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Meet the people who are giving lost languages a voice

Nearly 200 languages in India are in various states of peril. The last speakers have been working with dedicated researchers to keep their mother tongues alive

Ultimately, though, the fate of these languages will be decided by those who speak them. Illustration by Jayachandran
Ultimately, though, the fate of these languages will be decided by those who speak them. Illustration by Jayachandran

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Lele phurjole tokhat korme lele

(I swing your cradle of bamboo back and forth, back and forth)

This Bo lullaby, describing the rocking motion of a bamboo cradle, hasn’t been sung since 2010. When Boa Sr, the last speaker of the Great Andamanese language of Bo, died on 26 January 2010, a treasure trove of songs, folklore and stories in Bo was lost.

A recording of Boa Sr singing this lullaby is one of the few remnants of a language spoken by the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe, which traces its ancestry to the first migration out of Africa 70,000 years ago. The lullaby is one of the 10 stories and 46 songs in the Great Andamanese language that linguist Anvita Abbi has documented in her book, Voices From The Lost Horizon: Stories And Songs Of The Great Andamanese (Niyogi Books, 2021).

Just like Great Andamanese—a generic term for a family of 10 languages once spoken by 10 tribes in the north, south and middle of the Great Andaman and now listed as critically endangered by Unesco—197 languages in India are in various states of peril. This is one of the largest number for any country in the world, going by Unesco’s Atlas Of The World’s Languages In Danger Of Disappearing. First published in 1996, and updated in 2010, the atlas lists about 2,500 endangered languages, categorising them as vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct, and provides analytical reports by region.

In India, a dedicated band of individuals and organisations has been working quietly at the grass-roots to conserve these. So, you will find poets in Kargil, Ladakh, organising mushairas in Balti to reach youth; a young Manipuri musician documenting folk music in languages such as Tarao that are fast going extinct; a linguist who crossed creeks teeming with water snakes and crocodiles to document the vanishing languages of the Andamans; a group of youths from Jharkhand recording songs and stories in Asuri and broadcasting them in village markets and via radio.

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Some efforts have been recognised this year by the Union government, with at least five language champions being awarded the Padma Shri. Among the recipients are Dhaneswar Engti, a poet-author from Assam who has written around 100 songs and 19 books in Karbi, and Akhone Asgar Ali Basharat, known for his religious and Sufi poetry in Balti, a language classified as vulnerable by Unesco.

To preserve indigenous languages across the world, the UN general assembly has declared 2022-32 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. Ultimately, though, the fate of these languages will be decided by those who speak them—and some dedicated researchers.

Over the past few years, poets and writers in Ladakh have been organising mushairas and events to take Balti, a language that is also spoken in parts of Uttarakhand and in Pakistan but is classified as vulnerable, to the youth. On 21 March, Jashn-e-Navroz celebrations at a government high school in Hardas village, with programmes organised by the Ladakh Academy of Art, Culture and Language (Kargil), saw Balti poetry being recited. Earlier, a programme had been organised at the government middle school in Latoo. “Ten to 15 years ago, we would bring out audio cassettes of folk songs. But with social media, it is easier to create awareness about the language,” says S.H. Kalim, a poet who also heads the Association of Baltis in Himalayan Ladakh and Territories of Indus, which organises events, talks and seminars across the country on Balti literature.

Over the past two decades, he believes, it is writers such as Sadiq Hardassi and Bashir Wafa, and music composer Riyaaz Munshi, who have kept Balti literature alive. “When the youth see how much non-Balti speakers appreciate the songs, they feel a sense of pride and want to learn more about the language.” Interest itself brings satisfaction. In 2016-17, for instance, Kalim got to work on the Balti-Hindi Learner’s Dictionary with the Central Institute of Hindi in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. This is the kind of change that motivates conservationists as they struggle with adapting languages, many of which do not have a script, to a world of social media and smartphones.

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Why conservation is vital

According to Unesco, a language is vulnerable when most children speak it but it may be restricted to certain domains (like the home), definitely endangered when children no longer learn the language as their mother tongue in the home, and critically endangered when the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.

One way to revitalise a language, as in the case of Birhor, is to take it to the children. Image courtesy: Bikram Jora
One way to revitalise a language, as in the case of Birhor, is to take it to the children. Image courtesy: Bikram Jora

So how does a language become endangered? Mark Turin, anthropologist, linguist and associate professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia, writes— in an essay on language revitalisation authored with Aidan Pine— that the legacy of colonisation and impact of disenfranchising policies related to indigenous and minority languages are at the heart of language attrition. What has added to their plight is the combination of monolingualism and networks of global trade languages that are increasingly technologised.

In the Indian context, language politics has played out since independence. Linguist and academic Ganesh N. Devy says there’s little chance of a language surviving if it’s left out of government patronage for cultural institutions, public libraries, cultural productions, radio broadcasts, primary schooling and administration.

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Sometimes, a microscopic look at a community is needed to understand why a language is dying out. Take Tarao, now spoken only by around 850 people in Manipur. Pabung Morre, the 72-year-old chairman of the Tarao Cultural Committee, attributes this to war between the tribes through the centuries. “The dominant tribes assimilated people from smaller tribes after the war. This is one of the reasons why tribes such as Tarao lost their identity and language. Also, in the past few decades, we have had to work as agricultural labour or carpenters for others . So, where is the time or financial resource to document our traditions and languages?” he says.

One question that may come to mind then is: Why save a dying language? Does the fact that people are moving away from it mean it has outlived its economic and cultural utility? Should one move with the times and accept the hybrid languages that might have emerged over time—Andamanese Hindi, Koshali-Odia, Nihali-Kurku—and forget about ancient indigenous tongues?

Linguists, anthropologists and biologists do not believe this can be the answer. For a language is not merely a collection of words to enable communication. It is a repository of cultural values, heritage and knowledge. Language loss is usually associated with loss of traditional wisdom, cultural mores and ecologically sound practices. “There is an emerging consensus between scientists and humanists that biodiversity and linguistic diversity go hand-in-hand: areas rich in one are usually rich in the other,” writes Turin in his essay for the book Living Earth Community: Multiple Ways Of Being And Knowing.

Evidence of this can be seen across India. Vandana Tete, founder and general secretary of the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra, which works to protect indigenous knowledge, has been leading the Asur radio broadcast programme since 2019. The Asur community of Netarhat were metallists who are believed to have given India iron. “Our elders had so much knowledge. Though the community is still holding on to some of this wisdom, bahar (outside world) ka impact is becoming visible,” says 52-year-old Tete.

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Anvita Abbi documenting stories told by Nao Jr. Image courtesy: Anvita Abbi
Anvita Abbi documenting stories told by Nao Jr. Image courtesy: Anvita Abbi

Abbi writes about a soft-spoken, sensitive elder, Nao Jr, who remembered the names of plants, birds and fish in Jeru . With his passing, the community has lost links to this knowledge, although Abbi has documented significant portions in her books such as The Birds of the Great Andamanese. Names, Classification and Culture. “There were eight speakers of the language in a community of 53 members in the Great Andaman when we started work there in 2005,” writes Abbi. With the deaths of Boro Sr, Boa Sr and Licho, the world lost the last speakers of Khora, Bo and Sare, respectively, all part of the Great Andamanese language family. Today, only Jeru—part of the same family—is still spoken in Port Blair and Strait Island.

Lounge takes a look at some of the efforts being made countrywide to revitalise such languages.

A broadcast to save Asuri

Run by the residents of two villages in Jharkhand, Jobhipat and Sakhuapani, Asur Adivasi Mobile Radio hopes to protect the language, classified as definitely endangered, and create awareness about ancestral forest and land rights. Its shows, usually broadcast in the weekly market of Koteya Bazar, Netarhat, are expected to return soon after a nearly two-year pandemic break. “We will tell you the news, songs and latest happenings of the world and our happiness and sorrow,” goes a statement from the Asur Adivasi Wisdom Akhra (Aawa), a community organisation that runs the service along with the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra (JBSSA).

The JBSSA was formed in 2003 to protect the economic and cultural diversity of the state’s many tribes. “There are 32 tribes in the state, of which eight, such as the Asurs, are primitive ones. No one would talk about conserving their language and culture, often misrepresenting them as part of the Munda language cluster. The lack of institutional support has added to the woes,” says Vandana Tete, who comes from Jharkhand’s Kharia community and started working with the Asurs in 2004. She makes it clear that they are not working in some “maseehaye” (saviour) role, only supporting the community’s own efforts.

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“Governments feel that culture is all about song and dance. We want to change that and expand the definition of sanskriti to include languages as well. People should be able to read their language and also be able to translate it into Hindi,” she says. The radio service was started in 2019 to convey messages from the city or neighbouring villages to the forested mountains of Netarhat. The community found it could also connect people from different villages and keep the language relevant. Schoolchildren began to take interest and were trained in news reading and anchoring. Today, a core team of 15 runs the radio. “Young girls and boys send in songs and poems in Asuri. What better way to keep a language going,” says Tete.

The community kept this initiative going during the pandemic, albeit in a different form: documenting stories and songs which might be in the process of disappearing. They have identified elders in various districts who might be repositories of traditional knowledge and are reaching out to them via phone. They have also been in touch with people from the community who might be living in other parts of the state for work, urging them to send in their songs. The entire focus has been to keep the community connected.

A champion for Sirmauri

Vidyanand Sarek is always on the move, walking miles, going to baithaks and literary gatherings in and around his village of Deothi Majhgaon in Sirmaur’s Rajgarh district in Himachal Pradesh. These days, the octogenarian is inundated with congratulatory calls and visits since he has just been awarded the Padma Shri for his work in conserving the folk culture and language of Sirmaur.

A conversation with him evokes the feeling of balmy evenings spent listening to myths and legends narrated by an elder. “Sirmauri has no script and is written in Devanagari. Although it was considered a boli (dialect), it has its own rich repository of folk songs, dance, stories and oral literature,” says Sarek, who pegs the origin of the language to the “Sat yuga”.

A lot of folk literature in Sirmauri focuses on the Mahabharat—it is believed that soldiers from the Kaurava and Pandava camps came to the region after the 18-day war and settled there. However, they continued to fight, and the folk song tradition of Harul focuses on this. “Though some people still speak Sirmauri in its original form in parts of Mandi, Kullu and Sirmaur, the youth is forgetting its folk song and story traditions due to the influence of Western-style music. I have tried to collect as many songs and gaatha geet about Lok Ramayan and Mahabharat,” he says.

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Though he has worked on a bilingual dictionary, he has to organise and standardise the language further. “If the government sets even one question in a school exam in Sirmauri or makes it part of some competition, there would be some awareness among the youth about it. They will be motivated to learn it,” says Sarek, who has been performing on stage as a singer since the age of four. Besides writing books about the cultural heritage of Sirmaur, he has also translated 51 poems by Rabindranath Tagore, from Hindi to Sirmauri, as part of a Union government project.

The music of Tarao

Akhu Chingangbam, the Manipur-based musician of Imphal Talkies and The Howlers, a folk-rock band, shares an image of Ch Lamtachao Tarao, chief of Heikakpokpi village, who is the last custodian of folk music traditions in the Tarao language, classified as critically endangered. He learnt of the Tarao community in December 2020, while researching the folk music of tribes in Manipur for his project, A Native Tongue Called Peace, in which he works with children from different ethnic backgrounds—both from the hills and the valley—and teaches them songs from each other’s languages. “With globalisation, we are losing the sounds and sights we grew up with. There has been a lot of conflict between the hill and valley tribes in Manipur. We try to bridge this gap through folk music,” he says.

Ch Lamtachao Tarao, the last custodian of Tarao folk music traditions. Photo courtesy: Akhu Chingangbam
Ch Lamtachao Tarao, the last custodian of Tarao folk music traditions. Photo courtesy: Akhu Chingangbam

He believes minorities around the world have been subjugated by primary religions and have ended up losing their roots, including folk music and traditions. “The same thing has been happening here in Manipur,” he says. In 2019, Chingangbam started the Foothills Community Centre just outside Imphal to document folk music, collaborate with musicians and create a museum of indigenous folk music. Then he learnt of the Tarao tribe in Leishokching, where he met Pabung Morre, and realised just 830-850 speakers of the language were left in four villages of Chandel district.

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Morre was wary of researchers who wanted to understand the history of the language without trying to conserve it. Chingangbam proved to be different. In February last year, he raised funds for a workshop on Tarao folklore. He has also documented the life and wisdom of Lamtachao, who is around 70, and will be showcasing some instruments at the Foothills museum.

On the phone from Leishokching, Morre says he would like to see more workshops. “Covid-19 put an abrupt end to the session last year. It was supposed to last for three days but we had to end it after two,” he says. Lamtachao is willing to take classes to pass on knowledge of the music and instruments, not just to the youth of the village but also to students of anthropology and linguistics. However, organising such sessions, even on a small-scale, requires funds.

“We are not in a financial position to be able to put these together. Most people in the community work as labour or they make baskets and crafts ,” says Morre. Everyone has been so caught up in survival that they haven’t been able to put in that extra time or effort to document the costumes, songs and language in an organised manner. Just earlier this week, though, Morre convened a meeting in his village to drive home the need to document their cultural practices before they go silent.

As Chingangbam puts it: “You can’t separate folklore, folk music and language. These fragments of the past contain clues to our identity. Once the music and language disappear, our roots vanish.”

Taking Birhor to the children

Linguist Bikram Jora sends screenshots of the trilingual dictionary containing 2,748 words in Birhor, classified as critically endangered. It starts with simple words like aba, or father, and moves on to phrases like aben bar hor k”atir (“for you both”). A project coordinator for the South Asia region for the US-based non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, Jora has been working on Documenting the Fragile Knowledge Domains of the Birhor People, an initiative funded by the Zegar Family Foundation, since 2018. Since he belongs to Jharkhand’s Munda tribe, he understands the complexities of indigenous language and identity within the state well.

His team and he have published Abun Ari-Re, the first children’s book in Birhor, to try and make words about regular activities part of local parlance, as well as a survey of the community’s ethnobotanical knowledge, and an online dictionary. Though the published material is free, the copyright rests with the Birhor community.

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Birhor, spoken by a nomadic tribal community of rope makers, has less than 10,000 speakers. And only 4,000 know it fluently. “The very aged are fluent. The middle-aged have stopped using the language in the home domain and the young are not interested in learning their mother tongue. This demographic moves to nearby towns and cities for work and can’t use Birhor there. They speak it only when they come home on holiday,” says Jora. So, they start borrowing from Hindi, Sadri or any other language that is dominant in the area where they work.

Migration, he says, has been forced by government policies on forest protection that cut off the community’s access to natural resources. “This has an impact on the language,” says Jora. “When they see that Birhor doesn’t get them a good job and salary, they don’t bother with it.” He feels these years are critical to save the language and break the notion that their mother tongue is not inferior.

Birhor, spoken by a nomadic tribal community, has less than 10,000 speakers. Image courtesy: Bikram Jora
Birhor, spoken by a nomadic tribal community, has less than 10,000 speakers. Image courtesy: Bikram Jora

Keeping the sound of Nihali alive

The Nihal community lives in the foothills of the Satpura mountain range, in the Jalgaon-Jamud tehsil of Buldhana district in Maharashtra. Though people refer to their language as Nihali, the community itself identifies as kalto, and its tongue as kalto mandi. The first details of the language appeared in Vol. IV of the Linguistic Survey Of India, published in 1906.

Linguist Norman Zide says: “It is, perhaps, the only remnant in India of an ancient pre-Munda, pre-Dravidian, pre-Indo-Aryan language family, with no living relatives, but, perhaps, a sister language of the language the Bhils spoke before they lost their language and it was supplanted by the various Indo-Aryan Bhilis.”

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Today, Nihali is critically endangered, spoken by just 2,000-3,000 people. Its initial documentation is being carried out by Shailendra Mohan, now director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages. In 2012, he was awarded a grant from the Endangered Languages Project (ELDP) by the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Over the years, he has collected narrations and songs to preserve the language and place these in the context of the history of human civilisation. The Nihali vocabulary is now available in the Endangered Languages Archive; the grammar writing is still in progress.

Today, Nihali is critically endangered, spoken by just 2,000-3,000 people. Image courtesy: Shailendra Mohan
Today, Nihali is critically endangered, spoken by just 2,000-3,000 people. Image courtesy: Shailendra Mohan

Several factors have contributed to Nihali’s plight: first and foremost, the fact that speakers of the language are few, and most of them are bilingual/multilingual in Korku, Marathi, Hindi and dialects of Gondi. It’s a wonder that the language has survived at all.

“The Nihali language speakers used to be hunters and foragers,” says Mohan. “Today, they work as agricultural labour in different villages and have shifted to those neighbouring languages.”

Songs of the Andamans

Dal koronge longe jara taikhdunya ila do jara taikhdunya, ila do jara taikhdunya….

(The Earth is shaking as the tree falls with a great thud)

In this song, Boa Sr describes the day the December 2004 tsunami struck the Andamans. Her ancestors had told her that when the earth shakes, one should take a bamboo and hit the earth several times to stop it from shaking.

This story is documented in Anvita Abbi’s Voices From The Lost Horizon. The linguist first visited the islands in 2001 to conduct a pilot survey of the languages. She spent time with the Jarawa and Onge tribes, and, later, with the Great Andamanese. “I realised that Jarawa and Onge were sister languages, although geographically and culturally the tribes have been living apart. However, Great Andamanese is distinctive,” she says. When Abbi presented her findings at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, linguists urged her to drop other projects and document the Great Andamanese languages. She applied to the Endangered Languages Project and got started. Since then, she has published seven books.

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She met Boa Sr, the last speaker of Bo, at a relief camp after the tsunami. It was paradoxical that Bo was singing songs of the past in such an atmosphere. “She felt some of her sorrow was diminishing in the process. She gave us 66 songs, of which we published 42. The same thing happened with Nao Jr. In the beginning, he said, ‘I haven’t heard any stories in the last 40 years, what will I tell you?’ But once he started recalling, there was no stopping him,” she recalls.

Anvita Abbi with Boro Sr (left), Boa Sr (middle) and Peje. Image courtesy: Anvita Abbi
Anvita Abbi with Boro Sr (left), Boa Sr (middle) and Peje. Image courtesy: Anvita Abbi

Abbi writes in her preface that of 10 stories in Voices From The Lost Horizon, only four were narrated in Great Andamanese and Andamanese Hindi. The rest were narrated to her solely in Andamanese Hindi. This is, however, the first time that the Great Andamanese songs have been transcribed and translated into English. On the phone from Port Blair, 25-year-old Lephay, or Tamtam, daughter of Leecho, the last Sare speaker, says her maternal grandmother is alive but doesn’t speak much. “I know a few words,” she says. “But almost everyone has forgotten the mother tongue and is interested in Andamanese Hindi. Will the old days return? We will have to see.”

The rare institutional support

Very few institutions, such as the Mysuru-based Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), are working in the field of language conservation as well. At the moment, plans are on to publish a dictionary and grammar of Nicobarese languages such as Luro and Sanenyo, as prepared by Abbi and her team. Besides these, seven other endangered languages dictionaries are ready to be published. This is part of the scope of activities of the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL) initiated by the ministry of human resource development (now ministry of education) in 2013.

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This was done keeping in mind the census figures of 1961, which stated that there were 1,652 languages/mother tongues in the country. Of these about 550 languages were spoken by less than 500 speakers. “SPPEL started with a short-term goal of providing a grammar, dictionary and ethnolinguistic sketch for 117 languages that have 10,000 or fewer speakers and a long-term goal of covering around 500 languages in the future,” elaborates Shailendra Mohan, director, CIIL.

The documentation process of the vulnerable languages involves collection of texts, narration, documenting songs and lifestyle, grammar writing, making dictionaries in bilingual-trilingual formats, and more. The centre is currently working on around 44 languages from the North-East such as Atong, Bawm, Koireng, Liju, Newari, Lamgang, Singpho, Dirang Monpa and more.


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