How has language politics impacted the speech of indigenous communities? What role does digital technology play in language conservation? Ganesh N. Devy, linguist and founder of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India—a nation-wide survey to identify, document and understand the state of Indian languages, especially languages of fragile nomadic, coastal, island and forest communities—talks to Lounge about why languages become endangered. Edited excerpts:
What are the dynamics of indigenous language politics in modern India?
At any time in Indian history, there has either been a subdued or an explicit language movement. In 1950, soon after the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution was formulated to include 14 languages, agitations began in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, followed by Maharashtra and Gujarat. In the 1960s, we saw a conflict between Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages. In the ensuing decade, many tribal communities started claiming language rights. There were movements for Lepcha, Bodo, Naga and Kok Barak. In the 1990s, something else happened, outside of India—Unesco decided to compile an atlas of endangered languages. Until then no one had used the term—and that changed the discourse in India.
How has technology impacted the discussion on endangered languages?
Digital technology has changed the rules of the game. In the 18th-20th centuries, languages struggled to get published. Now, print is no longer the only aspiration. In the mid-1990s, I published a magazine in 12 tribal languages to respect the desire of the communities, who wanted to see their language in print. In the last six years, I have observed that they want their songs and stories to be published on a website. Some time ago, a Swedish IT company undertook a 10-year study of digitally dead languages. It found that out of 78 European languages, 14 were digitally dead. So, in 2022, the word “endangered” has acquired new meaning—that the language has not entered mobile telephony.
Could you elaborate on the factors that lead to a language becoming endangered in India?
There are three major challenges. Firstly, India doesn’t have clear numbers of how many languages are endangered. The 2011 census throws up some numbers, such as 1,383 mother tongues, which were shortlisted from a larger pool. Out of these, it was decided to club many under the umbrella of a large language. For instance, Hindi is listed as a pool of 55-56 languages that includes Bhojpuri. Now, Bhojpuri is claimed by some 50 million people and has its own literature and music. It is the fastest growing language in the world after Basque and yet is not given a status of a language in its own right.
So, the first challenge is government apathy in providing numbers. Second, we don’t have comprehensive studies of endangered languages. Nihali, for instance, has a history of existence beyond Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages. It is spoken in three talukas even today. The fact that it has survived shows its resilience. We need to see what makes these marginalised languages resilient and map that on to others. I had started one such study for 60-70 languages but had to stop for want of funding.
Does economics have an impact on the language?
That is the third challenge. A language is discarded when people migrate. Take Konkani: When people from Konkan go to Mumbai for work, the second or third generation of the family takes up Bambaiya Hindi or Marathi. While it is true that language spreads through migration, those spoken by a smaller group are also endangered by migration. A society or government should create economic possibilities in such language zones.