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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.

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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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Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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