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Volume is no guarantee

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Languages die every day. Many die because there is nobody left to speak them. Others die in effect, because they can no longer help those who speak them make sense of the world. If you are a typical reader of this paper, you will think you have nothing to do with such an unfortunate language. Don’t be so sure.

A recent feature in this paper (“Mind your languages”, March 10) looked at India’s most endangered languages. It explained where they are, how few speakers they have left, why that is so, and what is being done to keep them alive.

Unesco says there are 198 languages “in danger” in India. (According to the government, Indians have a colossal 6,000-odd “written mother tongues”, which sort into 122 languages.) Most are tribal or highly local, or their speakers live on the peripheries of major language zones: Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, Assamese...

“In danger” means that the number of native speakers is small and not growing. In some cases children have stopped using their own language; in other cases even adults do not use it most of the time; in a few cases even the elderly use it rarely. The language of everyday use is some version of Hindi or another major language. This other language meets their needs better than their own language.

The Business Standard article offered reasons why this is so. One is Sanskritisation, the age-old process by which a community copies the customs of those above them on the caste ladder. This is social climbing. Sanskritisation is strongest where the loser lacks a script and a written literature, so it does not help its speakers become literate in the modern sense.

Another reason is that major languages promise economic mobility. There are other reasons as well: politics, the melting pot of the city, Indians’ habit of travelling long distances for work, mixed marriages.

At this point most analysis of the question — of endangered languages — stops. The question then becomes what can be done to save threatened tongues. There are dictionaries and teaching aids, radio and journals, community occasions when these languages can be used, linguistics researchers and funding agencies.

But what if the oceans into which the streams of the losing tongues flow are themselves leaky? Speakers of losing tongues may adopt Marathi or Telugu or Hindi or Assamese, but will these major languages continue to meet their needs?

I don’t think they will. I don’t think they do. The reason is not Sanskritisation or economic mobility, nor is it politics, migration and mixed marriage. The reason is that these languages may no longer help make sense of the world.

The foundation of language has shifted over the last century or so. What people do is no longer merely an updated, modernised version of what people used to do. Modern jobs are not merely more comfortable versions of pre-modern jobs. They are actually different kinds of jobs. Modern business is not really like pre-modern business. The modern human, farmer or officeworker, has much more to do with technology, at every moment of the day. Social encounters happen differently and in different locations. Entertainment is an industry.

So far we have papered over the gap by asking old words to mean new things. “Net”, “touch”, “button”, “stylus”, “like”, “information” and so on. This has worked in English, because much modern technology, not to mention science and ways of doing business, have come out of the English-speaking or Western world. But it hasn’t worked in even a thriving language like Hindi. Try saying “train” in Hindi. In fact, try speaking a whole modern sentence in Hindi. I’m sure there are lots of believers in Hindi who lose sleep over this. As they should.

Yes, tribal languages are threatened by irrelevance, obsolescence, social climbing and technology. But so are languages spoken by tens or hundreds of millions of vigorous, ambitious people. 

First Published: Sat, March 31 2012. 00:39 IST