Man who discovered 780 Indian languages
When Ganesh Devy, a former professor of English, embarked on a search for India’s languages, he expected to walk into a graveyard, littered with dead and dying mother tongues.
Instead, he says, he walked into a “dense forest of voices”, a noisy Tower of Babel in one of the world’s most populous nations.
For 16 years, Devy taught English at Baroda University. Then he relocated to a village to start working with tribespeople.
During 1997-98, he published journals in tribal languages. Once he went to a poor village and sold them at Rs. 10 each. 700 copies were sold.
The catch? Those villagers were illiterate. They were teary-eyed “when they saw their language in print for the first time”.
That incident gave Devy an idea about the power of language. He decided to document India’s languages in an attempt to preserve them.
Slowly, he built a 3,500-member volunteer network consisting of scholars, activists, drivers and nomads.
Finally in 2010, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) was born.
For the next two years, everyone undertook journeys to the remotest locations and recorded their observations.
He discovered that some 16 languages spoken in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh have 200 words for snow alone – some of them ornately descriptive like “flakes falling on water”, or “falling when the moon is up”.
Disappointingly, the PLSI found that the number of languages had decreased from 1,652 (1961) to 780 (2011). Ninety-seven are endangered, 42 critically.
Many minority languages had no script, and thus received no focus in administration.
While migrating, tribespeople also left behind their languages and adopted one prevalent in their new homeland.
Schools are also increasingly focusing on global languages instead of vernaculars.
He found that the nomadic communities in the desert state of Rajasthan used a large number of words to describe the barren landscape, including ones for how man and animal separately experience the sandy nothingness. And that nomads – who were once branded “criminal tribes” by British rulers and now hawk maps for a living at Delhi’s traffic crossings – spoke a “secret” language because of the stigma attached to their community.
In a dozen villages on the western coast of Maharashtra, not far from the state capital Mumbai, he discovered people speaking an “outdated” form of Portuguese. A group of residents in the far-flung eastern archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar spoke in Karen, an ethnic language of Myanmar. And some Indians living in Gujarat even spoke in Japanese. Indians, he found, spoke some 125 foreign languages as their mother tongue.
But why must we preserve languages?
“Every language is a unique world view,” Devy says. When it dies, it takes with it a culture, fables, even music.
Languages are also about political power: “Scheduled languages are linguistic citizens of this country but non-scheduled languages are linguistic non-citizens.”
In disturbed areas like Maoist-hit Chhattisgarh, communication gap between local tribals and Hindi-speaking forces often leads to loss of lives.
Till now, PLSI has published 39 of a planned 100 books on its findings; 26 were published in August’17.
To keep our democracy alive, we have to keep our languages alive, says Devy.
However, he is anxious about what s efforts to impose Hindi across India a “direct attack on our linguistic plurality”.
But the hopeful Devy remains optimistic and determined.
(source: BBC news, Newsbytes)