The race to find India’s hidden languages

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.

“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.

Read more: BBC

Can translations save India’s endangered ‘mother tongues’?

In “Translation as Culture”, an article which theorises her work with Mahasweta Devi’s fiction, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes of the irreducible emotional and ethical charge of translating from the mother tongue:

“…translation in the narrow sense…is also a peculiar act of reparation – toward the language of the inside, a language in which we are ‘responsible’, the guilt of seeing it as one language among many…I translate from my mother tongue.”

Spivak’s words touch on the slippery affective terrain that opens up when we call a language “mother”, and seek to transcribe this “intimate” tongue in an “alien” sign-system: a site that is both personal and political, fraught with identity and difference, love and loss, guilt and responsibility, ridden with the angst of separation and the anxiety of reparation.

Always already strained, these filial relations are further fractured by the dysfunctional contexts in which literary translators operate today – multicultural yet hegemonic, globalised yet often segregated or displaced. What it generates is at best a complicated sense of linguistic belonging – to an enormous, broken family of languages, with multiple mothers, one’s own and those of others, in which degrees of kinship, equations of power, loyalties and alliances, the rules of engagement and the stakes of representation are forever shifting.

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Seven decades after Independence, many small languages in India face extinction threat

The last leg of the 15-km journey from Jalgaon Jamod in north Maharashtra to the tiny village of Sonbardi is arduous and nauseating, especially right after breakfast. A rattling autorickshaw speeding on a road with crater-like potholes makes us wish we were walking instead. As we get closer and the Satpura hill range on the border with Madhya Pradesh becomes more visible, our minds slowly veer off the brutal ride.

Sonbardi is home to 70 families of the Nihal tribe, who speak Nihali, a language estimated to have not more than 2,000-2,500 speakers, which is half of the entire community, in a few villages of the Jalgaon Jamod division of Buldhana district. Shailendra Mohan, a professor of linguistics at Pune’s Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, has been researching Nihali for five years. He visits these villages at least twice a year, collecting words and understanding their customs and beliefs.

His objective this time is to gather as many rhyming words as possible. “Could you tell me words like akar-bakar (‘in a hurry’ in Nihali) and aaplapaapla (each other)?” he asks a group of men with sharp, rough-hewn features, some of whom are seated in a circle, immersed in a card game, after they greet him with ram-ram. They begin to respond as if they want to contribute to the discussion but soon break out in laughs over gibberish. Mohan realises his best bet is Bhavrao Yadav, a repository of knowledge on everything to do with the tribe and the language. Yadav, who pegs his age at probably 70 years, and his family reel off a stream of words and expressions like rapa-rapa (pitter-patter) and taru-turu (clattering of utensils).

The Nihals, who work as farmhands, are usually clubbed with the much larger Korku tribe, but their languages are not similar. Korku is categorised under the Munda branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family, while Ni-hali is believed to be a language isolate, which means it does not belong to that family or any of the other major language families in India, including Indo-European, Tibeto-Burmese and Dravidian. Nihals in the region usually also speak Korku and some even Hindi and Marathi, but the Nihals in Madhya Pradesh, whose border is just 30 km from Sonbardi, do not speak Nihali.

Read more: The Economic Times

400 Indian Languages Face the Threat of Extinction: Study

Almost 10 percent of the world’s 4,000 languages that face the threat of extinction are spoken in India.

Linguist Ganesh N Devy says that while English posed no real threat to major Indian languages, the most threatened languages are the ones spoken in the coastal areas of the country.

Devy, chairman, People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) told PTI: “Many languages are on the verge of disappearance and most of them are the coastal languages. The reason is that livelihood in coastal areas is no longer safe. The corporate world is doing deep sea fishing. Traditional fishing communities, on the other hand, have moved inwards… away from the coast, thus giving up their languages.”

Some tribal languages have also shown growth in recent years, said Devy, who was in New Delhi for the release of 11 volumes of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), claimed to be the world’s largest linguistic survey.

For the study, all 780 Indian languages were surveyed by a team of 3,000 people in 27 states.

Devy, also the founder-director of the Bhasha Research and Publication Center, Vadodara and Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, said the study will cover the remaining states of Sikkim, Goa and Andaman and Nicobar islands by December.

“I conceived the idea of the survey in 2003 and began the fieldwork in 2010 with a team of 3,000 people. The data collection was completed in 2013 and since then, the publication process was started,” he said.

The literary expert said while the danger of extinction looms large over some languages, many other languages have been thriving.

Read more: The Quint

A tiny Indian publisher is translating hidden gems of world literature for global readers

“It isn’t about size. Or the scale. It is about the choice. The instinct that allows you to take the risk to step outside the structures the world of corporate publishing has so magnificently set up. And publish books that in your opinion need to be read.”

The mission statement of Seagull Books says it all: This is not your usual Indian publisher.

Founded in 1982, the Kolkata-based company publishes everything from literary fiction and poetry to philosophy and even cultural anthropology. But these books aren’t what you’d find on the catalogues of publishing giants such as HarperCollins or Penguin Random House. At Seagull Books, the focus is on translated writing from around the world, much of which has never before appeared in English, in India or anywhere else.

“We publish anything and everything to do with what I like to call ‘the human condition,’” founder Naveen Kishore told Quartz. “It is in many ways a wish-list of books we want to publish. Not dictated by trends or the marketplace or target readers.”

And that’s a far cry from the norms in India’s publishing business, which is estimated to be worth $6.76 billion, according to Nielsen. Though the sector is poised to grow at a compounded annual rate of over 19% until 2020, far above the global rate, it is overwhelmingly dominated by educational books. As a result, the massive success of commercial fiction writers, such as Chetan Bhagat, has prompted most publishers to focus more on cookie-cutter stories that sell well. And in this quest for bestsellers, original and unconventional writing has been pushed to the sidelines.

But Seagull Books also stands out from the crowd for another reason. Western publishing giants usually control the global rights for books, leaving Indian firms to handle the subcontinent only. Despite this equation, Kishore’s tiny, homegrown company has made a name for itself as the third-largest publisher of translated fiction in the US, according to 2016 data from Three Percent, a resource of the University of Rochester that tracks literary translations.

That’s the result of a decision made in 2005, when big US- and UK-based publishing houses were setting up shop in New Delhi. To reverse the trend, Seagull Books decided to establish its own independent publishing house in London, where it would go on to buy the global rights for books, printing one universal edition, in either Kolkata or the US, that would be sold around the world.

Read more: Quartz

The rise of Hinglish: How the media created a new lingua franca for India’s elites

Dominated by the Congress, India’s Constituent Assembly usually witnessed little disagreement. There was one exception, however: language. It was the last major issue discussed by the Constituent Assembly and rocked the body. Should English or Hindi be India’s official language?

Hindi plants a flag
Like all questions of identity, the matter was really a cover for economic interests. North India had the largest share of members in the assembly and wanted to use this demographic advantage to stamp its authority on the new India. On the other side of the ring were the three coastal Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras. They were each smaller than the Hindi camp but they were the old elite. Independence meant a shift in power away from them to North India. Replacing English, the language of the British Raj, with Hindi as India’s official language would cement this shift. Bengalis, who had once dominated the Raj’s bureaucracy, for example, would simply not be able to get into independent India’s civil service if Hindi was the only language used to select candidates. The divide was neatly – and belligerently – summed up by Constituent Assembly member Algu Rai from present-day Uttar Pradesh:

“Fortunately or unfortunately our brethren who live in those coastal regions where the English landed for the first time have acquired considerable proficiency in English. It is they who feel the greatest embarrassment when Hindi is mentioned as the national language.”

After a year of bitter quarrels, a compromise was reached: Hindi would join English as India’s official language for the time being. And after 15 years, English would be dropped altogether.

While the latter never happened – Tamils agitated violently in the 1965, resulting in English continuing till this day – the event marked the rise of Hindi to the high table.

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Prevented From Intermingling With Hindi By Language Police, Urdu Dies A Slow Death

In March, the Center told the Supreme Court that it was open to the suggestion of conducting NEET, a single window entrance test for admissions for MBBS and BDS courses, in the Urdu language from the next academic year. This has rekindled the debate on the present state and the future of Urdu language.

Every language affords its speakers the opportunity to experience the world through a distinct lens. While Hindi speakers perceive their surroundings through a vocabulary comprising Hindi words, English speakers discern worldly bustle through the English language. Every language, thus, grants a glimpse of a unique reality peculiar to that language. Increasingly, however, the Urdu language is nowhere within the eye’s line, which makes one ask: What happened to the Urdu language and the corresponding reality it afforded?

In pre-independence India, Urdu was the language of cosmopolitanism and distinction. Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the most revered leaders of the country, had once said, “Urdu is the language of the towns and Hindi is the language of the villages. Hindi is of course also spoken in towns but Urdu is almost entirely an urban language”. Urdu was, thus, a language of upward mobility in the period preceding independence.

Read more: Outlook

India’s Endangered Languages Need to Be Digitally Documented

Every two weeks, a language dies and with it, a wealth of knowledge forever. In India alone, there exist more than 780 languages. The rate at which languages are dying here is extremely high as over 220 languages have died in the last 50 years. In India, 197 languages are categorised as endangered. These are further divided into four subcategories – vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered – by the UNESCO.

Out of these 197 language, only two languages – Boro and Meithei – have official status in India while many others do not even have a writing system. When one takes into account the fact that 7.8 million Indians are visually impaired, there is a drastic need to use digital tools to preserve and grow India’s endangered languages. While there has been some effort to do the same for the 22 recognised official languages of India, the remaining languages have not received any focus.

The recent death of a language like Eyak confirms that more often than not, a language dies with the death of the older members of a tribe.

The endangered languages – which mark 96% of the total number of languages in the country – and indigenous languages of India largely lack accessibility tools. In fact, accessibility tools for most Indian languages are not affordable and are proprietary in nature.

Read more: The Wire

Regional-Language Films Power Indian Entertainment Industry’s Growth

A staggering 1,907 films in 41 languages were certified in India in the 2015-16 timeframe. The Hindi-language industry led the way with 340 films, followed by Tamil with 291, Telugu (275), Kannada (204), Marathi (181) and Malayalam (168). The Indian film industry grew overall by 3% in the financial year 2016-17, but domestic theatrical declined from $1.6 billion in the previous year to $1.5 billion, according to the annual KPMG industry report. This is due to the continuing underperformance of Bollywood, which contributed just $575 million. The growth is largely powered by the regional industries led by Telugu- and Tamil-language productions, followed by the Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi and Gujarati languages.A telling indicator of the strength of regional cinema is April 28 release “Baahubali: The Conclusion,” the sequel to 2015’s “Baahubali: The Beginning” that collected $100 million worldwide. The Telugu-language film was also released in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi versions and grossed a mighty $81 million in its opening weekend, including $10.1 million in North America where it bowed in third place at the box office.

“What regional cinema does really well is to tell stories rooted in its culture and is aimed at a specific audience,” says the mono-monikered Vetrimaaran. “In my opinion, this rootedness helps regional cinema travel globally. Hindi cinema, in trying to cater to multicultural audiences across India, loses that and sometimes becomes confused and generic.”

Read more: Variety

Indian State Says It’ll Require Study of Sanskrit, Raising Eyebrows

The government of the northeastern Indian state of Assam announced this week that Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu language of the Brahmin priesthood, would now be mandatory for students in the upper grades of all public high schools.

Wider teaching of Sanskrit has been championed by activists from the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu nationalists, who view it as a way to strengthen Indians’ knowledge of and respect for precolonial civilizations.

But the announcement was met with incredulity from groups representing students, who pointed out that some schools do not teach indigenous languages widely spoken in the area. Even in Sanskrit’s golden age, some 1,500 years ago, it was primarily used as a language of scholarly discourse. In census surveys since 2001, only 14,000 to 50,000 Indians list Sanskrit as their first language.

“We strongly oppose this decision because in our community, nobody normally uses Sanskrit,” said Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, general secretary of the All Assam Students’ Union.

Read more: NY Times

The people behind India’s first sign language dictionary

Apart from a few clicks on computer keyboards and the routine shuffling of paper, it is very quiet at this office in the capital, Delhi. A group of 15 people here are working on the massive task of compiling more than 7,000 signs that deal with words used in academic, medical, legal, technical and routine conversations by deaf people in India.

The group is a mix of speech and hearing impaired, deaf and non-disabled people. However they all communicate with each other in sign language.

Sign language has evolved in India over the last 100 years, but the government has only now decided to codify it in the form of a dictionary.

Once completed, it will translate Indian sign language into English and Hindi, and will be available in print and online editions.

Read more: BBC

India is on the verge of losing about 300 Languages out of 800

Language forms an integral part of one’s culture. India has the distinction of accommodating 800 languages and dialects across the country, according to a research conducted by Bhasha Research Centre. Bhasha Research Centre is an NGO founded under the leadership of Dr G.N. Devy, winner of Sahitya Academy Award.

The report of the survey was published on 5th September on the 125th Birth Anniversary of Dr S. Radhakrishnan. The report consists of 35000 pages and was published in 5 volumes. The survey began in 2010 and lasted for 4 years. The research was done by many known historians and research scholars.

The report suggested that around 300 languages have been extinct till now. And 150 more languages will extinct in the coming half century. A linguistic scholar George Grierson founded that there were 364 languages between 1894 to 1928.

The UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation is also counting the same, in which they found that 197 languages in India are endangered while 42 languages came under the category of critically endangered. Nihali, a language from pre-Aryan and pre- Munda reign, was also included in the list.

Read more: NewsGram