The ‘Power’ of Languages

Out of 1100 languages, only 22 are represented in our Constitution says Ganesh V Devy, an academician, writer and activist and points out how major world views are nipped IN the bud

Published: 26th January 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th January 2015 04:04 AM   |  A+A-

HYDERABAD: Death is not something we think about very often. People die all the time, so when an old woman of the Bo tribe died in Andaman, it made no difference to anyone. Nor did the fact that along with her a 65,000-year-old language also died. The Bo woman’s death, however, pained one man in Gujarat – so much that he quit his professorship at the University of Baroda and took to mapping every living language of the country. The linguistic contouring, better known as  the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), is a report of  870 languages including those spoken by less than 10,000 people, which have been clubbed as “others” by the consecutive census since 1971.

Ganesh V Devy, an academician, writer and activist said PLSI is a survey of people’s language. “Humans began using languages only 75,000 years ago and it was only 30,000 years ago that we started using language as we know today,” the linguist explained at the plenary session titled ‘Endangered Languages, The Post-Human Language’ on day two of the Hyderabad Literary Festival. 

Scripts not integral

GN-Devy-at-HLF-2015.jpgRevealing that languages have been documented only in the last seven to eight thousand years, the award-winning writer said that though there is no clear idea if scripts emerged out of imagery or they represented speech. Regardless of this, script has never been integral to a language. “They came in due to surplus in language not due to development in knowledge. Since human memory was not capable of remembering complex transactions over generations spread across centuries. In order to recall transactions, marks using lines or images, called scripts were made,” he opined. Giving the example of Sanksrit, he emphasised on how langauge and script have no direct corelation.  “Modi, Sharada, Nagari, Kannada and Malayalam, are all scripts for Sanskrit. Incidentally 6,000 languages worldwide have not more than 300 scripts! So, a script does not make a language; it is speech and grammar that make a language,” he quipped.

Only 22 of 1,100 languages represented in constitution

While lauding the linguistic survey done by Irishman George Grierson in 1920 – which formed the basis of the Eighth Schedule of the constitution that incorporated 14 languages initially and then added another nine –Devy  calls it the arbitrary as “these were only those languages that had printed literature”. He also holds Grierson’s survey inaccurate because it listed 344 as dialects and classified 189 others as languages. This despite the fact that there were as many as 1,100 languages in the country at that time. “So by that count only two per cent of the languages are in the schedule. Since every language has a unique world view, this simply means that 98 per cent of the world view of the people is not taken into account in our country because our Parliament allows business only in these 22 languages.”

This is why the linguist says there has been a divide between the ruling class and the ruled. “We have 870 languages and each of them is a source of economic power, knowledge and social harmony, “ he said and added, “Half of naxal problems would not have arisen if the tribal languages had been taken into account.”.

Is Urdu threatened?

While calling treatment meted out to Urdu unfortunate, he said it is great and that it will survive, “Governments come and go but languages survive. It’s my hope that Urdu also will. It is a major international language and it is also listed in the first 30 languages globally.

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