Are India’s Dying Regional & Tribal Languages Warning Signs Of Cultural Erosion?

Yimchunger Naga tribe retains its traditions through the Hornbill Festival
Yimchunger Naga tribe retains its traditions through the Hornbill FestivalJames Kikon (

The last gasps of breath from an octogenarian in Sikkim by the name of Thak Bahadur Majhi obliterated an entire language from our country in 2016. An Indo-Aryan language spoken exclusively now in Nepal and formerly in small pockets of India such as Darjeeling and the Jorethang valley in Sikkim, Majhi is known to only four Indian households and none of them can recollect more than a handful of words, not enough to even compose an obituary. Another script called Sare, one of the six languages from the Great Andamanese family, will no longer be spoken by another human voice anywhere in the world after its last custodian Licho passed away recently in 2020. 

Fortunately, Professor Anvita Abbi, an internationally feted linguist has managed to digitise and phonetically transcribe extinct dialects such as Sare and Aka-Bo. Without the cultural stewardship of such ethnologists, we would be losing not just the words and sounds but entire juggernauts of knowledge, unique world views and philosophies that we could all be enriched by if we only cared to explore them.

Licho, daughter to Andaman's King Jirake, was the last speaker of the Sare language.
Licho, daughter to Andaman's King Jirake, was the last speaker of the Sare

Apart from eroding a community’s identity and their sense of belonging — the cosmic dust of a dead language punctures other black holes into the fabric of reality — the isolated tribes often migrate to towns and cities where they are enmeshed among the metropolitan uniformity and sacrifice their political status for social relevance and acceptance. Intrinsic traditions of folklore, art, mythology, a community’s knowledge about their flora and fauna, herbal medicines and environmental solutions guarded as closely-kept-secrets may all disappear as well.

“Our ancestors have said the Kolami language should survive,” says Sriram Meshram, a village elder from the Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, sitting outside a brick house and remonstrating with the interviewer behind the camera. “Marathi, Hindi or English would come along but don’t quit your mother tongue.” In a four-part documentary series by the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, the Indian Ministry of Tribal Affairs explores close to 11 endangered languages in India, almost all of them spoken by generally nomadic or indigenous communities.

Kolami is a Central Dravidian language that is more popular than others recorded in this docu-series, uttered by over 120,000 people sporadically across Wardha and Kinwat districts in Maharashtra and the Adilabad district in Telangana. The number of native speakers, however, were documented last in 2011 and recent data is threadbare on how much further this already endangered mother tongue has slipped into ignominy, owing to the 2021 Census being delayed indefinitely.

Other endangered languages such as Nihali, Wadari, Kolhati, Golla and Gisari are among those spoken mostly in parts of Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka that have seen an unfortunate decline in the past decade.

Homegrown efforts by organisations such as Pratham Books, Central Institute of Languages (Mysuru), and the Adivasi Academy are breathing new life into the resistance but in spite of them, a paper published in 2018 by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner in India logged at least 42 languages that were under the threat of extinction. However, cultural activist and literary critic Ganesh N. Devy proposes that the actual number of these moribund languages is exponentially higher.

According to Devy, if you were to draw a line between Surat and Howrah, you would find the cradle of indigenous communities comprising the central linguistic zone that demarcates the Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the North and the Dravidian languages in the South as distinctly separate from each other. Armed with the paraphernalia of only a notebook and a tape recorder, Devy famously quit his university job to travel from village to village in central India and document the languages not many people seem to know about, and what he learned was shocking in its magnitude. Documenting 780 living languages in his People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Devy discovered that close to 400 of them were under imminent risk of being wiped off the face of this planet.

Koya tribe of Adilabad  keeping their culture alive through dance.
Koya tribe of Adilabad keeping their culture alive through dance.Getty Images

Although in use by an estimated 5.7 lakh people in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the tribal language of Koya is also surprisingly on its way to deterioration, primarily because of the lack of a written script. Detractors would argue that this didn’t stop the language from surviving for hundreds of years but times have changed. The supremacy of certain languages like Telugu or Hindi over others as ‘official’ or ‘state’ languages challenges the viability of teaching children your mother tongue that will not help them in being treated as equals in schools, workplaces or government offices. So while, after 1971, it was decided to exclude any 'minor' language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people from the census report of India; the number of native speakers is no longer the real determinant of whether a language will maintain favour among the masses. 

Even as the New Education Policy in 2020 encouraged the use of mother tongues as the medium of instruction in schools, the revitalisation might have come a little too late, especially for around 80 languages among the 300 or so spoken in the northeast part of India. Chiefly Sino-Tibetan in origin, languages such Khamyang (Assam), Aimol and Ruga (Manipur), Khelma and Yimchunger (Nagaland) are now limited to only traditional rituals, prayers and funerals. Even now, Westernisation and friction with upper-caste Hindus compels most younger generations to reinvent themselves with the English language or by snapping ties with their tribal legacy. In neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, 33 of the state’s languages have been deemed vulnerable by UNESCO, further continuing this saga of stunted pride among native speakers.

The Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland sing in their dying native tongue of Chokri.
The Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland sing in their dying native tongue of

Digital creation of audio-visual records, reviving local dialects through workshops and tutoring at schools, building open AI libraries and supporting initiatives on the ground level and online could be some ways for laypeople to contribute towards the cause of keeping these cultures visible. While we bemoan Sanskrit and Pali passing out of the collective consciousness, India could well become the cemetery for many more languages, if we don’t invest in their accessibility.

Celebrating the kaleidoscopic diversity of our people will help us evolve into a truly pluralistic society rather than the monotonous collectivism we are presently fostering. More words mean more stories to share and who doesn’t want that?