On The Contrary | Dying Languages


India is home to one of the largest variety of languages. You are not, and should not, be surprised to know that. Results of a four-year survey that was released in 2013 counted over 780 languages in India. This is in stark contrast to the official figure of 122. But this disparity can be explained away by the fact that the government does not count languages spoken groups that have less than 10000 people. More importantly, for this article, the survey found that 220 languages were lost in the last 50 years. This last bit of information has people in a tizzy. Such surveys call for protection to be afforded to dying languages in a bit to preserve our heritage.

Okay, I don’t really buy in to this concept of protecting languages. In fact, although I love history I am not one for protecting and preserving history. Apart from religion, history is one of the major killers around. Half-baked information in the hands of nincompoops give rise to the need to prove that one was or is better than the other.

English, for better or for worse, is the Lingua Franca on Planet Earth. Strange that the term that calls English the universal language is in French. (That’s beside the point, move on.)

The history of English is one that is replete with instances where it absorbed words and grammars from other languages that it came in contact with. This allowed English to stay in touch with the person on the street, while at the same time growing the vocabulary and making it rich. Languages that stay closed tend to die out because the vocabulary is not rich enough to convey the ideas of the day in which it is spoken. “To convey ideas” is the reason a language exists. The moment it is unable to do so, people stop using the language, and it dies a slow death.

This is not to say that we should simply consign these languages to the dustbin of history and forget about them. Far from it, we should look for all possible ways in which to record these languages for posterity. Each language contains within it clues to our history and evolution as a species. These must be preserved to ensure that all the pieces of the story are available to future generations when they try to understand how they got to wherever it is they are.

An interesting project was undertaken by George Abraham Grierson of the Linguistic Survey of India. He worked with the Indian Civil Services during the days of the British Raj. Over a span of thirty years he went around the sub-continent making recordings of the various dialects in India. In all, he recorded 179 languages in this period. Today, scholars are using Grierson’s work as a launch pad to create a comprehensive repository of the various languages and dialects spoken in India.

On the other side, we have people who spend inordinate amount of time and money in trying to preserve languages. This, I feel, is an exercise in futility. If a language is to survive, it cannot be thrust on to people. It is common and natural for people to gravitate towards languages that are commonly spoken or languages that can help them earn a living. A language that does that does not need to be preserved, it will live without anybody’s help.

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