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'India's ability to be multi-lingual has kept us together'
Thursday September 12, 2013 6:38 PM , IANS

What with 900 languages alive and kicking, possibly the most for any country in the world, it is this multi-lingual ability that has kept the Indian fabric together, says G.N. Devy, the man whose monumental People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), a 13-year effort with the help of 3,000 volunteers, showed up the county with its "many complexities".

In the light of the present research and documentation, "I can say that India is the only country to have 900 languages," he said.

Devy is now determined to work with the network put in place for documenting the Indian languages and doing his bit to save languages that are dying because they have no written history.

IANS interviewed the 63-year-old Devy, who is also the founder of the Vadodara-based Bhasha Research and Publication Centre.


Q: The PLSI report is an expansive gamut of information. How did the idea germinate? How many people have been associated with the project?

A: India has many complexities and because of that it took us 13 years to formulate a common framework. In 2010, only after I was confident that we can carry forward the idea to the next level that we decided to conduct the survey. Therefore, it took us about four years when we worked closely with people of the communities and trained them through several workshops. About 3,000 people, from farmers to a vice-chancellor, helped us. And now with this network in place, the work will continue.

Q: In the 50 volumes on Indian languages, 780 languages have been documented. From the data could you identify the languages that suffered major losses?

A: The coastal communities that migrated to the cities with the loss of their occupation suffered major losses. Then, the nomadic or de-notified communities also suffered. For generations they were stigmatised by the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Now they don't feel comfortable in disclosing their cultural and caste identities because the stigma still haunts them. So, they don't speak their language in presence of other people.

Q: Despite being a country with 900 languages, what keeps us together? Is there any other nation with a similar linguistic history?

A: Our ability to be multi-linguistic has kept us together. Hindi and English act as the binding languages in our country even as we use our own languages.

Though it is believed that Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean has around 1,100 languages, there is no clear survey on that front. The numbers don't match to the population there. Considering that anomaly, I can say that India is the only country with 900 languages.

Q: A large number of languages have been clubbed together under 'All Others' title. Is this because they had no scripts?

A:The large number of languages clubbed together under the title "All Others" were given that description not because they had no scripts. The fact is that as against the 1961 Census Report on Mother Tongues which had announced a list of 1,652 'Mother Tongues', the 1971 Census offered a list of only 109 'Mother Tongues'. Of these 109, the first 108 were names of 'Mother Tongues' and the last item was "All Others".

The impression one may get by comparing the two figures --- 1,652 and 108 separated by a short period of 10 years --- is that over 1,545 'Mother Tongues' simply vanished in that duration. However, that was not the case. The reason for this strange and shocking reduction in the number was that the government decided in relation to the 1971 Census to announce the names of only those languages that are spoken by over 10,000 persons.

The cut-off figure of 10,000 speakers for a language to be recognised as 'language' is completely unscientific. For instance, a great language like Sanskrit does not have at present 10,000 or more speakers, but that does not diminish its status as a language.

Q: The volume on 'The Indian Sign Languages' was recently released in the capital and with that you have provided a platform to the "ignored" sign languages. How did this idea come about?

A: Language makes us human. Language has to be part of the rights of a citizen. So, if there are people in the country who use sign language, then it's their right to have their language described and included in the survey. So, we had to create a volume on sign language.

Q: Can you elaborate about your team?

A: It is a small team of four-and-a-half people in Bhasha. They had joined us 20 years back as interns and are with us today with little monetary concern. Even, my wife, Surekha, has been a great force at the centre of it. We work from a rented house in Vadodara.

Q: Is it too much of a responsibility to manage this social drive of raising awareness about Indian languages and its existence?

A: When somebody runs in a marathon, in the moment of running the person is not aware of the responsibility but more of how much the feet ache and how much distance is left. I have a sense of responsibility, but I am not bogged down by that sense. I am excited that there is a long path ahead of me as I have trained myself as a long distance runner.

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