Pho­netic death

Lin­guist GANESH DEVY has just pub­lished a new vol­ume of a unique lan­guage sur­vey that is based on ge­og­ra­phy and peo­ple's ver­nac­u­lar claims. He speaks to RAJAT GHAI on the link be­tween lan­guages and ecol­ogy

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

GN Devy chair­per­son of the Peo­ple's Lin­guis­tic Sur­vey of In­dia, talks about why the loss of In­dia's lan­guages is bad news for the ecol­ogy

Rather than the in­tri­ca­cies of his­tor­i­cal lin­guis­tics or lan­guage fam­i­lies, your team fo­cused on ge­o­graph­i­cal dis­tinc­tions and peo­ple's claims about lan­guages while con­duct­ing the sur­vey. Why?

As the name sug­gests, the Peo­ple’s Lin­guis­tic Sur­vey of In­dia is peo­ple cen­tric. It is not an aca­demic project by any group of lin­guists. It is born out of a deep con­cern for com­mu­ni­ties whose very ex­is­tence is be­ing de­nied. Ge­og­ra­phy ap­peared to me as a nec­es­sary per­spec­tive for the study. This re­quired get­ting out of the his­tor­i­cal or ge­nealog­i­cal straight­jack­ets es­poused by his­tor­i­cal lin­guis­tics.

So you ac­cepted peo­ple's claims on lan­guages. Did you dis­tin­guish be­tween dia-

lects and lan­guages? Would such a sur­vey be con­sid­ered ac­cu­rate by lin­guis­tics?

The as­sump­tion in your ques­tion is that peo­ple who make a claim on a lan­guage as their lan­guage nec­es­sar­ily have a very nar­row out­look re­sult­ing in a non-ten­able splin­ter­ing of a larger lan­guage into nu­mer­ous self-pro­claimed in­de­pen­dent lan­guages. This as­sump­tion, how­ever, does not hold when one looks closely at peo­ple’s at­ti­tude to­wards lan­guages, par­tic­u­larly in a coun­try that does not cher­ish mono­lin­gual­ism as a cul­tur­ally de­sir­able prac­tice.

If one were to ex­am­ine a con­trary as­sump­tion aris­ing out of the es­tab­lished prac­tice of field lin­guis­tics, one no­tices that there is an un­nat­u­ral ten­dency among pro­fes­sional schol­ars to draw bound­aries be­tween lan­guages in a some­what ab­stract man­ner.

In re­al­ity, the ge­o­graph­i­cal spread of a stan­dard lan­guage, its blos­som­ing into re­lated dialects, its in­creased di­ver­gence from the neigh­bour­ing lan­guages and the dis­tinc­tion be­tween two ad­ja­cent lan­guages are sub­jects that cul­tural ge­og­ra­phers and lin­guists must sort out af­ter ex­am­in­ing em­pir­i­cal data from all parts of the world. That will take time. Mean­while, I have pro­posed that dialects are not the his­tor­i­cal rem­nants of stan­dard lan­guages, but the avant-garde teams ex­plor­ing new se­man­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The sur­vey re­veals that the lan­guages of the In­dian coast are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble. Does that also ap­ply to lan­guages spo­ken in the moun­tains, deserts, forests and is­lands?

Coastal lan­guages are pay­ing the price not only be­cause of ge­o­graph­i­cal rea­sons, but also due to eco­nomic changes. As com­mu­ni­ties have lost con­trol over fish­ing rights, their tra­di­tional liveli­hood net­works got dev­as­tated. The UN agen­cies place the cur­rent rate of global mi­gra­tion at 35 per cent. This rate was seen among the coastal com­mu­ni­ties in In­dia way back in the 1960s and 1970s. They are now at least two gen­er­a­tions dis­placed from their con­ven­tional “lan­guage-ethos”.

Fac­tors apart from mi­gra­tion in­clude a gen­eral eco­nomic de­spon­dency as­so­ci­ated with car­ry­ing for­ward a given lan­guage; so­cial stigma at­tached to a lan­guage com­mu­nity, as with no­madic com­mu­ni­ties; lack of for­mal pa­tron­age; in­dif­fer­ent ed­u­ca­tional pol­icy; and, the ab­sence of lan­guage do­mains to cope with the chal­lenges of mod­ern life.

The sur­vey says tribal lan­guages like San­tali, Gondi, Bhili, Mizo, Garo, Khasi and Kok­borok kare show­ing an up­ward trend be­cause ed­u­cated peo­ple in th­ese com­mu­ni­ties have started us­ing th­ese lan­guages for writ­ingy.

For­tu­nately, many tribal lan­guages in the coun­try have wit­nessed lan­guage-re­lated or cul­tural move­ments. Th­ese have been con­struc­tive move­ments and are re­sult­ing in the lo­cal cre­ation of scripts, pro­duc­tion of books about their his­tory, cul­ture, lit­er­a­ture and ecol­ogy.

There has also been aware­ness among peo­ple that lan­guage is one of the defin­ing fea­tures of their iden­tity. Wher­ever such move­ments erupted, the lan­guage as­so­ci­ated with that area/com­mu­nity has found a rel­a­tively greater ac­cept­abil­ity within the com­mu­ni­ties. If we com­pare the Cen­sus sta­tis­tics of 1991 and 2001, there is an up­ward trend of tribal lan­guages.

In terms of lan­guage di­ver­sity, you have placed In­dia in the same league as Nige­ria, In­done­sia and Pa­pua New Guinea, coun­tries that lie in the trop­i­cal re­gions of the world and are rich in bio­di­ver­sity. Is there an over­lap be­tween lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity and bio­di­ver­sity?

There is a close in­ter­de­pen­dence be­tween bio­di­ver­sity and cul­tural di­ver­sity. Di­ver­sity, whether it is re­li­gious, cul­tural, lin­guis­tic or gas­tro­nom­i­cal, is deeply linked with the process of nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion. When­ever the process of evo­lu­tion is ham­pered, di­ver­si­ties dwin­dle. I am not aware if any sci­en­tist has de­fined a proper sci­en­tific mea­sure to as­sess the “di­ver­sity in its nat­u­ral state”.

Are lan­guages the repos­i­tory of lo­cal ecol­ogy and bio­di­ver­sity?

There is no lan­guage in the world which does not store all of the sen­sory per­cep­tions of all of the in­di­vid­u­als who ex­isted over all of the ages through which the lan­guage has tran­sited. Lit­er­ally, ev­ery word in a lan­guage is a cu­mu­la­tive re­sult of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence of na­ture and ob­jects sur­round­ing the users of the lan­guage. In that sense, ev­ery word is an en­tire book of his­tory, or a full dic­tio­nary by it­self.

Give us some in­stances where a de­grad­ing en­vi­ron­ment con­trib­uted to the dec­i­ma­tion of a lan­guage in In­dia.

The coal min­ing ar­eas in Megha­laya and south Gu­jarat and the man­ganese and baux­ite min­ing in Goa have scat­tered lo­cal pop­u­la­tions. They are up­rooted and now lin­guis­ti­cally am­ne­siac.

You have an­nounced the next big project "Global Lan­guages Sur­vey" un­der which over 6,000 lan­guages be­ing spo­ken in the world will be sur­veyed and doc­u­mented. Will this sur­vey be on the same lines as the Peo­ple's Lin­guis­tic Sur­vey of In­dia? What about the abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages of the Amer­i­cas, Africa, Asia and Ocea­nia?

Yes and no. Yes, be­cause the lan­guages of com­mu­ni­ties whose pop­u­la­tion is small is more than the lan­guages of com­mu­ni­ties whose num­bers are large. In fact, about 97 per cent of the world’s lan­guages are spo­ken by 3 per cent of the world pop­u­la­tion. I have made my be­gin­nings with that 3 per cent pop­u­la­tion, who live in Africa, Pa­pua New Guinea, South Amer­ica and East Asia.

Coastal lan­guages are pay­ing the price not only be­cause of ge­o­graph­i­cal rea­sons, but also due to eco­nomic changes. As they lost con­trol over fish­ing rights, their tra­di­tional liveli­hood net­works got dev­as­tated. They are now at least two gen­er­a­tions dis­placed from their con­ven­tional "lan­guage-ethos"

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