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The race to find India's hidden languages
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A tribal farmer on the phone in Lanjigadh village, Odisha, India (Credit: Alamy)
Between 1961 and 1971, thousands of languages vanished from Indian census data. One man decided to track them down, before they were lost forever.
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It was 2010 and Ganesh N Devy was concerned about the lack of comprehensive data on the languages of India. "The 1961 [Indian] census recognised 1,652 mother tongues," says Devy, "but the 1971 census listed only 109. The discrepancy in numbers frustrated me a lot."

So, Devy decided to find out what was going on himself.  

India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. K David Harrison, a linguist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, has labelled the country a "language hotspot". This, according to Harrison, is a place with a high level of linguistic diversity and endangerment, as well as a low level of documentation.

As a professor of English at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat, Devy has always had an interest in languages. He has founded a number of organisations for their study, documentation and preservation, including the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Baroda, the Adivasis Academy in Tejgadh, the DNT-Rights Action Group, among others.

As part of his work at the organisations, he used to go to villages where tribal populations lived and research them. He started noticing that these tribes have their own languages, which often do not get reported in the official government census.

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"I had an intuition that the languages of communities with a very small number of people, communities that are economically deprived or communities that are nomadic are getting concealed in official statistics," says Devy.

Devy felt that it would take a long, arduous process to document every language in India, so he stepped in to help. He launched the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) in 2010, for which he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all over the country. Most of these volunteers weren't researchers, but writers, school teachers, and other non-professional-linguists who possessed an intimacy with their mother tongue that was invaluable to Devy.

In a survey conducted during 2010-2013, Devy and his team recorded 780 languages and 68 scripts across the country. Devy says that nearly 100 languages could not be documented, either because of remoteness of the region or conflict, so the true number of languages in India continues to be hidden from us.

Since 2013, the PLSI has published 68 volumes, featuring detailed profiles of each language that Devy came across. The remaining 27 volumes will be published by 2025.

Take the state of Odisha, which has the largest number of tribal communities in India. Devy always knew it would be a linguistic goldmine for him, but he could not find a linguist there who would be able to work on these remote languages.

The Tangsa tribe includes around 40 sub-tribes, each of which has its own dialect (Credit: Getty Images)

The Tangsa tribe includes around 40 sub-tribes, each of which has its own dialect (Credit: Getty Images)

Around this time, he came across a taxi driver who used to work for the district magistrate in Odisha. Whenever the district magistrate used to go for a visit in the villages, the driver preferred talking to the villagers rather than sitting in his car.

"Over the years, he had mastered four languages and he had constructed grammar for those four languages and had collected folk songs and stories," says Devy. "It was material that was worthy of giving him a doctorate, maybe two doctorates."

Devy has come across several such people, including a schoolteacher in Gujarat who documented an entire epic from a different language in Rajasthan. It took him 20 years to document the epic and the entire project was funded with his own money.

"What I discovered is that it's not for monetary reasons that people learn and love languages," says Devy. "I always thought that it was only researchers who love languages, who were aware of grants and funds to support their work." Devy explains that he had not expected to find so many language specialists, especially among people who had not had much of a formal education. It was people like this whose knowledge proved invaluable to the linguistic survey.

But despite the layman's love for languages, Devy still estimates that close to 220 languages have been lost over the years. The languages spoken by remote communities in the North East and the Andaman Islands have been identified as the most vulnerable by linguists.

In 2003, Anvita Abbi, visiting professor of Indian studies at Simon Fraser University, Canada, undertook a documentation project, Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese (Voga).

Abbi's study of the Andamanese tribe led to the identification of a sixth language family in India, namely the Great Andamanese, which is spoken by indigenous people who inhabit the Andaman Islands. She studied the major languages of the Great Andamanese such as Sare, Bo, Khora and Jeru.

In 2010, Boa Senior died in the Andaman Islands. She was the last fluent speaker of Bo – one of the oldest languages in the world, dating back to pre-Neolithic times.  

"Boa Senior died and Bo language went extinct, then the last speaker of Sare died as well as the last speaker of Khora," says Abbi. "To be very frank, a feeling of sheer helplessness engulfs us, especially the linguists, because we have been trying to promote these languages," she says, explaining that she had written many letters to politicians, asking them for help, but felt that no one was listening.

In 2013, Abbi won the Padma Shri – an award handed out by the Indian government for civilian contributions to various fields – for her role in studying and documenting the languages of the Great Andamanese.

The Great Andamanese group of languages, traditionally spoken by indigenous tribes that inhabit the Andaman Islands, is on the edge of extinction (Credit: Getty Images)

The Great Andamanese group of languages, traditionally spoken by indigenous tribes that inhabit the Andaman Islands, is on the edge of extinction (Credit: Getty Images)

Sometimes it is left to the communities themselves to preserve their endangered languages. One such endeavour was recently undertaken by Wanglung Mossang, a farmer from the village in Arunachal Pradesh, a state in the Northeast of India. 

Mossang speaks the Tangsa language which is a Sino-Tibetan language, or cluster of languages, spoken by the Tangsa people in northeastern India.

The Tangsa tribe of Arunachal Pradesh is divided into 40 subtribes, with each subtribe having its own dialect. The population of the Tangsa community is roughly 100,000 (a unit known as a lakh in India) and with so many different dialects, the danger of extinction of the language family increases.

"When I sat and chatted with elders in the community, I discovered plenty of words and vocabulary which were unknown to me before," says Mossang. "I wanted to write down these words using the English alphabet but it was difficult because of syntactical differences."

This is when he discovered Lakhum Mossang (no relation) who had invented a common script in 1990 that could be used by all the tribes of the Tangsa community. Wanglung Mossang took over the mission to preserve the Tangsa language after Lakhum Mossang passed away in 2020.

The common Tangsa script has 48 vowels and 31 consonants. The script has four different tones and each tone has a separate meaning attached to it.

Earlier this year, Mossang conducted evening classes for two weeks for college students when they were on holiday to teach them the common Tangsa script. But this was just part of Mossang's strategy to preserve the language.

"We created a script development committee in 2019 for the preservation of the common Tangsa script. The committee approached the state government to introduce the common Tangsa script into the primary school curriculum. It was very satisfying when they accepted our proposal," says Mossang.

The chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh launched the book of Tangsa script on Teacher's Day – a national holiday to celebrate the contributions of teachers, which occurs on 5 September in India – this year and it will soon be introduced into the school curriculum. Now the Tangsa writing system has been adopted as a font style by Microsoft Word.

However, many other Indian languages are still at risk.

Mossang says that people from tribal communities often lose their languages when they move out of the state or community to earn or when children aren't taught their mother tongue. Children learn the state languages in the school and parents promote these languages over their mother tongues with the hope that it will mean a better life for their children.

"People don't pay much attention to the beauty of our tradition and culture. We need to conduct awareness campaigns and hold workshops to teach tribal languages to our people. But we cannot do these things on our own. We need financial assistance and government support to promote our language and culture," says Mossang.

The state of Odisha is home to a number of engangered languages, two of which were only discovered by linguists in the last few years (Credit: Alamy)

The state of Odisha is home to a number of engangered languages, two of which were only discovered by linguists in the last few years (Credit: Alamy)

The Ministry of Education in India launched the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL) in 2013, where the objective is to document the endangered languages or the languages that are likely to be endangered in the near future.

One such initiative to document endangered languages has been taken by the Centre for Endangered Languages at Sikkim University, which was established in 2016. The Centre promotes the preservation of endangered languages of the Indian state of Sikkim and a region that includes the northwestern part of Bangladesh and the northern part of the Indian state of West Bengal, by digitally documenting the linguistic and cultural diversity.

The Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalayas Endangered Language Archive (Sidhela) is a regional archive managed by Sikkim University's Centre for Endangered Languages and the university's central library, to house the documented resources.

Sikkim, like the rest of the eastern Himalayan region, is made up of multi-ethnic villages and people of multi-ethno-linguistic identities. The dominant culture of the state is Nepali or Gorkhali and they have a common set of festivals and foods. The lingua franca is also Nepali, while modern schools and the media have been instrumental in the spread of Hindi and English language as well.

In 2017, the researchers at Sidhela discovered the Rai-Rokdung community completely by chance, when a student at their university informed them about it. Rokdung is one of the pacha (divisions) of the Bantawa clan within the Rai community. The Rokdung clan is mostly located in East Sikkim and the members of the community claim to possess a distinct language of their own separate from the Bantawa. There has been no earlier mention of the language in the linguistic history of the region.

Since then, research of the community, which has a population of just 200 people, has been ongoing.

Hima Ktien, a linguist at Sidhela who spearheaded the documentation project of the language of the Rai Rokdung community, spoke about how most Rokdung community members self-identify as members of the Rai groups, while some say they are Nepali. Only a few members choose to identify themselves as being a part of the Rokdung Yupacha or as Yaku.

"We found only 20 people who could speak the Rai-Rokdung language," says Ktien. If a language isn't taught in school, then there is no means to get to use the language. So people attempt to assimilate into society by adopting the language of the majority, and because of that the Rai-Rokdung language suffered because people started shifting to other languages.

Lakhum Mossang invented a script in 1990 that could be used by Tangsa tribes to record their languages (Credit: Getty Images)

Lakhum Mossang invented a script in 1990 that could be used by Tangsa tribes to record their languages (Credit: Getty Images)

"Media, like the schools, and other domains chose to use other languages spoken by the majority in the state and people started speaking the languages in the home too. That is when language becomes extinct, because people forget about the spoken informs and it does not get transferred from generation to generation," says Ktien.

In Sikkim, the smaller languages tend to be forgotten because of cultural assimilation of the various ethno-linguistic groups into a unified cultural identity of "Nepali".

"A big reason why languages are transferred [from person to person]," says Ktien, "is because of [a community's] pride in their own identity and language. So, when a language becomes functionally useless for a community in the outside world, they also do not want to be identified as a speaker of a lesser-known language."

This is then compounded by social factors, such as the need to work. "A speaker of a smaller language group will not be able to get employed in jobs if they only speak their own language," says Ktien.

While doing their research about the Rai-Rokdung community, Ktien and their team found that Rokdung is spoken in the home domain only when adults speak with the grandparents. The children of the house do not speak the Rokdung language and are mostly spoken to in Nepali. "Apart from home and religion, Rokdung is not used in any other domains today," says Ktien.

But Ktien tells me that they witnessed something remarkable towards the end of their research. In a hopeful turn of events, during their field visit in January 2020, they noticed that the speakers of the Rokdung language were coming together weekly in an effort to revitalise Rokdung. The older generation, who were mostly grandparents, were trying to pass on the language to the generation below, who were mostly parents. These willing pupils would note down the words they were unfamiliar with and actively try to use them.

"It was very gratifying to witness the change that was brought on by our work in documenting the language," says Ktien.

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