One’s mother tongue is closest to any person as is one’s mother. It is from the mother that a child learns language skills. No mother ever teaches a newborn the rules of grammar; yet all those extremely complicated rules are internalised by the child by merely watching the lip movements and gestures of its mother and by imbibing the tones and textures of her speech. There is a somewhat wrong and widespread impression that children learn languages in school. That may be true of the languages other than the language of one’s home. One has to “learn” through grammar and translation the second or the third language, or more. But, the making of the human brain allows a child to learn most of the complexities of the mother tongue by the time the child is three years old. Writing is another matter. In any case, in the several million years history of Homo sapiens, writing emerged as an apparatus of expression, communication, and memory-storing just about seven thousand years ago. Language is essentially speech; writing is an additional feature that enables long-distance and inter-generational language transactions.
In the rural set-up of my childhood, I had heard a number of languages other than my home language being spoken by people of various communities in the weekly market. The radio was a relatively new gadget in my village. On getting the new radio set at home, I rotated the knob for locating “stations” with great curiosity and heard a few languages that I had not heard in the weekly market being spoken on the radio. This made me curious to know how many more there could be in the world.
As a university student in the 1970s, I happened to see a booklet containing census data on Indian languages. It had a list of 109 languages. The last was “all others”, indicating that there were more than 108 languages. To see if the previous census had any clue, I searched in the university library for data of the 1961 census. What I saw in it was mind-blowing. It had a clear list of 1,652 “mother tongues” claimed by the people of India as “their languages”. If one were to draw a conclusion by comparing the two figures, it would be that India had lost a total of 1,544 “mother tongues” in the ten years between 1961 and 1971. Yet, that would have been a bit of a rushed judgment.
The language census data, unlike most other statistics, cannot be sorted out through simple arithmetic calculations. It requires scrutiny by trained linguists. The language data brings in “claims” to mother tongues but not the language samples on the basis of which those claims are made. Thus, linguists working for the Registrar of Indian Census have to go through available library resources to find out if names of mother tongues claimed by the enumerated people are recorded in scholarly literature. Obviously, this takes time. Therefore, the language data is normally the very last to be announced in every census exercise.
Also read: Why Pali lost out
Between the census of 1971 and the disclosure of the language data, the Bangladesh war took place. East Pakistan— which later became Bangladesh— sought separation from West Pakistan on the question of language. It was natural, therefore, if Indian government looked at language diversity with some anxiety and decided to find ways of showing India’s language diversity by reducing the number of languages. In order to do so, the government introduced a “cut-off figure of 10,000 speakers”. This cut-off figure had no scientific basis. For a language to be a language, it is enough to have just two speakers alive. Ten thousand was a bureaucratic fancy. But, it stuck to the census in all subsequent decades, until the last census in 2011. Had the 1,544 “mother tongues” suddenly become silent around 1970? Obviously not. They continued their life in their own small demographic and geographic pockets.
- The decade-wise proportion of various language speakers to India’s total population indicate that in 1961 the Bangla speakers were 8.17 per cent of the total population, half a century later, their proportion had decreased to 8.03 per cent.
- In the case of Marathi, it had gone down from 7.62 to 6.86 per cent; Telugu down from 8.16 to 6.70 and Tamil, far worse, from 6.88 to 5.70 per cent of the total population.
- Hindi’s share is shown on a constantly and aggressively upward swing moving from 36.99 per cent in 1961 to 43.63 per cent of the total population in 2011.
In order to know how many of them really disappeared because of the government placing an artificial ceiling on testifying their existence, one has to compare the 1971 census with the 2011 census. Following exactly the same methodology for the enumeration of languages claimed by people as their “mother tongues”, the 2011 census concluded that there were 1,369 mother tongues spoken by the people of India. By juxtaposing the two figures, one can conclude that (1,652-1,369=283) two hundred and eighty three mother tongues died during the fifty years from 1961 to 2011. That makes on average four or five languages a year, or a language gone every two or three months.
Considering that many of the “dead” languages have existed previously for over a millennium, the death rate of languages in India is shocking. When the census uses the term “mother tongues”, it does not easily occur to one that they include not just small and minor languages but also all of the major languages. The decade-wise proportion of various language speakers to India’s total population indicate that in 1961 the Bangla speakers were 8.17 per cent of the total population, half a century later, their proportion had decreased to 8.03 per cent. In the case of Marathi, it had gone down from 7.62 to 6.86 per cent; Telugu down from 8.16 to 6.70 and Tamil, far worse, from 6.88 to 5.70 per cent of the total population. In fact, the first eight most-spoken languages after Hindi—Bangla, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu, Kannada, and Odia—constituted 42.37 per cent of India’s total population in 2011, while Hindi alone had a higher share of 43.63 per cent.
Hindi’s share is shown on a constantly and aggressively upward swing moving from 36.99 per cent in 1961 to 43.63 per cent of the total population in 2011. The otherwise cold figures of the 2011 census show that except for Hindi, Sanskrit, and Gujarati, all other scheduled languages have continuously eroded. Sanskrit was claimed by 2,212 persons as their “mother tongue” in 1961. In the 2011 data, this figure was shown eleven times higher at 24,821. The 2011 language data was disclosed in 2018.
Also read:Girl power revolution
Tamil is the most ancient and yet living language of the world. Kannada and Marathi have been around for nearly two millennia. Malayalam, Bangla, and Odia, too, have been in existence for nearly a thousand years. Sanskrit has ceased to be a living language for more than 1,000 years. In contrast, English, which arrived in India in the 17th century and has received a wide acceptance, is shown in the census as spoken by a total of 2,59,878 speakers. Just do a quick addition of the number of copies that English dailies print, the number of English medium schools in India’s 7,00,000 villages and 2,000 towns and cities, TRPs of English TV channels, and see if the figure for English speakers (as against the Sanskrit speakers) appears authentic. The sad conclusion one is compelled to draw is that all minor and major languages of Indian people, except the ones liked by the Hindutva ideology are facing an existential crisis. For a multilingual union of States that India is, as defined in the Constitution, that is no good news.
Ganesh Devy is Obaid Siddiqi Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.