towards my English Major and offer a classroom where my bloodshot eyes might go unnoticed.
Unfortunately, despite desperate attempts to stay true to my own laziness, I was hooked. It was a brilliantly fun class, with in-depth theories extending from field professors spending extensive time in off-the-grid villages in places like Papua New Guinea and Mongolia. Their anecdotes of meeting with remote tribals and living in abject squalor for months just to properly document a particular dialect was inspiring; for lack of a better comparison, they kind of gave a sexy feel to the subject, much like how the fictional character Indiana Jones made archaeology seem like the most exciting career on the planet. These guys did the same thing, except these guys were real.
When we studied the diaspora of languages and pidgin English, it was like putting a puzzle together. Figuring out which stems of words link various dialects and so on. It was just a semester, but it made me realise my English, often described as ‘awkward’ or ‘weird’ (an Indian and Texan accent smushed together can sometimes be a bit jarring or confusing to some) mapped me for who I was. It is as intimately mine as are my fingerprints. That’s why I choose to greet readers with the above quotes. They encapsulate the powerful nature of languages and work as a sequitur to the story of a man who quit his job to pursue his dream of properly documenting the many languages of India. Thanks to G.N Devy, hundreds of Indian languages are surveyed properly and continue to add to the rich linguistic culture of India. He is, without question, the rockstar of Indian linguistics.
Devy left his position as a professor at MS University in Baroda in 1996 when he discovered a seemingly gaping fallacy with India’s national language census. He found out that India recognised 108 languages in its 1971 census, however, when he looked over a linguistic survey from 1961, the data displayed a catalogue of 1652 listed languages.
Devy was perturbed by the thought that over a mere span of a decade, more than a thousand languages native to India could have died. However, he couldn’t fathom this unlikely notion and sought out to dedicate a relentless force of time and effort to better flesh out accurate information on the true number of languages spoken across India.
In 2010, Devy launched the largest linguistic survey in India, which resulted in the discovery that India has more than 780 languages, of which almost half are based in tribal regions. The massive amount of information that Devy’s research team uncovered will be formated in a total 93 books, of which 28 have been published so far. All the book should be for sale by 2018.
G.N Devy is more than just the man who saved a myriad of Indian languages, he is a tribal activist and professor and founder director of Bhasha research and publication centre. He is also a Padma Shri Awardee, although you may know him better for the time he returned his Sahitya Akademi Award in protest of the murder of the scholar Kalburgi.
This enormous effort to trace and account for India’s many languages lead to some ‘pleasant surprises’ on the PLSI survey.
“I was thrilled by the PLSI report when it found double the number of languages I had estimated to find. There is a language called ‘Gondi’ which is found to be as sophisticated as French. It had a wealth of proverbs and idioms and an extremely well-developed and disciplined grammar. It is spoken by the tribals living on the borders of Maharashtra, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. We also found six full scale oral epics in Bhili language, which are as huge as the Ramayana. It is spoken by tribals in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. We found the presence of Burmese ‘Karen’ language in the Andamans and ancient African Swahili language in Karnataka, Gujarat and Maharashtra under the name of ‘Sidi.’ Some people in Ahmedabad claimed Japanese as their mother tongue and their ancestry revealed Japanese roots. We found completely illiterate people in the Konkan who spoke only one language and it was Portuguese creole called ‘Noling,” Devy commented to HG.
The discovery that India has approximately 780 languages sounds wonderful when one places that number next to 1971’s estimate of 108 recorded languages; however, when you think of it as losing 220 languages over the last 50 years, the results are not as heartwarming as one may initially think.
Devy explained one of the most detrimental effects on India’s rich pool of languages was the death of a language called Bo from the Andamans. This tragic event occurred in the year 2010 when an 85-year-old native of the Andaman Islands, Boa Senior, passed away, and with her, 70,000 years worth of history. “Languages are purely cultural and their death can’t be experienced like the death of a human body. The death of a language is like the death of a weather pattern, it doesn’t happen all at once. It is a gradual and slow process and sometimes even the process become invisible. Human societies don’t admit the language vacuum. When we lose our own language, another language occupies that space and a combination of the two comes up. The death is less visible but all-pervasive. It so happens that we can’t talk about the same traditions, festivals, technology, legal processes, mathematics and even communication in our own language. We can’t communicate pain or medicines in our language either. The domains of our languages are eroding and something else is entering our brain transaction. The language within us is dying,” he says.
So why did so many Indian languages die during the last 50 years?
“Due to the war between East and West Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, the Indian government decided not to reveal some languages when the survey results were published in 1976,” Devy comments. “The government felt jittery and thought that linguistic diversity might cause fragmentation. The data was compressed and if the languages had under ten thousand speakers, they were clubbed in the ‘others’ section. The people, communities and the language exist but there is no official record of them in our country.”
Don’t deny linguistic citizenship
By denying people linguistic citizenship, Devy believes people can be turned into political fodder. States are divided on the basis of language in India, and thus language is often used as a tool for oppression, violence, or even to ridicule those who speak different languages.
“It is unjust and unfair for these minority language speakers to learn a mainstream one in order to study in schools, get jobs and earn their livelihood. Many of these speakers drop out of schools because of the failure to learn a new language from scratch. The teachers don’t understand them and they don’t understand the teachers. Without education, their employment situation is implicated and the biggest fear among the poor is unemployment. This often makes them political material. Without the freedom to move in between states and countries because of the language bias, they succumb to militant tendencies. A loss or denial of language has many implications,” he said.
The Way Forward
Devy expostulates that the cost of educating the community will always be less than the cost of economic development. “The cost of removal of poverty, building urban infrastructure and management, healthcare will cost more than education.” He also posits that having a truly strong language diversity in education facilities in turn will support economic development. In Devy’s words, “Science and technology are advancing rapidly in language-based technology. Universal machine translation, mobile technology, information and communication technology, modern neuroscience, artificial intelligence and all the current cutting edge technology have language as a raw material. A person will have a greater chance of innovation if they have a large variety of languages than a mono-linguistic one. English has nine ways of talking about time and if you look at a language like marwadi from Rajasthan, it has 14 ways of talking about time. In English, there is just evening but in Marwadi there are five separate terms for the evening as it progresses. With a diversity such as this, the spectrum of technology also expands.”
A solution Devy has long been in proponent of has been to follow the concept of multilingual schools, which operate in Senegal. He believes in this system so strongly Devy adopted it for his Tribal Academy in Tejgadh.
Many Languages, Many Learnings - A New Kind Of Schooling
“A good way to preserve languages would be to introduce multi-lingual schools where children are taught their mother tongue. If for example, a class has 20 children, they bring in at least 4-5 languages. All of them should become the language of the classroom and it is not expensive or impossible. In India, we are very unimaginative and mechanic when we learn languages. Multi-language would be to learn each language from scratch with its scripture, grammar, pronunciation but a multi-lingual class would just foster mutual respect for each others’ language and one’s own language. The school could create a space for them to co-exist just how multi-religious and co-ed schools exist. No child should feel inferior about their language” he said.
“Countries like Senegal have successfully adopted these multi-lingual school and I have been running a multi-lingual school in Tejgadh for the last 15 years. It educates the poorest of poor migrants and the results are there for anybody to see. We have trained over twenty thousand children and done a comparative analysis of them and other children from normal schools, and they have done better. These results have been obtained after an analysis by experts. People turn out to be better intellectual performers if they are multilingual. You see, language is not just a tool of communication, it handles our entire mental transaction, there can’t be any transaction without it,” affirms Devy.
Dr. Devy is working on the Global Linguistic Status Report that will work to assess the viability of languages world over. He is planning to travel to Papua New Guinea, Australia and Africa starting next year. “PLSI was a photograph of the languages in India, this is more of an assessment. The results will be out by 2025 and the books by 2030. What I gather from my knowledge is that India has the highest number of living languages in the world and we have at least 10% of the entire world stock. India can feel proud with the sheer number but if you match the population and the language with the world we are pretty much on the same footing as any other country. Instead of becoming xenophobic or too proud, we should accept the reality,” he concludes.
Written in collaboration with Preksha Malu.