How Do You Speak Your Freedom?

An enormous and radical survey has given us more
understanding of the languages spoken in India than
ever before. This Independence Day, do our languages need
protection or a push to be more seductive?

By Sopan Joshi | Grist Media

[ Published on Yahoo! on July 9, 2013 ]

My mother’s mother tongue is Shekhawati. She grew up in Kanpur, moved to Indore after her marriage, and has lived in Delhi for the past 45 years. When she meets somebody who speaks any Rajasthani language—Marwari, Hadauti or Mewari, among others—her face lights up. Nothing else causes such delight. Her voice gets louder, her face grows sanguine, and she loses her usual reserve. She comes into her own.

My father’s mother tongue was Malvi. He wrote a heavily Malvi-inflected Hindi. When he spoke, it did not require a trained linguist to call his accent. Like any good Indori worth his poha, he gave short shrift to the long vowel sound; in public speeches and on live television, he unselfconsciously cued the location of his upbringing. He felt a quiet pride about Indore and Malva, requested people to bring flour of Malvi wheat to make a proper baati in Delhi, and broke down at the sound of Malvi songs.

What is my mother tongue? I know a little Malvi, a little less Shekhawati.

Hindi, I say. Which puts me in a large group—it is the world’s fourth largest language by the number of its speakers. I work in English mostly, which is the second largest language (after Chinese; what did you think?). This gives me the safety of numbers, gives me access, opportunity. But my connection with Hindi is not a very emotional one, certainly nothing like my parents’ love for their mother tongues.

Far from it. When I hear the use of chaste Hindi like a badge of nationalism, it feels like an imposition. I can sense the outrage of non-Hindi-speaking Indians, who protest Hindi’s hegemony. And when I hear the term Hindi-sevi (servant of Hindi) used to describe a writer for promoting the language, I retch. It’s Pavlovian.

Which is why it is such a relief to talk to linguist Ganesh N Devy from Baroda. He is just the therapist I need. After an epic effort lasting four years, he and some 3,000 people across the country, along with more than 80 institutions, have just completed the first People’s Linguistic Survey of India. Very likely the world’s largest survey of its kind, it is a lesson in what is India — as also a test of how much Indians know about their country.


The 2001 census lists 122 languages, 22 of which are in our constitution’s Eighth Schedule. The survey, meanwhile, found 780-odd languages are spoken in India. Devy says they are likely to have missed about 100, so the real number is in the region of 900. The results of this survey are being published in the form of a 50-volume series. The first set will be released at Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi on September 5; the last in December 2014.

The 1961 census had reported 1,652 mother tongues, but the number is scaled down to 1,100 after accounting for variants of the same language. This makes it is safe to assume that India has lost more than 200 languages since 1961—perhaps 228, a fifth of all the languages spoken in 1961.  So who are these people rendered voiceless a decade after the country’s independence?

Mostly nomadic people, who once held great sway in cultural and economic spheres, but have got sidelined after land ownership became the primary signifier of socio-economic worth. If these languages were alive today, Devy estimates that about 50 million people would have spoken them.

The reason so many people don’t speak their language today, says Devy, is that they have lost self-belief and dignity. It’s a story he knows well. Born and brought up in a village near Pune, he reached high school under his own steam, picking up odd jobs—he recalls working as a porter, selling toys and binding books at age 10. But he gave up on school at the age of 14, because he could not understand English.

While working in a mine in Goa, he got back to reading, then back to college at the age of 16. He made a vow to read 300 pages of English every day. Scholarships led to a PhD, a stint at Leeds University, and the job of a professor in Baroda in the early ’80s. He struck a friendship with Gujarati author Suresh Joshi and, along with him, brought out a journal called Setu.

It was around this time that he read about the Linguistic Survey of India in a Baroda library. The 1971 Census listed only 108 languages. What happened to the 1,652 mother tongues listed in 1961? He realised the government had decided to not record languages spoken by less than 10,000 people. Who were these people?

Devy had observed closely working class people who spoke little-known languages. So he started travelling around Baroda to Bhil villages, expanding his world outside the university, to find out about this unrepresented world. A severe drought hit Gujarat in 1986, and Devy found himself in the middle of relief work. And then his friend Joshi died.

Devoid of the company and conversation Joshi offered, Devy started writing down his thoughts. This became a book, After Amnesia, which in 1993 won a Sahitya Akademi award. Devy had by now lost all interest in being a suit. He quit his job and rescinded his vow of reading 300 pages in English every day. Now, his energy was directed towards Indian languages.

He created the the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Vadodara and the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh. He formed an association with Mahasweta Devi and travelled thousands of kilometres together to find out the conditions of the “denotified tribes”. These are people who in 1871 were listed as criminal tribes by the British administration, and were removed (“denotified”) from that list only in 1952.

The socio-economic condition of these groups has not improved since then. The people’s linguistics survey showed that they were reluctant to talk about their languages out of a fear of being identified. “Languages do not suppress other languages. It’s always one group of people imposing their language on others,” he says. Soviet Russia forced people to use state-promoted languages; Francoist Spain banned the use of Catalan. But a language goes into cold storage when it enters the upper strata of society and stops growing, says Devy; the natural breeding grounds of a language are the working classes.

In India, the formation of linguistic states in the ’50s was a blow to several languages, driving them to the margins. Drawing state boundaries based on a dominant language was a terrible idea, says Devy, pointing to the Balkanisation of linguistic states today. In a multilingual society like India, the state has no business promoting one language over another, he says. The debates of the Constituent Assembly depicted this, but there were far too many disagreements. “Issues on which there was an agreement were included in the articles of the constitution. The ones on which there was disagreement were left in the Schedules.”

Which is why a fresh linguistic survey has been his dream project: to find out the present wealth of languages in India. The Central government has twice decided to do such a survey, setting aside up to Rs 600 crore for it. But it never came through. Devy, who had chaired a government committee on non-scheduled languages, did not want to wait.

So he got Rs 80 lakh from the Sir Jamsetji Tata Trust and contacted people he had met over the course of his work and invited them to Vadodara. In March of 2010, about 600 people speaking 320 languages came for the Bharat Bhasha Sangam. The survey was on.

Is this survey a linguistics post-mortem? Dying languages is an oft-repeated story, with an average of one dying every fortnight. Several organisations are trying to support disappearing languages, from Living Tongues to the Foundation for Endangered Languages. Which leads to the question: do we need to save languages? Can people save what they did not create?

Devy says each major economic shift changes the use of language, too. Human language, as we know it today, is estimated to have begun about 70,000 years ago. When people began agriculture and settled into cities around 10,000 years ago, a lot of languages must have disappeared or got consolidated. In all, humans are estimated to have used about 22,000 languages; only about 7,000 languages are in use today, and it is feared half of them will go out of use by the end of the current century.

The invention of the printing press led to a few languages becoming widespread, and several languages disappearing, ushering in the domination of the script over oral communication, Devy points out. Most languages do not have scripts, so they do not get state recognition, and get degraded to the level of a dialect. “The tyranny of the script over spoken language is comparable to the tyranny of the State over a people. It undermines the knowledge and experience of entire societies.”

If language has changed all along, why bother about dying languages? Devy offers the example of Andamanese people who survived by receding deeper into the forest after the earthquakes that resulted in the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It is believed the knowledge of tackling such a situation existed in their oral history. When they saw the signs, they knew what to do. Those who did not perished.

Each language is a dynamic record of the knowledge, experience and culture of not just a people but an area, a region. To lose a language is to lose that memory, a natural wealth, as also the economic opportunities it offers. A child can best articulate himself in his mother tongue, even if it means growing up with two or more languages. But getting forced into another language at a young age takes away the simple confidence of being. The real competence, ability and capacity of a child do not express themselves in such conditions.

No wonder the government’s myriad Hindi promotion committees are so lame. Masala films from Mumbai have won over more people to Hindi than the nationalist promotion of Hindi. The language they use is not dictated by one people to socially engineer another people. It is the language of winning people over. It is the language of enticement.

Devy reminds us that Hindi is not a very old language: “The first Hindi book was a primer published 211 years ago in 1802 in Kolkata.” Hindi is a confederation of 120-odd ‘feeder’ languages, which are much older, much richer. If Hindi acknowledges their debt, it is a grand language; a major river with many tributaries and distributaries. But State-sponsored Hindi disregards this heritage, making Hindi a handpump dug under the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission.

The nationalism that this state-sponsored Hindi is supposed to propagate is that of linguistic domination. Europe pioneered language-based nationalism in the 19th century and paid for it with two world wars; now, Europe has some 60 languages only. Such nationalism is useless in a multilingual country like India. Devy says revisiting the role of language and administration is fundamental to reforming our public life, from education to political representation. “We need to imagine ourselves as a confident post-colonial, post-European nation.”

Independence depends on the ease we feel about ourselves and our many voices and contradictions. I cannot write in Shekhawati or Malvi. But when I’m mindful of them and the stories I’ve heard in them from grandmothers and aunts, my Hindi makes sense. My grandmother completed a college education in the 1930s, but my mother, born on 15 August 1947, did not complete her school even. They both talked in Shekhawati, and listening to them was more of an assurance of independence than any flag or anthem.

I don’t know much Shekhawati, but on my mother’s 67th birthday today, I will attempt a conversation in that Rajasthani language. She will chastise me for butchering her mother tongue. But it will give my Hindi a feel of freedom. It will make me feel independent from an overbearing State and its ostentatious nationalism.

Categories: Language

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3 replies

  1. Thought-provoking and very useful. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Great effort by Ganesh N Devy and so thoughtful of you to write this article. I wish someone in the Ministry of Culture takes interest in this project to work on different dimensions. For instance, a project can be started to do audio & video recording of all the existing languages and dialects. Though such efforts will also have only limited impact confined only to future linguists as museums can’t save the languages when the state and the economy or the market (or all these put together) are constantly nudging the languages out of hearing range…..Anyway, good that some people have shown concern and have done their bit – let’s hope, some churning up begins.

  3. Enlightening! Did you speak to her in Shekhawati?! 🙂

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