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Opinion: Are all the mother languages of the world slowly dying?

Regions with most endangered languages Photograph: (Others)

WION Dharwad, Karnataka, India Feb 21, 2017, 07.38 AM (IST) Ganesh N Devy

Over the world, there is an anxiety about languages dying or, more accurately, Language (with ‘L’ capital)  itself dying. Perhaps, the present century will be remembered as the Aphasia Century during which natural languages perished.  

Two opposite types of predictions for the future of the Homo-sapiens are currently popular. The optimistic prediction projects humans as traveling to the outer spaces, shuttling between planets. The inter-planetary colonisers of the future will communicate through electro-magnetic symbols rather than sound-icons used now. 

The pessimistic projection imagines an over-crowded earth that is emptied of its natural resources, enslaved by few global corporations and with the masses ‘silenced’.  All communication in such a world is placed under a careful surveillance.

 All currently fashionable utopias or dystopias imagine humans of the future as reticent species. However, in the early stages of civilisation, myths and legends had imagined birds, animals and trees with the ability to speak in human tongues. Perhaps, humans are rapidly moving out of the ‘language-phase’ of the evolution of life.  Dyslexia and aphasia will probably be the most wide-spread language disorders in the next few generations.

Reports emerging from numerous linguistic communities indicate that about two-third languages will vanish by the end of this century

There are several estimates of the number of dying languages. As yet, no definitive and comprehensive global language survey has ever been conducted. Various international bodies like to place the number of living languages between 5000 and 7000.  Against these estimates of natural languages, reports emerging from numerous linguistic communities indicate that about two-thirds will vanish by the end of this century, and of the remaining 2000 odd languages, only a few hundred will function intact. The looming spectre of such large-scale language loss is terrifying.

The loss of a language is not entirely driven by political and economic factors. Previously, socio-linguistic experts used the analytical framework of political domination to explain the general decline of languages. However, in today’s world, causes, such as policy-deficit, neglect by the state, an absence of vernacular education and poor maintenance of resources that had been conventionally put forward to explain the decline of languages do not seem to explain the scale and the speed at which languages are going down. 

Perhaps, a far more profound change is affecting languages. It is yet to be fully determined if the change is propelled by shifts within the human brain, a constantly developing part of the body, or if it is a cumulative result of our engagement with new communication technologies, or if the process of natural evolution is pushing us to enter a phase of existence. Finding answers to all or any one of these questions will require a huge amount of research.    

In India, the language scenario is somewhat perplexing. While India tops the UNESCO list of  ‘languages in danger’ with a good 197 languages having gone past the danger signal, there are about 850 living languages in sight. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) has identified and described 780. The PLSI admits that it might have overlooked about 80 to 100 languages that are still in existence. 

The language situation in India is fraught with contradictions. For example, the survival rate of Indian languages is certainly much higher than indigenous languages of other countries which have experienced forms of colonial domination. On the other hand, the rate of decline of many indigenous languages in India over the last fifty years is very alarming too. A quarter of the language stock in this country has been wiped out.  

Those 'bhashas' that got printed started producing literature amenable for the print medium. The ones that did not get printed came to be unfairly branded as ‘oral languages’

While trying to understand the language situation in the country, the following four factors specifically need to be taken into account.  

Firstly, at the beginning of the second millennium, a large number of ‘new’ languages, such as Kashmiri, Punjabi, Bangla, Oriya, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam and Telugu started emerging in all parts of the subcontinent. At the time of their origin, they had to face cultural domination of Sanskrit or Tamil. Later, for several centuries they had to deal with the more powerful Arabic and Persian. And, over the last two centuries, they have had to deal with English. 

These languages have all survived three phases of challenges from other languages. And today, despite the anxiety of semantic erosion, many of these languages appear to have numerically overtaken several international languages, such as Japanese, Russian, Italian, German and even French. The innate strength of these languages needs to be more fully understood.

The second factor which impacted the survival chances of any language is the false segregation resulting from the exposure of only some languages to printing technology at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. When the colonial printing department at Fort William in Kolkata started printing books in Indian languages, the selection of languages was quite arbitrary. Subsequently, those 'bhashas' that got printed started producing literature amenable for the print medium. The ones that did not get printed came to be unfairly branded as ‘oral languages’. The hierarchical positioning of languages that came out of this historical accident continues to haunt the prospect of all dialect. 

While the Constitution guarantees the fundamental right of free expression, it provides explicit safeguards to only some of the languages. On the eve of independence, the language question surfaced in the Constituent Assembly debates. Language-related discussions took place in every session of the Constituent Assembly. Unfortunately, these discussions never ended in any consensus. And like several other unfinished discussions, the language debate assumed the form of a Schedule. The 8th Schedule of the Constitution which initially had 14 languages, and which now has 22 listed in it, has caused the emergence of a completely non-linguistic category described in official terms as ‘Non-Scheduled Languages.’

One of the more significant aspects of the language situation in India is the reorganisation of states in terms of linguistic identity. Though not all of the 29 Indian states are all purely linguistic states, the majority of them are. Obviously, the language identities forming the basis of the states have been quite detrimental to the existence of other languages, particularly the ones spoken by smaller numbers.

While colonialism managed to wipe out most indigenous languages elsewhere, why is it that so many of the Indian languages survived it?

The People’s Linguistic Survey of India was a huge exercise. I have often been asked questions like: ‘How many languages has India lost?’ and ‘How many languages does India really have?’ To me, these queries look somewhat naïve. Far more meaningful would be the question: 'While colonialism managed to wipe out most indigenous languages elsewhere, why is it that so many of the Indian languages survived it?'  A more crucial question for us to answer is, 'When most leading technologies of our time are language based, why can't our numerous languages be a kind of a capital for us?'  

Indeed, if the multiple ways of looking at the relation between ‘zero’ and ‘one’, symbolising absence and presence, that our languages have developed were to be brought to the computation theory, the entire gamut of computer sciences can be radically re-cast. This will, however, require long years of focused research.  

Despite the unfortunate historical factors that have stratified our languages, we need to view the diversity, not as a liability but constituting the very essence of India.  Instead of squandering the rare resource, languages should be put to use in helping India become a prosperous nation.  


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)


Ganesh N Devy

Ganesh Devy led the People's Linguistic Survey of India in 2010, which has researched and documented 780 Living Indian Languages

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