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Dying tongues

Sep 12, 2013 :

A recent study on the status of languages in the country has reported the obituary of many of them and the near disappearance of many others from common use.

A language research centre based in Gujarat which made an exhaustive four-year survey all over the world has found that the number of languages used for active communication has declined drastically in the last 50 years. India was once rich with the diversity of its numerous languages and dialects across the country but a large number of them have gone silent. If 1100 languages were spoken in the country in 1961 there are only 880 recognisable ones now. This is more than the 122 languages enumerated by the 2001 census but include some spoken by just a few hundred people. One is spoken by just four persons. It is clear that they will not survive for many years.

Languages are expressions of culture and repositories of historical experience. It is said that every language is a window to the world and an attempt to understand it. It is also a marker of a specific identity, in geographical, ethnic and other terms. The spreading tide of uniformity is sweeping many of them into history and once a language is lost, it is almost irretrievable. Most nomadic people have lost their languages.

Displacement of populations and integration of many communities into larger ones are among the reasons. Some speakers are also embarrassed about their less developed mother tongues and stop using them. Many of these languages which do not have their own scripts, are not useful to the speakers in dealing with the world. The younger generation abandons them with the spread of modern education in English and regional languages. They become victims of the national and global trends in education, communication and culture.

There is no policy for conservation of languages except sporadic efforts at the level of individuals or small groups and organizations. Preserving them in books does not help because a language is dead when it is not spoken. The fate of many languages has a telling similarity with the extinction of many biological species which find it difficult to survive in an adverse environment of competition. Those with only oral traditions may not be heard at all in the coming years. Others with some literary heritage may not disappear very soon. But the outlook is gloomy for most languages.


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