I grew up speaking Konkani as my mother tongue, always wondering why the Konkani spoken by my paternal grandmother was so different from the language I heard at my mother’s family home. One grandma would address me as chelda and the other one would call me bala, both meaning child. In later years I heard more versions of Konkani, from the Marathi-influenced dialect to the lilting tones that characterise the Goan version.
Given that there are four different kinds of Konkani, each with a widely differing vocabulary of words, it does not sound far-fetched when Ganesh Devy, a professor and founder of the Vadodara-based Bhasha Research and Publication Trust, says that India is home to as many as 800 different languages. In Gujarat alone, for instance, Bhasha has found that there are as many as 47 distinct tongues.
Since 2011, Bhasha, with support from the Jamsetji Tata Trust, has been on a mission to survey India and capture the various languages and dialects — it does not distinguish between the two — spoken across the country. Under a project called the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), and supported by a chain of non-government organisations, volunteers and eminent linguists from several states, Bhasha is recording the languages spoken by thousands of communities, castes and tribes.
The PLSI project is an attempt to preserve some of India’s traditional, and predominantly, oral heritage. A couple of years ago, media reports detailed the death of the last surviving member of the Bo community of the Andaman Islands. With her death, the cultural history and knowledge of a community estimated to have been in existence for about 65,000 years was lost forever. After all, language is the medium by which the sum total of all knowledge — history, culture, traditions, ecology, etc — is passed on from one generation to the next.
When funding became an issue, Bhasha approached the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Allied Trusts, which allocated a grant of Rs10 million for the project. According to Niyati Mehta, programme officer for media, art and culture with the Trusts, the concern is that “languages across India, many of them as yet unrecorded, are disappearing at a rapid pace and, with it, a part of our history, knowledge and culture”.
What makes PLSI significant is that it attempts to map languages that may have less than 10,000 speakers and, thus, are not covered under government census surveys. More than 15 states have already been covered and 350-odd languages documented to date. At the end of the exercise, which will continue till 2013, PLSI will publish the language data collected as a set of 42 volumes: 21 in English, 12 in Hindi and nine in regional languages.
The output, one can be sure, will be the equivalent of Aladdin’s cave for linguists, etymologists and sociologists. “A linguistic snapshot of India would not only create a benchmark for future language surveys but also include the community’s perspective,” says Ms Mehta.
Recently, Bhasha has started work on the digitisation of the collected data and it is setting up 122 language sites under the main PLSI domain, which is in English. “The site will be an online depository of several Indian languages,” says Bhasha’s designer, Anshul Agrawal.
There is an element of criticality to the PLSI exercise, as hundreds of languages have already become extinct. Mr Devy estimates that as many as 600 tribal languages were lost in the years between 1900 and 2000, and says a further 250 to 300 are on the verge of dying out this century. Unesco has estimated that as many 196 Indian languages are endangered.
Why is it so important to record and preserve languages that are confined to groups of a few hundred or thousand speakers? One of the reasons is the vast pool of community knowledge that exists in hundreds of India’s smaller tribes. Mr Devy illustrates this with one example: “There are about 120 different words that connote snow among the tribes that live in the Himalayan region. With the threat of global warming and melting glaciers looming over India’s northern parts, it will one day become very important to understand the glacial environment by communicating with the people who are living there.”
The preservation of India’s multilingual culture also resonates with issues of sustainable governance and inclusive development. For India’s socioeconomic progress to be sustainable, it is important for the state and the private sector to understand the hinterland communities in which they operate.
Tata Steel, for instance, has set up a tribal cultural society to promote local traditions and culture and preserve languages such as Santhali and Ho. According to Mr Devy, there is a strong element of social injustice in not recognising the languages spoken by smaller communities, which are dying out as they are slowly replaced by those languages recognised, and patronised, by the state machinery.
The repercussions for India are many. Take, for example, India’s challenges in boosting literacy rates. The country’s constitution recognises only 22 languages as a part of its eighth schedule. This implies that textbooks, teachers, instruction mediums, schools and funds for — in a word, education — are available only in these 22 languages. It seems commonsensical that young children be taught first in their mother tongue before they are exposed to learning in another language. Yet millions of children across India are forced to settle for education in an unfamiliar language. “If you map the parts of India where illiteracy is highest, you will find that it matches the parts where the mother tongues of children are different from the official language,” says Mr Devy.
For the 15 years of its existence, Bhasha has taken the route of languages to introduce equitability in India’s fragmented society. Apart from its education initiative, Bhasha’s other language bridges include tribal theatre and publications. Dhol was a highly popular magazine that was brought out in several tribal languages. “It garnered a tremendous response. We had tribals lining up to buy these magazines, spending money that was precious, just to read stories written in their tongue,” says Mr Devy. Bhasha now publishes a magazine called Lakhara, a collection of tales and songs in many different languages, printed in the Devnagiri script instead of Gujarati. “The communities who speak these languages live not just in Gujarat but also in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. Devnagiri is a script which they all can understand,” says Jeetendra Vasava, a faculty member at the academy.
It is these positive experiences of communication with India’s tribes, small villages, miniscule communities and nomadic sects that fuelled the PLSI project. “Three years ago a linguistic survey of India was a seemingly impossible task. Today we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Mr Devy.
Although the challenges of working with thousands of volunteers and hundreds of languages are many, the professor believes that the end impact will be worth the effort. “We hope to conserve India’s language capital. We want to increase awareness of the oral heritage that lies within the hundreds of minor and less heard languages of India. And, along the way, we hope to improve the possibility of offering children the option of studying in their mother tongue.”
As a secular democracy, India’s constitution respects cultural diversity. PLSI’s multilingual quest just may help the country walk the talk.