Follow us on


Interview: G.N. Devy

Prof. G.N. Devy: 'All our languages are losing linguistic prowess'

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-
Dr Ganesh N. Devy, renowned scholar and linguist, speaking at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai on April 5, 2019.

Dr Ganesh N. Devy, renowned scholar and linguist, speaking at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai on April 5, 2019.

At a tribal music  and dance festival organised by Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, in New Delhi on April 21, 2005.

At a tribal music and dance festival organised by Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, in New Delhi on April 21, 2005.

The Adivasi Academy  in Tejgadh, Gujarat, offers a space for all tribal artists to display their work.

The Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh, Gujarat, offers a space for all tribal artists to display their work.

At an ayurvedic camp  for tribal people organised by Bhasha in Gujarat in 2015.

At an ayurvedic camp for tribal people organised by Bhasha in Gujarat in 2015.

The Adivasi Academy  houses a memorial to the writer Mahasweta Devi, who visited the Academy on several occasions.

The Adivasi Academy houses a memorial to the writer Mahasweta Devi, who visited the Academy on several occasions.

Interview with Prof. G.N. Devy, scholar and cultural activist.

PROF. Ganesh N. Devy, a scholar and cultural activist, has written in the areas of literary criticism, literary history, philosophy, education, anthropology and linguistics. A former Professor of English at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, Prof. Devy is known for setting up the nationwide People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) and the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh, Gujarat. He writes in Marathi, Gujarati and English. In an extensive email interview to Abhish K. Bose, he talked about the activities of the PLSI and Bhasha, another organisation founded by him. Excerpts:

The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) is a linguistic survey launched in 2010 to provide updates regarding the languages spoken in India. What was the motivation behind such an attempt and how did you prepare to conduct the survey?

When preparations for the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12) began in India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) constituted a group to suggest ways to strengthen Indian languages. A subgroup was carved out of the larger group to think about non-scheduled languages. I was asked to chair it. Our recommendations to the MHRD were accepted by the Planning Commission and funds, as suggested, were allocated. The MHRD turned the recommendations into a yojana called The Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana and the government’s directorate-level language institution was assigned the responsibility for implementing the scheme.

During the same period, the MHRD mooted the idea of a ‘New Linguistic Survey of India’ (NLSI) and made funds available for it. The same government institution was given the responsibility of taking the NLSI forward. Two years later, I learnt that the initiative had been put in cold storage. This was despite the severe gap in economic development between speakers of some of the scheduled languages and speakers of the tribal languages.

I sent out a call to individuals and groups from all parts of India who were interested in the language issue to assemble in Baroda. I had also written to several hundred linguists. I was not sure how many would turn up. When we met in March 2010, the registration desk of this gathering, convened under the title ‘Bhasha Sangam’, had representatives of 320 languages. The delegates included 16 vice-chancellors, over a hundred linguists, and publishers, writers, language lovers and villagers. They were nearly 800 in number. The names are far too numerous to mention but it is necessary to mention leading linguists like Dr D.P. Pattanaik, Dr Anvita Abbi, Dr Rajesh Sachdeva, Dr O.N. Koul, Dr [Lachman] Khubchandani and Dr Ramdayal Munda and administrators such as Kamalini Sengupta, Dr K.K. Chakravarty and Dr Sudarshan Iyengar were present. So were writers like Temsula Ao, Mahashweta Devi, Narayanbhai Desai and Bhagwandas Patel. Along with them, there were a large number of tribals from various States.

Also read: Towards an alternative visual language

During the ‘Bhasha Sangam’, speaker after speaker called for a comprehensive survey. As a result, on the morning of March 10, 2010, I announced to mediapersons that a People’s Linguistic Survey of India would be initiated. Obviously, since there was no funding available for the initiative, I could not have thought of setting up a grand office for this purpose. Instead, I chose to go from State to State and set up committees of like-minded persons.

From May to November 2010, I managed to set up State-level committees of the PLSI in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand, (undivided) Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Goa. Many States still remained out of my reach. The entire north-eastern region kept eluding me. Throughout 2011, I decided to focus on the north-eastern region, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. During that year, I also managed to constitute a National Editorial Collective of about 60 distinguished scholars and prepared one or two persons in every State to function as PLSI coordinators. The movement could be taken forward as many capable persons willingly joined it.

Reviving languages

You are a professor of English and an author of literary books. When did you think about getting involved in reviving languages in India? What are the circumstances, aptitude and skills that enabled you to conduct a survey of this kind?

In 1972, the Publication Division of the Government of India brought out R.C. Nigam’s compilation of Census data on Indian languages under the title Language Handbook on Mother Tongues in Census . This work, like hundreds of other uninspiring titles brought out by the Publication Division, would have deserved no mention, except in arcane academic works, had it not become one of the causes to trigger a very unique language movement a quarter century later. It contained no profound analysis nor did it have any emotive appeal for preservation of languages. All that it presented was tables and statistics on mother tongues in India.

The term ‘mother tongue’ has been used during various Census exercises with a variety of meanings, ranging from ‘the language spoken in the locality’ and ‘the language of the parents’ to ‘the language claimed by a person as the first language’. Nigam did not contest any of these definitions. However, what his cold statistics pointed out was that more than 1,500 of the mother tongues listed in the 1961 Census had been all bundled up under the single label ‘all others’ in the 1971 Census.

The reason for hacking such a large number of ‘mother tongues’ to death was that an arbitrary ‘cut-off’ figure of 10,000 speakers was introduced by the Census for legitimising the existence of a mother tongue. I had seen this work as a young researcher in my university library and casually noted in my mind the mysterious label ‘all others’. I had probably forgotten it altogether as I continued with my academic pursuits.

About a decade later, as a young lecturer at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, I started making weekly forays into the tribal underbelly of the rapidly industrialising, and therefore urbanising, Gujarat. During the 1980s, agrarian distress had started showing its early signs in the eastern parts of the State, and one could notice hordes of tribal people pouring into the cities to work as construction labourers. As I travelled through the villages in eastern Gujarat and started conversing with the villagers, one thing that struck me was that their speech was remarkably different from the Gujarati language that I heard spoken in Baroda and Surat.

Also read: 'There is no language in the world which is pristine and pure'

This led to my rather nascent perception that the economic deprivation of the tribal people may perhaps be related to the denial of their languages in schools and offices. Back home, I started plotting on the map of India the tribal areas against the main languages until then known to me as ‘the languages of India’ (which did not even cover the entire spectrum of the scheduled languages). What emerged out of this haphazard exercise was a serious question. It was, “Was not the tribal belt in central India responsible for keeping the Dravidian languages distinct from the Indo-Aryan languages for nearly three millennia?”

I felt that this mystery had to be unravelled. There were no academic works known to me that provided any clues. Therefore, I decided to leave my university job, and, carrying a notebook and a pencil, I travelled through the tribal areas of central India, examining folklore and language samples. Although I could not carry out my plans exactly as desired, the decision led me to a complete immersion in tribal history, culture, arts and language. Through a series of events, not entirely planned or desired consciously, I hit upon the idea of establishing ‘Bhasha’, a sort of a rustic research initiative.

In 1996, when I started work with Adivasis in western India, and after Dhol magazine started appearing in 1997, I was nearly convinced that each of the Adivasi languages, and languages like them, deserved at least a 60-page quarterly magazine devoted to them. By 2002, I was ready to do so for about 80 such languages in the country. To this end, I convened a major conference of representatives of Adivasi languages from the central and western States of Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

I had to drop the plan as the printing press in Baroda engaged for printing 10 editions of Dhol magazine pleaded its inability to cope with the pressure. Besides, the disturbed situation in post-riots Gujarat created certain other difficulties in pursuing my agenda of promoting language diversity.

In 2003, my Adivasi colleagues and I conceptualised Bol magazine, framed in Gujarati but carrying stories and songs from several Adivasi languages within its covers. This was put out as a children’s magazine and it achieved phenomenal success. In a short time, it had over 7,000 schools as subscribers, in addition to an equally impressive number of individual subscribers. I decided, therefore, to cease the publication of 10 editions of Dhol and decided to concentrate on the relatively younger group of readers of Bol magazine.

If I had commenced the Linguistic Survey in 2003, I would have probably concentrated solely on the folklore aspect of the languages. My idea, however, changed by the time I announced in 2010 that the PLSI was being proposed. In March 2010, I drew up the first plan for the distribution of survey material in different volumes. The list of the PLSI volumes I circulated in August 2010 among the colleagues invited to join the National Editorial Collective (NEC) was much different from what it is, now that the majority of the volumes have been published.

Gap between linguistic surveys

The last time a linguistic survey was held in India and published was in 1923, under George Abraham Grierson, an Irish linguist. The second survey took place in 2010. Why was there such a delay?

India should have carried out a survey soon after Independence, but that did not happen until 2010 for a variety of very complicated reasons.

The last large-scale survey was carried out by George Abraham Grierson. Over the eight decades since Grierson completed the monumental and pioneering work, it has acquired the status of a permanent touchstone in relation to any socio-linguistic discussion of languages in India. Having gone through every shade of the array of formidable and unnerving challenges that a linguistic survey of India poses, I have the greatest admiration for the genius of Grierson as a scholar with unmatched understanding of the complexities involved in the cultural cartography.

My first acquaintance with Grierson’s Survey dates back to the 1970s. As a young reader of his monumental work, what struck me most was not the amazing range of his knowledge of India’s language situation, nor his determination to complete the task in the face of enormous challenges. These, it is needless to say, will leave no reader unimpressed.

The most striking feature of Grierson’s Survey that I noticed 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—the languages not in print in his time—that he documented and described.

I am not aware of any full-scale comparison between Grierson’s ‘linguistic discovery of India’ with a similar discovery by his eminent predecessor, William Jones. He was excited about the presence of ‘different’ languages in India, though of course he had no way of knowing how many of them existed in his time. In contrast, Grierson’s description had no such ‘eureka’ about it.

When one wades through the Grierson volumes, one gets the impression that the languages reported in them are, for the most part, the rustic varieties, fit only for housing childish songs and materials good enough for folklorists subservient to anthropology. As against the less than 200 languages that he described, he had over 500 dialects to describe. The arithmetic of the great work is indicative of its essential bias.

Perhaps, the beginning of it was embedded in the work of William Jones and the other scholars of his generation who collectively created indology as a field of knowledge, despite their apparent euphoria in discovering India as an unknown continent of civilisation.

Many languages were lost since Independence. In the Census report of 1961, a total of 1,652 mother tongues were mentioned. The 1971 Census mentioned only 108 languages. Many of the languages lost were tribal languages. Is there any conscious effort from the government or other agencies, other than PLSI, to revive tribal languages?

In the pre-colonial epistemologies of language, hierarchy in terms of a ‘standard’ and a ‘dialect’ was not common. Language diversity was an accepted fact of life. Literary artists could use several languages within a single composition, and their audience accepted the practice as normal. Great works like the epic Mahabharata continued to exist in several versions handed down through a number of different languages almost until the beginning of the 20th century.

When literary critics theorised, they took into account literature in numerous languages. Matanga’s medieval compendium of styles, Brihad-deshi , is an outstanding example of criticism arising out of the principle that language diversity is normal. During the colonial times, many of India’s languages were brought into the print medium. It is not that previously writing was not known. Scripts were already used; paper too was used as a means for reproducing written texts. However, despite being ‘written’, texts had been circulating mainly through the oral means.

Also read: ‘Language is not a prisoner of religion’

Printing technology diminished the existing oral traditions. New norms of literature were introduced, privileging the written over the oral, which brought in the idea that a literary text needs to be essentially monolingual. These ideas, and the power relation prevailing in the colonial context, started affecting the stock of languages in India. The languages that had not been placed within the print technology came to be seen as ‘inferior’ languages.

After Independence, the States were created on the basis of languages. If a language had a script, and if the language had printed literature in it, it was given a separate state within the Union of India. Languages that did not have printed literature, even though they had a rich tradition of oral literature, were not considered. Further, a State’s official language was used as the medium of primary and high school education within a given State. A special Schedule of Languages (The Eighth Schedule) was created within the Constitution. In the beginning it had a list of 14 languages. At present the list has 22 languages in it.

It became obligatory for the government to commit all education-related expenditure on these languages alone. The ‘margins’ of the Indian language spectrum, constituted by the indigenous peoples and the nomadic communities, were thus marginalised mainly due to the ‘aphasia’ being systemically imposed on them.

Has PLSI given any recommendations to the government for the revival and rejuvenation of dormant languages?

No. The PLSI has not given the government any suggestions. It has made data available for the government agencies to use and decide on their policies.

You prepared a guideline for UNESCO in January 2011 to set up a world-class institute on language diversity to be built at a project cost of Rs.215 crore. It is scheduled to work on conserving the languages. What is the current status of the institute?

UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] had asked me to draw up a plan for such an institute. It is called, in UNESCO terminology, a ‘category one institute’, which is equal to a world-class university but specialised in its academic interest. I had asked the government of India to host it. However, unfortunately for our country, the officials in the HRD Ministry did not grasp the importance of having such an institute. Also, the Government of India made no efforts at all to approach UNESCO for asking the institute to be located in India. This is sad but true. There is little I can do about it. I have never worked through political lobbies and I do not see any need to do so. Other countries like Russia, Canada and Spain took interest in the idea and they lobbied at UNESCO for getting the institute. I wish them well.

Technology and loss of languages

How far has technological advancement in the shape of social media and computers been responsible for the loss of languages?

The number of natural languages that have come to our time is phenomenally large. It is believed that there are about 6,000 living languages in our time. Not all of them have grammars that fit into a single descriptive framework. Some of these can be described using a grammatical description that we recognise as grammar, while there are such languages that show exceptional behaviour, and all these exceptions put together render a shared grammatical description meaningless.

What is common to all those languages—except the sign languages—is that all of them use voice or sound to signify meaning. It is true that writing, which is not speech but only a representation of speech or rather an illusion of sound, removes language from its verbal basis. Yet, without the verbal basis the representation cannot acquire sense. However, various modes of representation of language have impacted ‘language as speech’ so much that the possibilities of languages that are almost entirely dissociated from speech have started beckoning the human mind. The digital world provides one such possibility.

The digitised exchange of meaning, liberated from sound, can be compared with a shadow play where shadows signify substance in absence of what the shadows stand for within the visual field of the viewer. The idea that shadow has a remarkable referential capacity and versatile signification ability is not a recent idea. It occurs in Ancient Greek philosophy as it does in the Upanishads. In our time, as the 6,000 living languages are caught in a survival crisis, there is an amazing growth in the universe of the ‘shadow meaning’, in the exchange of human thought and memory, through a phenomenally speedy exchange of digits. Perhaps it is an indication of the emergence of an altogether new manner of communication system.

A language comprises a diverse realm of knowledge bases, including the wisdom bequeathed to generations. In your survey, did you find any knowledge streams in dormant languages that can benefit humanity?

Over the last two decades, scientists have come up with mathematical models for predicting 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. These predictions do not agree on the exact magnitude of the impending disaster; but they all agree on the fact that close to three quarters or more of all existing natural human languages are half in the grave.

On the other hand, there are advocates of linguistic globalisation. The processes of globalisation have found it necessary to promote homogenised cultures. The idea has found support among the classes that stand to benefit by the globalisation of economies. They would prefer the spread of one or only a few languages all over the world so that communication across national boundaries becomes the easiest ever.

Also read: A centenarian’s life-long scholarly journey with language

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, which will weaken the global stock of human intellect and civilisations, will have numerous indirect enfeebling effects on them too.

Since it is language, mainly of all things, that makes us human and distinguishes us from other species and animate nature, and since the human consciousness can function only with the ability for linguistic expression, it becomes necessary to recognise language as the most crucial aspect of the cultural capital.

It has taken human beings continuous work of about half a million years to accumulate this valuable capital. In our time we have come close to the point of losing most of it. Historians of civilisation tell us that probably a comparable, though not exactly similar, situation had arisen in the past—some seven or eight thousand years ago. This was when the human beings discovered the magic of nature that seeds are.

When the shift from entirely hunting-gathering or pastoralist economies to early agrarian economies started taking place, we are told, the language diversity of the world got severely affected. It may not be wrong to surmise that the current crisis in human languages too is triggered by the fundamental economic shift that has enveloped the entire world. This time, though, the crisis has an added theme as a lot of the human activity is dominated by man-made intelligence.

The technologies aligned with artificial intelligence have all been depending heavily on modelling the activity of the human mind along linguistic transactions. The intelligent machines modelled after entirely neurological or psychological systems are still not commonly in use. The language-based technologies are now well-entrenched partners in the semantic universe(s) that bind human communities together. Therefore, those universes are being reshaped. Language today is as much a system of meaning in cyberspace effecting communication between a machine and another machine as much as it has been a system of meaning in the social space achieving communication between a human being and another human being.

Neurologists explain the current shift in man’s cognitive processes by pointing to the rapidly changing ways in which the brain stores and analyses sensory perceptions as well as information. Linguists have raised an alarm about the sinking fortunes of natural languages through which human communication has taken place over the last seven millennia. They have started noticing that the use of man-made memory chips fed into intelligent machines make heavy dents in the human ability to remember and even the tense patterns of natural languages.

Bhasha and community development

Through Bhasha you are promoting activities such as microfinance, primary schooling, health care, and agriculture, among others. How can this variety of activities be fulfilled when it all began as an effort to revive languages?

When I started noticing during the 1980s the alarming disparity between the development of other classes and communities, on the one hand, and the development of the Adivasis and the DNTs (denotified tribes), on the other, I felt drawn to exploring the link between denial of access to the means of development and the ‘structural aphasia’ imposed on the marginalised languages.

Towards this end, Bhasha, which means ‘language’ or ‘voice’, was founded in 1996 as a research and publication centre for documentation and study of literature in Adivasi languages. The ultimate horizon of obligations for Bhasha at its inception was to document and publish 50 bilingual volumes of Adivasi literature. Little did I know that beyond the horizon many new worlds were waiting for it.

Within months of commencing the work on the series, many Adivasi writers and scholars approached me with the idea of starting a magazine in their own languages aimed at the Adivasi communities and to be read out rather than for individual reading. Bhasha accepted the idea. The magazine was called Dhol (drum), a term that has a totemic cultural significance for Adivasis. We started using the State scripts combined with a moderate use of diacritic marks to represent these languages. The response to the magazine was tremendous. More Adivasis approached Bhasha, and asked for versions of Dhol in their own languages.

In two years Dhol started appearing in 10 Adivasi languages (Knunkna, Ahirani, God Banjara, Bhantu, Dehwali, Pawari, Rathwi, Chaudhari, Panchamahali Bhilli, and Dungra Bhilli). When the first issue of Chaudhari language Dhol was released at Padam-Dungri village in south Gujarat, it sold 700 copies in less than an hour. This was a record of sorts for a little magazine. Inspired by the success of the oral magazine, our Adivasi collaborators started bringing manuscripts of their autobiographies, poems, essays and anthropological studies of their communities which they wanted us to publish. Subsequently, in order to highlight the oral nature of Adivasi culture, we launched a weekly radio magazine which was relayed throughout the Adivasi areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

All these initiatives together gave birth to a small but focussed publishing and book distribution house, which now works under the name Purva-Prakash, and is the first community-owned publishing programme for Adivasis and DNTs. Purva-Prakash has been self-supporting though not so much a commercial venture as a cultural and literary platform for intellectual concerns, and as a forum for expression in people’s own languages.

Oral literature, unlike written literature, is not an exclusive verbal or lexical art. It is inevitably intermixed with song, music, dance, ritual and craft. So, Bhasha was drawn to the craft of Adivasi communities, initially in western India, and subsequently from all over India. This resulted in Bhasha’s craft collection and craft training initiatives, further leading to the formation of an Adivasi craft cooperative under the name ‘Tribals First’. The objects one identifies as craft are not produced in Adivasi communities for aesthetic pleasure alone. They are invariably an integral part of their daily life. Often, such objects carry with them an imprint of the supernatural as conceived in their myth and imagination. The shapes, colours and the forms of these objects reflect the transactions in the Adivasi collective unconscious.

Often, one overlooks the fact that the metaphysical matrix of the Adivasi thought process differs markedly from the philosophic assumptions of the dominant cultural traditions in India. Therefore, sometimes simple concepts and ideas, which look perfectly natural and secular, can provoke Adivasis into reacting negatively, and even violently.

Also read: Hindi card for a Hindu Rashtra

I learnt the hard way that there is a common source for the dominance of the red colour in Adivasi art, and for their utter unwillingness to donate blood even when a kinsman is in dire need, namely, the supernatural belief that the domain of witchcraft is red in colour.

This incidental observation came in handy when we found ourselves involved in a haematological disaster called sickle cell anaemia. Reports from Amravati district of Maharashtra, inhabited by the Korku Adivasis, about a large number of untimely deaths of children, and similar reports from Wayanad in Kerala, had drawn our attention to the phenomenon. Medical sciences maintain that a certain genetic mutation required in order to fight malarial fevers has made the Adivasis prone to sickle cell disease.

On learning about the Korku trauma, we decided to check the statistics of sickle cell anaemia in Gujarat where Bhasha was most active. Blood testing of the Adivasis is a challenging task. So, we decided to draw up mathematical models, and at the same time composed an extensive family tree through a survey, which took us over two years to complete, to isolate certain localities, villages and families who could provide clues for coming up with the most reliable projections.

We found that nearly 34 per cent of Gujarat’s Adivasis have been ‘carriers’ of the genetic disorder, and for about 3.5 per cent of the population the disorder is ‘manifest’.

This means, at least in principle, about 2.1 lakh of Gujarat’s 70 lakh Adivasis are likely to not attain the age of 30. What is even more saddening is that the available health-care system has not been sensitive to the epidemic scale of the genetic disorder, and in most instances it remains inaccessible.

As a result, Bhasha decided to launch its health care programme under the title ‘Prakriti’. Obviously, we did not wish to create large hospitals but rather small and functional clinics. To this end, we started training local persons as community health workers so that the patients in the ‘crisis’ situation could be identified and provided immediate relief locally and referred to urban hospitals for further treatment.

Thus, beginning with aesthetics, we came up to anaesthetics. Specific diseases may have universal scientific definitions, but the general notion of ‘illness’ as distinct from ‘well-being’ does not have a universal grammar. In a given community, the illness and wellness are divided by an invisible line; and introduction of new medicine keeps pushing the line, enlarging the domain of anaesthetics, that is, the management of pain, and encroaching upon the domain of aesthetics, which is, the management of pleasure.

This, in turn, increases the desire for instant curbing of pain, and at the same time the longing for an instant gratification of the senses. The distribution of pain and pleasure on the cultural spectrum is in direct correspondence with the distribution of craft and product on the economic spectrum of a given community.

Often, shortages caused by the larger economic forces push a social sector from its subsistence farming character into becoming impoverished labour providers. The acute food shortages faced by the Adivasis in Kalahandi and Koraput in Odisha, and their mass migration of to the mining districts in other States, are not exceptional stories. Although their main occupation is agriculture, Adivasis have been under-nourished throughout India, and sadly enough, starvation deaths are not uncommon among them.

In 1999, Bhasha decided to set up foodgrain banks for Adivasi women to address the issue of food security. Initially, we had decided to follow the government model of foodgrain banks; but we realised that they had come to be seen by Adivasi villagers as charity distribution events, and so we chose to set up the grain banks without any government contribution and entirely through local participation.

Our consideration at that stage was that no effort towards reducing the sickle cell incidence was likely to succeed if it was seen in isolation from the question of forced migration and food insecurity. For Bhasha, food security and health care form a single concern.

Could you explain the status of the functioning of the people’s ethnographic survey of India?

I did a part of the work when I was in Baroda. I have started the remaining work. It will be completed in the next few years. I am hopeful that will provide an extremely useful data for all interested in Adivasi society and culture. The ethnography is intended to provide the picture of Adivasis through their eyes, not from the perspective of any outsider.

In your survey, did you encounter any communities which suffered a sudden disappearance of languages?

Yes, several communities. But, let it be noted that all of our languages are rapidly losing their linguistic prowess. Please note that the Census office released the Census of India 2011 data related to languages in July 2018. With all its tables and charts, it appears to be perfectly harmless. But, if you scratch the surface you find that it is heavily doctored. It tells us that in 2011, our countrymen stated a total of 19,569 ‘raw returns’ (read, non-doctored claims).

Also read: The myth of ‘Hindi heartland’

Of these, close to 17,000 were rejected outright and another 1,474 were dumped because not enough scholarly corroboration for them existed. Only 1,369, roughly 6 per cent of the total claims, were admitted as ‘classified mother tongues’. Rather than placing them as languages, they were grouped under 121 headings. These 121 were declared as languages of India. How else can this be described but as language loss?

How many languages including tribal languages have you documented over the years?

It is difficult to explain the details in a short space. The PLSI has over 700 languages described in it.

How many of these languages are facing extinction?

I cannot divulge the information at this stage.

In your investigation, did you come across any communities that face deprivation, existential crisis or other threats as a result of the loss of languages?

There is in our time a worldwide concern about the alarming rise in the incidence of language disappearance.

As the global south moves into a new phase of densely urbanised way of life, a somewhat willing concealment of indigenous languages has become a common occurrence. Schools in every country are increasingly engaging in training pupils to use one or the other global language. These global languages or ‘mega-languages’ have become or are being perceived as a threat to the local languages.

In a similar way, the idea of nation state, within which is implicit the idea of a language or languages for preserving national unity, has put stress on subnational languages for a somewhat forced alignment.

The subnational languages or the ‘regional languages’, in turn, have learnt to expect the migration of yet smaller language communities within their fold as a natural result of ‘development’ and ‘education’, while they themselves feel uneasy in the face of the increasing influence of the ‘mega-languages’ and the ‘national languages’.

Thus, quite a hierarchy of fears and anxieties seems to have besieged languages all over the world. The fear and anxiety have gripped even the mega-languages, for distinct continental varieties of these languages are emerging and beginning to become increasingly dissimilar. The concern for ‘disappearing languages’ has touched every mind on a scale never before experienced in human history.

It is argued that while languages always go through the ‘natural cycle’ of rise and decline, in our time the incidence of a very rapid decline of natural languages has assumed worrisome proportions.

In recent years, as never before in the history of the discipline of language study and linguistics, books on language endangerment and language decline have been appearing in a rapid succession.