Anvita Abbi is a distinguished scholar on minority languages. She has conducted extensive field research on all the language families in India and also identified a new language family—the Great Andamanese—a moribund language that is key to understanding the peopling of Asia and Oceania. Abbi taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for around four decades and served as the UNESCO expert on language issues. She is at present on the Expert Committee of the UNESCO World Atlas of Languages.
Last December, the United Nations launched the “International Decade of Indigenous Languages” to draw attention to the critical situation of indigenous languages and to mobilise support for their “preservation”, “revitalisation”, and “promotion”. In this interview, Abbi discusses the crisis facing indigenous languages in India and how the dominant paradigm of development imperils them. Excerpts:
The world speaks around 7,000 languages, 50 to 95 per cent of which might be extinct or seriously endangered by the end of the century. The risk looms large on indigenous languages. How alarming is the situation in India?
A significant portion of the Indian linguistic diversity is represented by its indigenous languages, primarily spoken by over 700 tribal communities. The languages facing extinction fall within the rich stock of 800-plus languages that were never written down. Around 156 of them, spoken by less than 10,000 people, will soon be history unless there is an urgent course correction.
These languages have lost vitality due to the subjugation of their speakers, change in linguistic ecology, the hegemony of modern languages, disregard for the oral tradition, and so on. The languages that are not written are considered “primitive” and thus given no importance in school education. In that sense, indigenous languages in India are not dying; they are either being killed, or the speakers are compelled to do mass hara-kiri of their traditional tongues.
Why is it imperative to save a dying indigenous language?
It is extremely important because they are witness to the diverse and varying ways in which the human cognitive faculties perceive the world. Contrary to the general belief, an oral tradition is a community’s collective cultural heritage that has kept alive thousands of years of experience and knowledge.
For instance, most of the tribal languages of north-eastern India have very interesting complex linguistic structures known as “expressives”, which convey the five senses of perception, feelings, emotions, attitudes, and culture of a community. Khasi, the language spoken in Meghalaya, has 66 different expressives to indicate the manner of yaid (walk); 57 to represent different ways of yam (crying); 38 ways to represent krin (speak); and 20 to indicate varied ways to bam (eat). Similarly, the Naga languages are also unique, having a large variety of expressives.
But the rising use of English in schools is endangering such structures in the current use of Khasi and Naga. Once lost, the speakers would be left with a very significant gap in the area of cognition and their ability to describe a panoramic view of the action in a simple word. With the death of such languages, the world will forever lose an invaluable wealth of diverse ways of thinking, different kinds of cognitive abilities, and unique world views.
In an attempt to preserve, revitalise, and promote the languages of the indigenous people, the UN has proclaimed 2022-2033 as the “International Decade of Indigenous Languages”. However, in India, some continue to push the idea of “One nation, One language”.
I wish people were not so insensitive and imprudent to propose the “One nation, One language” theory in a country of multiple languages, cultures, and world views. One’s ability and freedom to choose one’s language are essential for one’s dignity, a seamless transmission of centuries-old knowledge, history, beliefs, traditions, and general well-being. Besides, learning the languages of others is essential for meaningful interaction, co-existence, and peaceful living.
The right to use one’s language, expression, and opinion in public life without fear of discrimination is a prerequisite to inclusiveness and equality—the hallmarks of democracy. Choosing one language over others amounts to usurping the rights of people in transmitting oral traditions, robbing them of their ability to express themselves, and deleting a plethora of knowledge bases hidden in linguistic diversity. It is like reformatting a hard disk without leaving any traces of previous information.
The use of the mother tongue is not an ordinary experience acquired at an early age of human growth. It is a vehicle of our cognition, our worldly experiences, and our most important instrument for shaping brain structure as proved by neurologists. Thus, the mother tongue or the first language of a child is the most significant asset for the development of cognitive abilities and creative thinking.
I have been propagating for years that uniformity kills. Uniformity is not unity. We must understand that single language domination, primarily through education, judiciary, and political system, pushes society to violence, intolerance, and subjugation. Scientists have proved that childhood multilingualism protects us from old-age diseases such as amnesia and Alzheimer’s. It has been observed by neurologists that in the event of a stroke faced by a bilingual patient, one of the two languages can be retained.
The right to use one’s language, including sign language, should be enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is with this rationale that the UN has announced the decade of 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.
In the Andamans, you worked closely with the last speakers of ancient languages. What did the loss of tongue personally mean to them? Now, with their death, what has the world lost?
“Hold on to your language, don’t let it slip away.” These prophetic words of Boa Sr, one of the last speakers of the Great Andamanese languages who passed away on January 26, 2010, kept ringing in my mind for a long time. Boa spoke in Bo, one of the vanishing tongues of the Great Andamanese language family which had no living speakers other than her. “Once I am gone who will you talk to?” she would often lament.
Once spoken vibrantly by over 5,000 members across the Andaman Islands, indigenous languages have now turned into whispers as there are only four semi-speakers left in the community. The elders feel the loss of the heritage language akin to losing a body part. Boa Sr would often say to me: “My heart sinks seeing that the youth of the community knows neither our language nor the art of hunting.” Nao Jr, who died much before his time in 2009, also conveyed the same sentiments. So did Licho, the last speaker of Sare, who passed away in 2020.
Linguistically, Great Andamanese is a unique language with no parallel being attested in any other language of the world so far. Sadly, it has become an evolutionary footnote right in front of my eyes. With the loss of all the 10 Great Andamanese languages, the world has lost its ancient heritage, a significant piece in the puzzle of language evolution and the vestige of one of the oldest civilisations on this planet.
In India, the indigenes constitute over 40 per cent of the estimated 50 million people displaced by development projects spanning over 50 years. Research shows that development-induced displacement imperils indigenous languages. What can the champions of the Rs.72,000-crore mega project in Great Nicobar learn from the linguicide in Great Andaman?
Many of the world’s languages are vital parts of complex local ecologies. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands represent one of them. Before the British colonised Great Andaman in the mid-19th century, 10 groups of the Great Andamanese inhabited the island, speaking 10 different languages that were mutually intelligible like a link in a chain. While the two ends of the chain were distant from each other, the links in between were close to each other in a mutual intelligibility scale. But soon after colonisation, these millennia-old languages lost their vitality and died away.
The same fate awaits the Shompen and the Nicobarese in Great Nicobar under the current mega project. It is a no-brainer that the indigenous traditional knowledge of the environment is a key resource for the tribes in developing innovative solutions to combating hunger and protecting biodiversity. The languages of the Shompen and the Nicobarese carry evidence of earlier environments, habitats, practices, ways of living, world views, and secrets of survival. The project-induced displacement in Great Nicobar will destroy their languages and oral tradition, leading to an irreparable loss of culture, ecological knowledge, and secrets of human survival and sustenance.
Sadly, we are heading towards a macabre dystopia wherein ill-conceived developmental programmes can end up destroying an entire civilisation along with the island’s endemic biodiversity.
Three popular islands in the Andamans were rechristened in 2018. Recently, on the occasion of the 126th birth anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose, 21 “uninhabited” islands were named after recipients of Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest wartime gallantry award. How do you view these developments?
In principle, there is nothing wrong in naming islands after our great warriors, freedom fighters, or political figures. But why rename those that had names for thousands of years and that too in local Great Andamanese languages? Each of these islands had names from one of the 10 ancient Great Andamanese languages representing the ecological features of those islands, viz. Thilar siro, “Havelock Island”, known for turtles; Tebi siro, “Neil Island”, known for the shores of the open sea; Lurua, “Bluff Island”, where the first fire was found by the ancient tribe.
Even Little Andaman has an indigenous name, Ilumu toro, named after some species of flowers. The Andaman archipelago, too, has a name, Marakele, which means “our land”.
The islanders were not happy when Ross Island was renamed after Subhas Chandra Bose as they associate him with the Japanese army which had traumatised them during the Second World War. It is also unfair to rename Neil and Havelock Islands with a Sanskritised version as these islands already had indigenous names in a language that is much older than Sanskrit. The naming of the Andaman Islands could have been done in a manner that recognises, respects, and represents their ecological characters, unique oral histories of the ancient tribes, and a precious heritage language of our nation—the Great Andamanese.
Ajay Saini is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.
- A significant portion of the Indian linguistic diversity is represented by its indigenous languages, primarily spoken by over 700 tribal communities.
- Around 156 languages, spoken by less than 10,000 people, will soon be history unless there is an urgent course correction.
- An oral tradition is a community’s collective cultural heritage that has kept alive thousands of years of experience and knowledge.
- With the death of such languages, the world will forever lose an invaluable wealth of diverse ways of thinking, different kinds of cognitive abilities, and unique world views.
- With the loss of all the 10 Great Andamanese languages, the world has lost its ancient heritage, a significant piece in the puzzle of language evolution and the vestige of one of the oldest civilisations on this planet.