A Nation Of Dialects: The Value And Risks Of India's Linguistic Diversity

 Hyderabad, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh
Hyderabad, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh
Julien Bouissou

NEW DELHI — The findings of India’s first linguistic census in a century were unveiled earlier this month. Of the 850 languages identified, 300 had never previously been documented, and nearly 200 are considered at risk of extinction because they have fewer than 10,000 speakers.

The Sept. 5 ceremony took place at the Gandhi memorial in New Delhi, and the location was not chosen by chance. This enormous undertaking — four years of work — led by Ganesh Devy, recalls in a small way Gandhi’s legendary battle for Indian independence. Devy managed to rally some 3,000 volunteers to help document the languages spoken throughout the country, from the Kashmir mountains to the Andaman archipelago.

This census was carried out not by linguists, but by the people. The volunteers of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) asked their informants whether they spoke another language, and if so, to help them to transcribe it.

To be recognized, the languages had to have a unique grammar and vocabulary. Teachers, farmers and academics transcribed thousands of legends, songs and everyday vocabulary, such as the words used to describe colors.

“These words are generally the last to disappear when a language is close to extinction,” Devy explains.

Gandhi used to say that “India lives in its villages,” and it also lives in its hundreds of dialects, long ignored and often scorned. Languages carry with them unique visions of the world: A world where, for example, in the fishing communities of Kerala, there are hundreds of words that can refer to the sea.

What does the evolution of language teach us about transformations in Indian society? “The reduction in vocabulary items used to describe the flora and fauna demonstrates the breakdown of ecological links between the local population and its environment,” Devy says.

Chennai Marina Beach — Photo: Vinoth Chandar

A deep understanding of India’s language also facilitates a better understanding of its conflicts. Take, for example, the hostilities between the mining industry and tribal populations in the east of the country, where the two world views collide: One group believes that the land belongs to man, the other that man belongs to the land. One group covets the land, the other group venerates it.

European colonization alone cannot be held responsible for the reduction in India’s linguistic diversity. During colonization, different languages lived side by side without driving each other to extinction. Multilingualism is now a fundamental part of the identity of all Indians, which some people say explains the disconcerting facility with which the country’s engineers master computer programming languages.

Dialects are more likely to die out because of urbanization, migration — sometimes forced — and globalization, which has led to new terminology being imposed. “Languages die out when a population needs to use another language to survive, find work or to learn,” explains Indian linguist D.P. Pattanayak.

The apathy of the Indian government has not helped in the efforts to preserve the country’s linguistic diversity. Since the late 1970s, languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 people have not been detailed on the population census. New Delhi is concerned about awakening separatist demands that could undermine national unity.

“It is not necessarily English or Hindi that is replacing dialects, but the 22 regional languages spoken in the different states,” says Joseph Koyipally, a literature teacher who led the census project in Kerala state.

The supremacy of these regional languages deprives thousands of children of education. “There are more than 150,000 native Rajbanshi speakers,” explains D.K. Roy, a census volunteer, “but many of our children leave education at the end of primary school because they don’t speak the language used to teach at secondary school.”

Indian Minister for Culture Chandresh Kumari Katoch attended the ceremony where the results were unveiled, and she celebrated India’s linguistic diversity as well as saluting the census project as “an undertaking unprecedented in India since Independence.”

The next question: Will Ganesh Devy’s project mark the start of a reconciliation between India and its linguistic diversity?

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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