Given India’s size and diversity, it is not surprising that it should have topped the UNESCO’s list of endangered languages with 197 of them being identified. The country’s rich ethnic variety evident in the presence of virtually all racial and linguistic groups explains why there are so many spoken tongues. The fact that there are 22 official languages, with more communities speaking a distinct patois demanding their inclusion in the list, underlines India’s exotic linguistic mosaic.
The multiplicity also carries the danger of some of the dialects dying out as the people who speak them — usually tribal groups — become smaller in number and even become extinct. This has been the fate of the Bo language, whose last speaker, 85-year-old Boa senior, died in 2010. Today, the Great Andamanese, spoken in middle and north Andaman, has only five speakers while the Jarawa in the south Andaman island has 31. In the north-east of the country, a few languages like Ruga, Tai Nora, Tai Rong and Tangam have just 100 speakers each.
Languages represent a well-defined cultural pattern, weaving the religious and historical traditions of the speakers into an identifiable strand. While the country’s major languages such as Hindi, Tamil and Telugu are capable of holding their own, it is the fate of the dialects spoken by those living in remote areas which is a cause of worry. Their disappearance will mean the end of an entire way of life and thinking, which includes the knowledge of nature that the group had acquired over centuries.
The announcement by Google, therefore, of an endangered language project is to be welcomed. As the homeland of probably the widest variety of languages, India should play a seminal role with the Central Institute of Indian Languages engaging itself to save the threatened languages and documenting them so that a record of the country’s cultural heritage is preserved.