The rising threat to Indian languages

The missing Census 2021, the NEP, and the rapid growth in AI have endangered them.

Published : Mar 23, 2023 10:35 IST - 7 MINS READ

Language is the most crucial aspect of cultural capital. Inscriptions in Tamil carved on the stone walls of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur.

Language is the most crucial aspect of cultural capital. Inscriptions in Tamil carved on the stone walls of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the last three decades, scientists have come up with mathematical models to predict the life of languages. These predictions have invariably indicated that the human species is moving rapidly close to the extinction of a large part of its linguistic heritage. While they do not agree on the exact magnitude of the impending disaster, the predictions concur that close to three-quarters of all existing human languages already have a foot in the grave.

On the other hand are the advocates of linguistic globalisation, who prefer the spread of one language, or only a few languages, all over the world so that communication across national boundaries becomes easy. Obviously, the nations and communities that have learnt to live within a single language, whose economic well-being is not dependent on knowing languages other than their own, whose knowledge systems are secure within their own languages, will not experience the stress of language loss, at least not immediately, although the loss of the world’s total language heritage will have numerous indirect enfeebling effects for them too.

Since it is mainly language that makes us human and distinguishes us from other species and animate nature, and since the human consciousness can but function with the ability for linguistic expression, it becomes necessary to recognise language as the most crucial aspect of cultural capital. It has taken us continuous work of about half a million years to accumulate this capital. In our time, we have come close to the point of losing most of it.

Language as cultural capital

Some of the predictions maintain that out of approximately “6,000-plus” existing languages, not more than 300 will survive into the 22nd century. In the absence of thorough surveys of languages, it is difficult to determine how many languages there really are in existence; and it is even more difficult to predict how many of these, and precisely which ones, will survive.

The history of every language has strange and unpredictable turns. The recent upward trend of some of the tribal languages in India, such as Bhojpuri and Bhili, can be cited as examples. They defy established sociolinguistic assumptions. In history, some mighty languages, supported by mighty empires, have been seen to disintegrate and give rise to new languages under the influence of the ones on the margins of power.

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While these amazing exceptions do exist, and will continue to emerge in future as well, it is the lived experience of people in countries like Nigeria, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India that most languages are passing through a rapid depletion in the domains of language transaction and word-stocks. The ability of speakers in non-global languages to express complex concepts is seen to be reducing alarmingly; and the semantic layering of words in most languages is wearing off.

Historians of civilisation tell us that a comparable, though obviously not identical, situation had arisen in the past some 7,000-8,000 years ago when human beings discovered seeds. When the shift from hunting-gathering or pastoralist economies to early agrarian economies happened, we are told, the language diversity of the world was severely affected.

It may not be wrong to surmise that the current crisis in human languages, too, is triggered by a fundamental economic shift that has enveloped the world. This time, though, it has an added theme, as a lot of human activity is dominated by man-made intelligence. Technologies aligned with artificial intelligence depend heavily on modelling the activity of the human mind along linguistic transactions.

Intelligent machines modelled after the neurological and psychological paths of the human mind and brain are coming into common use. Language-based technologies are now well-entrenched partners in the semantic universes that bind human communities together. Therefore, those universes are being reshaped and reconstructed.

“ A language not yet placed within any system of orthographic representation is seen as a liability.”

It is particularly the communities whose voices do not get heard that are at the receiving end in this phenomenal transition. Having a language of your own that is not yet placed within any system of orthographic representation has come to be seen as a liability, a developmental debacle, and sign of backwardness. The knowledge stock in these languages is being trashed as non-knowledge. Countries which have developed a large number of languages over centuries have started forgetting that this rich variety is their cultural capital.

The Census 1971 decision

Census authorities in India decided after the 1971 Census exercise that there was no need to disclose the statistics for languages spoken by less than 10,000 persons, making those languages “non-citizens” of the republic of languages that India has always been. The Census decision was neither abrupt nor sudden. The process was initiated during the colonial times, when only 2 per cent of India’s languages were committed to print. Non-printed languages came to be seen as “inferior”, as “dialects”, and therefore, dispensable. Besides, it was a culmination of the intellectual history that was in the making over the last two centuries.

Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India  was published over a 25-year period (1903-1928) and consists of 11 volumes.

Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India was published over a 25-year period (1903-1928) and consists of 11 volumes.

I first read Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India during the 1970s. As a young reader of his monumental work, what struck me most was neither the amazing range of his knowledge of India’s language situation nor his determination to complete the task in the face of enormous challenges. The most overwhelming feature of Grierson’s Survey was the silent spaces in them. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, which was Grierson’s time, one notices through his account the beginning of a slow death spelt for nearly 165 out of 179 languages that he documented and described.

I am not aware of any full-scale comparison between Grierson’s “linguistic discovery of India” and that by his eminent predecessor Sir William Jones. Jones was excited about the presence of “different” languages in India, though he had no way of knowing how many of them existed in his time. In contrast, Grierson’s description had no such “eureka!” moment about it. When one reads the Grierson volumes, one returns with the impression that these are, for the most part, rustic varieties, fit only for folklorists subservient to anthropology.

Grierson documented and described less than 200 languages but over 500 dialects. This arithmetic is indicative of the work’s essential bias. Perhaps, its beginning was embedded in William Jones’s work, despite his apparent euphoria in discovering India as an unknown continent of civilisation.

Since Sir William Jones’ time, major attempts have been made to propose and formulate cognitive categories to describe the biocultural diversity and knowledge traditions in India. The corresponding process of decolonisation, too, has produced attempts at synchronisation of traditional knowledge with the colonial production of knowledge within the context of Western modernity.

While the clash and collaboration between what is seen as knowledge compatible with Western cognitive categories and the knowledge traditions rooted in the lives of predominantly oral communities continue to occupy imaginative transactions in India, mainstream institutions of knowledge such as schools, universities, hospitals, and courts have acquired forms that often leave out the complexities involved in the “great transition of civilisation in the Indian subcontinent”.

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This situation poses an intellectual challenge that thinkers in the 21st century have to negotiate. The most important among the cognitive categories that continue to carry the stress of this “transition in civilisation” belong to the field of creative expression in language and language description. The decolonisation of Indian aesthetics and Indian linguistics, without an obscurantist turning back to the past, is the larger task at hand for the contemporary Indian intellectual.

Two decisions by the government of India have added to the threat to Indian languages. The first is that Census 2021 has been kept on hold. This is the first time since 1871 that India has no national count of the things that make us a nation—its people and their lifeways. Not having the Census means that the world will not know how many languages are spoken in India in the 2020s. Naturally, the sense of remorse for endangered languages will get blunted.

The other challenge is the New Education Policy. It pays lip service to India’s language diversity; however, by over-privileging Sanskrit, it clearly minimises the importance of the non-Sanskrit linguistic heritage of India. These two policy decisions, coupled with the emergence of machine memory and artificial intelligence, are fast driving the great language diversity of India to an irreversible depletion.

Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.

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