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'Economically powerful languages will edge out others'


LOST TONGUES: Religion has helped keep many languages alive but that is not true in the case of Sanskrit, says Mohanty (left). Even priests don't really understand the chants these days, he points out

What does the world lose when a language is lost?

A language embodies a culture, an entire knowledge system. Both are lost when a language vanishes off the face of the earth which has been the case with many tribal societies, for instance. Many elements of their traditional knowledge - like their ethnobotanical knowledge and their ethnomedicine - are lost forever. Much deserved attention is focussed on saving our biodiversity but the Earth's mental health - its languages, cultures and knowledge systems - is also hugely important.

It is widely reported that half the world's approximately 7, 000 languages are at risk of disappearing this century. Some reports say that a language will go extinct every two weeks. Is this a grave situation?

Well yes, the situation requires urgent attention, but might be somewhat exaggerated by predominantly Western perceptions. A lot of research into language extinction has studied Native American and aboriginal languages in the US and Australia. These societies have been the victims of old genocides and are indeed in grave danger of their languages dying out. It's quite different in India, where such historical violence did not take place in most instances. Some tribal languages, like Toda, spoken in the Nilgiris, are even seen as doing relatively well. Pali is still around in some ways. But yes, many others are in danger of dying out very soon.

Major reasons for the accelerated rate of language extinction today are the forces of so-called globalisation and liberalisation. As everyone wants to become richer, some languages that are more economically powerful will edge out others. Like English at the international level and Hindi at the national level - everyone wants to learn them, to get jobs and to gain 'prestige'. Children will be taught the more powerful language and, more importantly, people will start speaking it at home to familiarise children.
At one level, even Hindi is losing ground in India. Look at some indicators. Even in the Hindi heartland, you would see many road signs in English, and this is increasing. Reading and writing competencies are being lost.

Are poverty and underdevelopment key factors in driving a language to extinction?

Certainly, and migration due to these factors is also a major factor. For example, most cooks in eateries in Hyderabad, where I live, are Oriya. They speak Hindi here, not Telugu, and can't use Oriya. Their children here speak only Hindi. Oriya is no longer 'a prestige language' for them. So you can imagine what it would be like for more marginal and tribal languages. Take Santhali;it's spoken across four states (Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, Odisha) but is still threatened by underdevelopment.

Some prominent examples of highly endangered Indian languages?

Based on my research, I would list five tribal languages spoken in southern Odisha as critically endangered. Three belong to the Munda (also known as Austro-Asiatic ) family: Gorum or Parengi, Remo or Bonda and Gata or Didayi. (Many such languages have two names: those used by speakers, and those given by outsiders. ) Two more endangered languages I would list belong to the Dravidian family: Manda and Pengo. Ethnologue, the most comprehensive global index of languages, lists 5, 000 speakers for Gorum/Parengi near Koraput, but I've seen only about 25 to 30 speakers. There is a 'community' of 5, 000, but they all speak Oriya. These few Gorum speakers are all over 70 years of age and only meet 3-4 times a week, during which they speak the language for just 5 to 10 minutes.

Can a dying language be saved?

If a language is on the verge of extinction, in many cases we can only record what we are about to lose. But if great efforts are made, especially by the state, languages in which people have a 'passive competency' (where the language is understood but not widely spoken) can be revived. Primers may be prepared and the language may be taught to children. This is what happened with Hebrew in Israel. Religion and rituals kept the language alive. Sanskrit's case, however, is very different;most priests don't understand what they're saying or chanting, or most people.

Google, with its technological heft and financial muscle, has helped set up the global Endangered Languages Project (ELP). Could this make a big difference?

Technology is a huge enabler. Take the Gorum/ Parenga example. If we started a small community radio service and began writing and broadcasting in the language, it would make an appreciable difference. Primers could be prepared in the Oriya script (most of Europe speaks different languages but uses the same script) and disseminated. Look at how the Welsh language in the Roman script is promoted in the UK.
The Google-backed effort has just been announced;it's still early days but it's certainly a big step forward. It has three big factors working in its favour. People who understand the problem, who have worked on it, have been brought together in such a way for the first time, with funds. Two, technology will help us better collaborate and store research. I have been asked to record samples and upload them, for instance. And three, this project will now better allow non-specialists and experts from other fields - like anthropologists and documentation experts - to come together with linguists. Online tools will be a great help.

Are there are any India-specific challenges?

Our misfortune is that we have government planning of every sort but no language planning. We don't seem to realise the need at all, and appear resigned to letting nature take its course. Some states take great pride in their language and do some things in this regard, like Tamil Nadu, which had a language ministry. But many others don't do anything. There are incentives to study Hindi, but very little for other languages. Umpteen studies have shown multilingual people tend to be smarter, yet the basis of multilingualism, in an inherently multilingual country like ours, is preserving the mother tongue.

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