Language can be an economic asset

Activist reveals India has 780 languages, as against 122 listed by government census

Gulf News

New Delhi: Known for its linguistic diversity, strangely, India never had a complete record of its languages. But when Vadodra-based Professor Ganesh Devy took it upon himself to explore this exhaustive record, he came up with startling facts. While the government’s 2001 Census listed 122 languages, Devy’s count was a staggering 780 distinct languages.

The 64-year-old linguist, who knows nine languages, including Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, English, Konkani and several tribal languages, started the project People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) in 2010 with the aim to document every living language in the country. With a team of over 3,000 volunteers comprising academicians, authors, linguists, activists, teachers and nomads, he traced (without any support from government agencies) each and every Indian dialect. What made the difference was that PLSI listed those languages also that may have less than 10,000 speakers and are, therefore, not recognised by government census surveys.

Devy says, “If a language that never got into writing (or printing) for a variety of historical reasons, and gets counted merely as a ‘dialect’ and people who speak that language are pressurised to give it up, our republic will be a loser. PLSI was born out of this with the mission to carry out a completely non-hierarchical survey of all living languages in India and to register their existence in a print form.”

He speaks to Gulf News.

Gulf News: What led you to work on such an ambitious project of documenting every living language in India?

Ganesh Devy: During the 11th Five-Year-Plan (2007-12), a committee was constituted by the Human Resources Development ministry to look into means of protecting the non-scheduled languages. I chaired that committee and we prepared a plan, which the ministry accepted. The scheme, resulting out of the recommendation, was named Bharat Bhasha Vikas Yojana (Indian Languages Development Scheme). Even though funds were allocated, two years later the government had not implemented BBVY. During the same time, the government had proposed a New Linguistic Survey of India, for which too funds were allocated. But yet again, no progress was made.

Meanwhile, since 2001, I was initiating a yearly assembly under Bhasha Research & Publication Centre (BRPC) with like-minded scholars. In 2009, I decided to bring together all of Bhasha’s colleagues and we held a convention, in which representatives of 320 languages participated. On the concluding day, I announced Bhasha’s intention of beginning People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI).

How did you manage to rope in so many volunteers?

If you work selflessly and people get to see that the work is in their interests and when they find you are putting in your heart and soul into it, but not merely as an intellectual, they are curious and equally ready to make sacrifices and lead the movement. But such a task cannot be planned, it happens as an experience. Our work was more intuitive, less rational. PLSI succeeded because selflessness was made the centre of all its activities. Those who associated with it for other reasons dropped out themselves, as it needed commitment. Often, friends suggest that PLSI could be made a ‘case study’ in a B-school. But I feel it cannot be replicated.

What new aspects came to light while carrying out the findings?

In many states, while communities had known all along that their languages were not just ‘dialects’, the scholarships related to those languages had been treating them as ‘regional varieties’. For instance, in the case of Uttarakhand, one believed that Garhwali and Kumaoni were the only languages and even these had been slotted as varieties of ‘Pahari’, whereas in the PLSI we located 18 languages in the state. We need to still explore 3-4 more languages. This is only one example. Similar aspects were found in most states.

Importantly, before the PLSI, the Sign Language (and its many varieties), used by the hearing-impaired, was never thought of in terms of a language. That’s because we are used to languages with verbal icons and words. But sign languages are not spoken. They are enacted. We presented the grammar and vocabulary of such languages. I’m glad that the 6 million Indians who depend on sign language will have some help now.

What led to so many languages in certain states?

The Indian civilisation’s history of about 4,000 years is somewhat known, but it extends way beyond that period. Humans have used languages in the continent for nearly 70,000 years. There have been massive migrations from one continent to another, with a fascinating synthesis of cultures, faiths and languages. States like Chhattisgarh and Orissa have languages drawn from not just Indo-Aryan and Dravidian, but also Austric. The Sidi community in Gujarat and Maharashtra is of African origin. The Parsis of Iran have settled in India and similarly languages such as Arabic, Persian and Turkish have found a hospitable ground in India. The migrations, cultural contacts, geographical and climatic variations, different faiths and social segmentation, have all contributed to the great language diversity.

Are there chances of these languages becoming extinct? How many of them have already vanished?

The 1961 Census listed 1,652 languages as mother tongue. But in the 1971 Census (after introduction of minimum 10,000 speakers as condition for inclusion of a language), the list went down to 108. (In 2001 Census, the government listed 122 languages). This means, a minor policy shift adversely affected the fate of over 1,500 languages (about 25 per cent of the world’s language stock). Out of these ‘mother tongues’, at least 1,100 were ascertained as being ‘languages’.

In our 2011 survey, we identified 780 languages, which means that within a span of 50 years (between 1961 to 2011), India allowed about 250 languages to disappear. If the situation continues, we may lose another 400 languages in the next three to four decades. The India of 2047 (a century after our Independence), will, unfortunately be remembered as the country of sinking languages. We should rather consider language as an economic asset.

How can a language be an economic asset?

During the 19th century, economic activity revolved around production technology. In the 20th century, economies depended on oil resource and weapon production ability of a given country. In the 21st century, all cutting-edge technologies are language based. These include: IT and mobile technologies, universal translation, neurology and computer sciences. For these industries, language is like raw material. Language diversity provides a greater scope for innovation. It’s not plain rhetoric, but pure economics. The sooner we grasp it, the better for our country’s economy. Even the simple everyday fact of our being multilingual makes the Indian work force far superior to the monolingual workforce.


Roll of honour

A professor of literature at M S University (Vadodra) and University of Leeds (UK), Ganesh Devy has received many laurels including: the Padma Shree for literature and education (2014), Unesco Linguapax (2011), Sahitya Akademi Award (1994) for ‘After Amnesia’, analysis of literary criticism in India, the SAARC Writers’ Foundation Award (2000) for his work on de-notified tribes and the Maharashtra Foundation Award (2007) for his Marathi book Vanaprastha.