Birhor, spoken only by members of a nomadic tribal community of natural fibre rope makers in Jharkhand, has less than 10,000 speakers today. But there is hope: It has just got its first children’s book, Abun Ari Re (Our Surroundings).
The 40-page multilingual pictorial book by Bikram Jora—the words are translated in Hindi and English—contains words for common objects, activities and folk tales, and encourages children to use them in daily life. It’s all part of an effort to save the endangered Birhor tongue, which is part of the Munda language family.
The book has been compiled and published by the US-based Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages with the help of a grant from the New York-based Zegar Family Foundation. The institute,which has been working with the Birhor tribe since 2017, aims to help indigenous communities in 15 countries to safeguard their cultural and linguistic heritage.
Last month, 500 copies of the book were distributed free to Birhor children of school-going age in 10 villages across five districts in the state. They were also given to the local schools.
One reason for making the book multilingual is to help outsiders understand the language. Ranchi-based Jora, who is from the Munda tribe, hopes it will help local teachers communicate more effectively with the children from the community.
“Birhor children are slowly transitioning to using Hindi words while speaking, and even parents encourage that. We have heard children now using batak, which is the Hindi word for duck, instead of the Birhor word gede,” says Jora. Of course, urbanisation has a role to play as many are moving out in search of work. “There is a feeling that their mother tongue won’t be beneficial for the children as they grow up. So it’s a good time to take action in slowing this transition before the language is lost,” says Jora, the institute’s South Asia region project coordinator.
The literacy rate in the community is less than 20%. Jora explains that the teachers complain that the students are not interested, but often the children don’t understand what’s being taught. “The objects that are shown to them, they have never seen. I am hoping that with this book, the teachers will be able to communicate and understand the Birhor children better,” says Jora.
Abun Ari Re is part of a three-book series. The other two books the institute is working on are the ethnobiological knowledge of Birhors and a trilingual dictionary in print and online form.
The Birhors are taking an interest in the project. An elderly woman, for instance, suggested they write English words in the Devanagari script used for Birhor, so they could pronounce them. “A guy who is the most educated in the community—he finished class XII—suggested we include local variations of words. For instance, custard apple is serfa in one district, while in another it’s maadal,” explains Jora.
Globally, up to 90% of languages are threatened, and at least 40% of speakers are actively shifting to a dominant language, says Gregory D. S. Anderson, institute director and president. In India, he says it’s tricky to put a number to languages at risk of extinction. “The census data is largely irrelevant to this (spoken language) as any speech community under 10,000 is eliminated from the official count of languages, and most endangered and threatened language communities are small.” There is no doubt, though, that the shift to more dominant languages needs to slow.