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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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