Not counting English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati, Ganesh Devy, who works to preserve Indian languages, is conversant with at least eight tribal dialects indigenous to Gujarat. His engagement with native tongues continues: from the time Devy founded it in 1999, the Adivasi Academy, an academic programme of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, has published books in 28 tribal languages and created scripts for 11 languages. He has also authored books such as In Another Tongue, Painted Words and A Nomad Called Thief: Reflections on Adivasi Voice and Silence. This fortnight, Devy will deliver a lecture about our vanishing oral traditions and the death of tribal languages. Excerpts from an interview:
Why are so many Indian languages becoming extinct?
India has lost more languages in the last 60 years than in the last 7,000 years put together. You think of one block of 7,000 years that is the post-pastoral society, when the first paddy cultivators started working, since then till 1950, Indians had preserved the languages in a much better way. In the last 60 years, we have definitely lost more than 450 languages. In the 1961 census, the statistics showed 1,600 languages [were spoken] in this country, in the 1971 census the list had come down to 109. Of course this is a simplistic representation; it was 109 because the government decided not to mention the names of languages spoken by less than 10,000 persons. Since then the names of these 1,500 other languages have just disappeared from the official discourse. The people who speak these languages are the people on the social fringes. They are nomadic communities, they are tribals, they are people in the interiors, they are island people... It takes several hundred years to create a language. It takes an enormous amount of work... Though all of us have access to all words for free, making words is not easy. So to destroy languages mindlessly in our time is a collective shame for all of us.
What can these vanishing languages teach us?
Two years ago, a lady, who belonged to this community called Bo, died in the Andaman islands and she was the last speaker of her language and that language has a continuous history of 65,000 years. The language was also called Bo... With her a line of wisdom developed over 65,000 years disappeared. This is an extreme example. We obviously cannot do much with languages that have only four speakers or five speakers. But if there is a language, which has, say, 5,000 speakers, then we have no right to kill that language because in these languages there is an enormous amount of wisdom related to ecology. For example, I did a survey of Himalayan languages and I found that there were 132 words for snow in them: when the snow falls on muddy water they have a different term, when it falls in the early morning they have a different word, and they have yet another word to describe a sky which is very clear despite snowfall. This kind of micro-wisdom and knowledge is essential in understanding specific ecosystems and helps in preserving them.
How do you prevent a language from becoming extinct?
Language is the property of a community. If there are no people, there will be no language. We have to revitalise communities that have become demoralised and therefore they feel ashamed of speaking their own language... I have tried this with the Bhili language in Western India on the border of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Between the 1991 and 2001 census, the number of Bhili speakers showed an increase of 95 per cent. These are the census figures – 95 per cent more people went out in 2001 to say they speak Bhili as [their] mother tongue because they no longer feel ashamed of saying it. [The method we used was] to create little periodicals in the language, to create dramatic activity, to speak to school children and college students, to create fairs and festivals woven around the theme of language and culture. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation asked me to advise them on how to conserve languages because of the great example of Bhili. It is one of the rarest language revival sites in the world today. Why did you initiate the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and what information does it collate? There was a government committee for non-scheduled languages. We have 22 scheduled languages in India (the others are treated as non-scheduled languages). They are not in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. So, the government had appointed a committee to look after the non-scheduled languages. I was chairing that [committee]. Our report was accepted by the government by the Planning Commission and a scheme was created called Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana. But the Central government could not implement this scheme. They said that they did not have an official, authentic list of languages. I felt that if the government doesn’t have such a list, why can’t citizens get together and tell the nation that these are our languages? [The People’s Linguistic Survey of India] offers samples of the language: songs and stories, names of colours, kinship terms, terms related to space and time, the grammar; we also furnish a map which records where the language is spoken, the varieties of language and the dialects of the language. Tell us about your work to preserve tribal languages. I left Baroda University [where he was a professor of English] when I was 45 to take up the work of documentation of languages, mainly tribal dialects. Then I decided to create oral magazines; magazines which are printed to be read out aloud in villages. This magazine started going out to 4,000 villages in Western India and through that process, we managed to create a generation of writers in the language. This also resulted in villagers becoming aware of the role language plays in economic development. Then, I set up a tribal academy where tribals composed dictionaries of their own languages, and began to write books. I have a publishing unit. We have published books in 28 tribal languages, we have created scripts for 11 tribal languages and I am now engaged in a complete linguistic survey of the country covering about 730 languages. This is the first such effort after [the Irish linguistic scholar] George Grierson carried out such a survey [the Linguistic Survey of India] at the beginning of the twentieth century.
By Nergish Sunavala on July 20 2012 7.06am