TOI/28 Dec 2008: It took Ashok Kumar Baxla almost 30 years, and a visit to Germany, to decide that he wanted to learn his mother tongue. Baxla, an agrometeorologistwith the Ministry of Earth Sciences in Delhi, could barely speak a smattering of Kurukh - the language of the Oraon tribe to which he belongs - before he went for a year-long official visit to Germany. He spent the first five months studying German. "That inspired me to learn Kurukh. Till then, I only knew a few words picked up during visits to my village in Jharkhand," says Baxla, who grew up in Ranchi. He is now fluent in the language, and has been a key member of the Kurukh Literary Society since its launch in 2006. Last month, the society decided to publish Kurukh folktales.
"We want to develop original literature in Kurukh, and also make it more socially acceptable, especially for the younger generation," says Baxla.
Like him, many people are now trying to keep their native language alive, some of them so little known that their existence may be unheard of outside the group of speakers. When the recent International Film Festival of India in Goa featured Yarwng, a movie in Tripura's Kokborok language, information & broadcasting minister Anand Sharma is said to have admitted that he didn't know such a language exists.
Hundreds of languages are in a similar state the world over. Reports from UNESCO say over 50% of some 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing. Experts estimate that 96% of the world's languages are spoken by 4% of the population, and one language disappears on average every two weeks.
India, which has 22 scheduled languages (the number increased from 18, when Bodo, Dogri, Maithili and Santhali were added to the list in 2003), has also seen some shift in the language profile of populations. In the 1961 Census of India, 1,652 mother tongues were recorded. However, the 2001 census listed only 234 identifiable mother tongues - those which have 10,000 or more speakers each at an all-India level.
"Mother tongues which have less than 10,000 speakers in India, are in a pathetic condition," says Professor Ganesh Devy, founding trustee of the Vadodara-based Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, which promotes the study, documentation and conservation of languages not protected by the Constitution of India. Devy reveals that hundreds of them, such as the Kolati language spoken by traditional rope-walkers of Maharashtra and Karnataka, are on the verge of extinction.
The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing mentions that "in the Andaman Islands, there are only a few dozen people left who speak Vnge and Shompen."
"The Great Andamanese language is already extinct, and these people have been speaking Jero," says Vaishna Narang, professor of linguistics at JNU. He has worked on the documentation and preservation of the languages of the Andaman & Nicobar Island.
But now, adds Narang, these island inhabitants can't even converse fluently in Jero. "They speak Port Blair Hindi," she says, blaming the government for their patchy assimilation with the mainstream society.
Linguists like her are deeply concerned about preserving the minor languages of the country. Language, after all, is not just a medium of communication. It is also a source of information about the history and culture of any society. "Preservation of languages is our concern, and should be our concern," says Narang, adding the mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction at the primary school level.
Also, educationists say that promoting the use of mother tongue can boost the self-esteem of marginalized people. This has been noticeable in Jharkhand, which has worked to further the use of the tribal languages spoken in the state. "The tribal society is realizing that if we don't teach the native language to our children, they may later develop an identity crisis," says Dr Karma Oraon, head, anthropology department, Ranchi University. The university, which has a post-graduate Department of Tribal and Regional Languages, offers bachelors and masters courses in Kurmali and Mundari.
In other parts of the country too, organizations are working to promote such languages. A five-day training programme on tribal languages development was conducted this past week at the Tribal Research Institute, Chingmeirong, Manipur, where concerns were voiced about the 35 languages in the state that need to be protected and encouraged by the government. The Central Institute Of Indian Languages at Mysore is compiling an online information database called Language Information Services (LIS), with details like the history, structure, script, and oral and written literature of 16 languages each from the scheduled and non-scheduled groups, including Juang, Kharia, Khasi, Korku, Kom, Lahnda, Nyishi, Rabha and Thadou. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) is working on making various Indian languages compatible with computers.
Also, new scripts have been developed for languages such as Lambadi, Kurukh and Santhali.
Devy has been involved in preparation of study material in Rathwi, Dehwali, Dungri Bhili and Pavri languages and pictorial glossaries in Rathwi and Dehwali. He, however, emphasises that not every language in the world has a script, the best example being English, which is written in the Roman script. "The development of a language is not logically related to the presence of a script," he says.
"What it is strongly related to, on the other hand, is having enough speakers." And that can come only when people feel connected with their roots. "No amount of effort from the government will help any language," says Devy, citing the example of "sarkari Hindi"."Ultimately, people have to take pride in their language, and have development opportunity in it."
A classic war of words
In a country where state boundaries have been drawn on a linguistic basis, it is no surprise that language regularly emerges as a bone of contention. The most recent issue rankling some Indians is the Centre's decision to accord classical language status to Telugu and Kannada while ignoring Malayalam. The announcement, made earlier this month, has prompted the Kerala government to approach the Centre with a 'statement of facts' that details the parallels Malayalam has with Kannada and Telugu.
Telugu and Kannada have joined Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil in the group of classical languages, which makes Malayalam the only South Indian language to have been excluded. To be accorded the status of a classical language, a language must have a recorded history of over 1,000 years, its literary tradition must be original and not borrowed from any speech community, and it should have a rich body of ancient literature. After Tamil was accorded the status in 2004, Kannada and Telugu activists had lobbied hard to get their languages included in the group.
Eminent poet ONV Kurup, who prepared the report for Kerala, stresses that no language other than Sanskrit can strictly be called a classical language in India. "All the four South Indian languages have originated from the same Proto-Dravidian language," says Kurup. "And since Tamil is nearer to it than the others, we can perhaps consider it a classical language too."
However, Kurup asserts that though Kannada and Telugu have a slightly earlier beginning than Malayalam, one or two centuries should not make a difference. "The three are equally influenced by Sanskrit and have developed quite similarly."