x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

India's climate and topography make for a linguistic hotbed

Through the centuries the subcontinent has been the seat of empires and the repeated invasions have changed the country's borders and introduced new tongues.

DUNDA, Uttarakhand, india // Part of the reason India tops the list of endangered languages is because it has so many languages in the first place. Often, says Christopher Moseley, the editor of the Unesco Atlas of Endangered Languages, those areas with the greatest linguistic diversity are also home to the largest number of imperilled tongues. The Indian government has no accurate figure for the number of languages in the country, Ethnologue, a widely respected language inventory complied by the Summer Institute of Languages in Texas, puts the number at 445.

Only three other countries - Papua New Guinea, Nigeria and Indonesia - have more. The United States and Brazil, which both have diverse native populations, come second and third on the Unesco list, with 191 and 190 endangered languages respectively. India's linguistic diversity is a result of its long history and its vast and varied geography. Modern humans are known to have lived in south India 75,000 years ago - well before they appeared in Europe - and the Indus Valley that runs through modern India and Pakistan was home to one of the world's earliest civilisations.

Through the centuries the subcontinent has been the seat of empires and the target of repeated invasions that have both expanded the country's borders and introduced new tongues. The jungles and mountains of the north-east and the Andaman Islands, which became part of India under British rule, are home to India's most endangered languages. Modern Hindi, spoken by 422 million Indians, is largely influenced by Persian, which arrived with the Mughals.

According to experts, India's climate and topography are conducive to the development of many languages, too. "Linguistic diversity is like biodiversity," said Nichols Ostler of the Foundation of Endangered Languages. "It increases the closer you are to the equator. Mountains and jungles are also hotbeds." Most of India's languages belong to one of four groups: Aryan languages such as Hindi; Tibeto-Burman languages (of which Jad is one); Dravidian languages like Tamil; and Austro-Asiatic languages, which are spoken in the jungles of east India and south-east Asian countries such as Burma.

Some languages, however, are "isolates" and cannot be classified, such as the Andamanese ones, or Nihali, spoken by a tribe in Maharashtra state. "We don't know how many of the languages in India got to be there," Mr Ostler said. "Successive invasions introduced new languages but they were never entirely successful in wiping out the native ones." Now economic development - combined with government apathy - threaten to achieve what invading armies could not.

The three countries with greater linguistic diversity than India - Papua New Guinea, Nigeria and Indonesia - actually have fewer endangered languages because they are less densely populated and not as developed. hgardner@thenational.ae