x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

India loses its ancient tongues as Hindi becomes dominant

According to a report from Unesco, the agency for culture, India now has 196 languages categorised between definitely endangered and critically endangered. Six are believed to be extinct.

DUNDA, UTTARAKHAND, INDIA // Everyone forgets a word from time to time. If you cannot remember it, you ask a family member, a friend or a colleague. But what if they could not remember it either? What if no one could remember it? For members of the Jad, or Rong Ba, community in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, this is a daily worry.

Jad, a language similar to Tibetan, is spoken by only about 200 families and is one of scores of minority languages disappearing in India thanks to the spread of such linguistic behemoths as Hindi. "I find sometimes I forget words, or maybe I never knew them," said Gulabi Rawat, a 69-year-old Jad woman. "If I can't remember a Jad word I just say it in Hindi. We all speak Hindi as well now so everyone understands."

The issue came to the fore last year, when the United Nations moved India to the top of its list of countries with endangered languages. According to a report from Unesco, the agency for culture, India now has 196 languages categorised between definitely endangered and critically endangered. Six are believed to be extinct. In February, the last member of the unique Bo tribe, which inhabited the Andaman Islands for as long as 65,000 years, died of old age, taking her language to the grave with her.

The UN report and the loss of Bo have sparked outcry from Indian linguists and community leaders who accuse the government of, at best, doing nothing to protect minority languages or, at worst, of pursuing policies that contribute to their demise. The government, after initially dismissing questions on the topic in parliament, has finally responded by organising a meeting of academics and community representatives in New Delhi this month to discuss the problem.

But experts say that is too little, too late. "The government might be waking up to the issue of linguistic diversity now, but it has been apathetic for decades," said Udaya Narayana Singh, an Indian linguist who helped compile the Unesco report. The main problem, he and other linguists say, is that no one really knows how many languages there are in India. The last nationwide linguistic survey was carried out between 1904 and 1928 by a British civil servant called George A Grierson. It listed 364 languages but largely ignored the south and north-east of India, where there is the greatest linguistic diversity.

Indian academics lobbied hard for a new survey after independence, but the government wanted to underline the new country's unity by promoting Hindi as the national language rather than drawing attention to potential ethnic and linguistic fault lines. Instead of a new survey, the government included linguistic questions in the population census conducted every 10 years but academics say that never accurately recorded the number of languages in India.

The 1961 census, for example, recorded 1,652 "mother tongues" while the last census in 2001 lumped several languages together and returned a figure of 122. "What the government doesn't know exists, it can't protect," said Panchanan Mohanty, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Hyderabad. "People say they speak a language, but we don't know if it's a language, a dialect, or a caste dialect, and we will never know until a comprehensive survey is done."

The Indian constitution gives all Indian states the right to choose an official language and technically guarantees citizens a right to primary education in their mother tongue. But the 23 official languages that have been recognised are the only ones used in schools, meaning children from most linguistic minorities cannot get educated in their mother tongues. Meanwhile, people's ties to their mother tongue have been undermined by vast improvements in infrastructure, technology, job opportunities and mobility during India's recent economic boom.

Millions are now travelling to India's towns and cities for work every year and learning new languages - usually Hindi - which they then associate with economic betterment. The idea is reinforced by media and technology as most Indian villages now have televisions and mobile phone coverage. "India's natural borders are being eroded," Mr Singh said. "Nowadays, you can sit in a remote village and watch what is happening in Bombay. The new generation thinks it should model itself after the people it sees on television."

The Jads are a prime example of how migration can erode linguistic traditions. The Jads used to live a seminomadic lifestyle on the border with Tibet where they would supplement their income by trading Indian goods such as rice, tea and cloth for Tibetan salt and yak butter. But after India and China fought a war in 1962, the Indian army declared the border area a no-go zone and the Jads were resettled in the Bhagirathi valley below.

Today, they live in Dunda, a collection of small concrete houses along a busy road that leads to the source of the Ganges, a popular pilgrimage site for Hindus. Traditional Buddhist flags flutter over their settlement, but all the Jad speak Hindi now and many have converted to Hinduism and taken Hindi names. "We try to keep our culture alive, but it's not the same anymore; we're surrounded by Hindi speakers," said 79-year-old Hira Singh, one of the oldest Jads.

Most Jads have given up herding in favour of more mainstream jobs and they no longer use many Jad words related to animal husbandry such as "kar" meaning "castrated ram" or names for local herbs and flowers, many of which have medicinal qualities. Their traditional counting system, which was based on 20 rather than 10 - a better measure for herds - is also slipping out of use. "When you lose a language you lose a unique way of looking the world," said Nicholas Ostler, head of the UK-based Foundation for Endangered Languages.

"Languages are vehicles of value systems and cultural identity. When you give up a language you effectively draw a line though your tradition and subsequent generations are cut off from their past." Many Jads make an effort to speak their language at home and still hope that one day they will return to their villages in the mountains - at least for part of the year. But they know that is increasingly unlikely and their language may eventually disappear. "If I look into 20 or 30 years into the future I don't know if I still see us speaking Jad," a community leader, Navin Negi, said. "It makes me sad, but it is nature's rule. There is nothing we can do to stop it." hgardner@thenational.ae