International Year of Languages: 2008


United Nations has declared year 2008 as the international year of languages but it is also the international year of ‘Sanitation’, ‘Reef’, ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Potato’. So in the year 2008 languages have competition from reefs, sanitation, planet earth and of course from potatoes? Most of us would agree that we do not need to celebrate something like international year of languages when we have many other productive things to look after. Thanks to environmentalist and Green House effect Coral reefs and our mother earth has become a sort of apples of eyes for both government and non-governmental agencies. On the other hand ‘sanitation’ is something related directly to us through diseases, social norms etc. But languages are like dirt bags we want to leave behind keeping only the ones which survive us.

Languages are not treated as a natural resource by almost all of us. They are not like uranium which will drive an elected government into hysteria (as in India recently). So we will not bat an eyelid when more than 50 per cent of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations, and 96 per cent of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 per cent of the world’s population. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given pride of place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world (source UNESCO 2008).

In India, situation is slightly better than many other places in the world due to its diverse and large population. But India is also home to various endangered languages on the verge of extinction or about to take the death ride. Take a look at the following table:

Languages with Less than 100,000 Speakers in India (Census of India, 2001)

Name of Language

No. of Speakers

Name of Language

No. of Speakers

Adi

97,012

Kishtwari

33,429

Adi Gallong/ Gallong

61,887

Koch

28,578

Adi Miniyong/ Miniyong

17,274

Koda/Kora

36,528

Anal

21,420

Kodu

45,428

Angami

49,685

Kol

12,720

Apatani

28,422

Kom

14,673

Balti

20,051

Koraku

27,942

Bangni

18,842

Kudubi/ Kudumbi

10,192

Baori

27,242

Kuki

47,856

Bhadrawahi

66,918

Kuruba/ Kurumba

14,613

Bharmauri/ Gaddi

66,246

Labani

22,162

Bhoi Khasi

14,882

Lahauli

20,138

Bhotia

68,800

Lahnda

92,234

Bhumij

30,719

Lakher

34,751

Bishnupriya

72,899

Lalung

27,072

Chakhesang

11,415

Laria

67,697

Chakru/Chokri

83,560

Lepcha

50,629

Chang

62,408

Liangmei

34,077

Churahi

61,199

Limbu

28,127

Deori

27,960

Malwani

46,851

Dhurwa

45,310

Maram

37,340

Dorli

37,731

Maria

88,984

Gadaba

26,082

Maring

22,326

Gangte

14,394

Mawchi

99,474

Garasia

51,183

Mishmi

17,283

Gujari

48,747

Mogh

30,559

Gujrao/Gujrau

43,414

Monpa

51,035

Haijong/Hajong

63,188

Mura

14,204

Halam

14,316

Muria

16,620

Hmar

83,404

Muwasi

29,288

Jatapu

39,319

Nicobarese

28,784

Juang

23,708

Nocte

27,749

Kabui

29,175

Paite

64,065

Kaikadi

23,694

Pangwali

16,285

Kalari

26,797

Paradhi

49,290

Khairari

11,937

Pawi

24,965

Khandeshi

17,413

Pochury

16,728

Khezha

39,436

Proja

92,774

Khiemnungan

37,755

Rai

10,446

Kinnauri

64,817

Rajbangsi

82,570

Reang

76,450

Relli

21,965

Rengma

61,345

Rongmei

61,197

Sangtam

84,171

Sherpa

18,342

Shina

34,251

Simte

10,225

Siraji

87,179

Sirmauri

31,144

Sondwari

59,221

Tadavi

99,348

Tagin

38,244

Tamang

17,494

Tangsa

12,604

Tikhir

16,828

Vaiphei

39,673

Wancho

49,072

War

25,886

Yerava

19,643

Yerukala/ Yerukula

69,533

Yimchungre

72,030

Zanskari

11,443

Zeliang

61,547

Zemi

34,102

Zou

20,857

‡ Apart from these languages, there are many for which no separate data has been enumerated by Census of India, 2001.

In fact the language data for this census (2001) was collected on the basis of a model suggested by G A Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India conducted between 1886 and 1927. Since then no new pan-Indian linguistic survey has been conducted yet. Does this speak the tale of our apathy to languages in general?

By the end of this century many of the languages cited above might not see the dawn of the new century. One could argue that India would be better place to live without these many languages. But when languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression – valuable resources for ensuring a better future – are also lost.

Languages are souls of our society which keep us alive across the centuries. And when we lose them we lose the whole world view which gives us the existence. You have to ask an elderly Angami how he feels when he hears his grand children faltering in speaking Angami language. He or she would certainly tell you, that they have lost their tongues. This is true for any of the languages threatened by increasing menace of homogenization through globalization and politics of language.

We have to realize that without these languages we could not have survived many winters, floods, storms and droughts which threatened our existence on planet earth since time immortal. Languages and bio-diversity are related. And this unique relationship has kept us alive in all bad times in human history.

This international year of languages gives us the opportunity that we realize that languages are valuable human and natural resources and we have to do more than conducting pompous seminars and workshops to deal with the issue of language endangerment and conservation. We need to educate people that languages should be conserved by all means beginning with a real time linguistic survey of India. It is time that we realize multilingualism is the way to blessed life. And destruction of tower of Babel was a boon in disguise (to read the Bible story click on the link below).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel

2 thoughts on “International Year of Languages: 2008

  1. Hi,

    I reached your blog while I was browsing through blogs tagged with Nagaland. Am so excited to see this blog, language is something very few people blog about. And my sister is also a linguist from JNU so that adds to the excitement.

    I am the managing editor of Mutiny.In, India’s thought terminus (www.mutiny.in). I would request you to join mutiny and give your valuable contribution. On Mutiny we write on anything that is related to India and looking at your blog you’d be an asset🙂

    feel free to write to me in case you need more info on Mutiny. Starting this October we are starting the print edition. Do consider joining.

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