Indigenous languages


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RECOGNIZED as ‘Aborigines’ in Australia, as ‘Mâori’ in New Zealand, as ‘First Nations’ in Canada, as ‘Indigenous’ in the United States, as ‘Janajatis’ in India, or as ‘tribes’ in anthropology, as ‘Notified Communities’ in the administrative parlance of many countries, as ‘Indigenous People’ in the discourse of human rights, and as ‘Adivasis’ in the terminology of Asian activists, these variously described communities are far too numerous and dispersed in geographical locations to admit of any single inclusive description.

It would be simplistic to perceive them as divergent victim groups of any shared epochal phenomenon such as colonialism, imperialism, modernity or globalization. In their ethnic, cultural and linguistic attributes, they are so varied that it is almost impossible to speak of them as a common category of humanity. No single term can describe them with any degree of semantic assuredness. Even if one were to accept one or another term for the purpose, its normative frame may run up against numerous contradictions with the strikingly divergent history of every community. Though such descriptive sociological terms often perform a degree of communicational theatre, a scrutiny of the range of signification that the term is expected to cover reminds one that most discursive concepts are perennially contestable.


Given these difficulties, the United Nations working group established in 1982 for determining the communities that can be described as indigenous came up with a four-fold criteria: (a) ‘pre-existent’ peoples; (b) ‘marginalised and dominated’ peoples; (c) ‘minority or culturally different’ peoples; and (d) peoples who identify themselves as indigenous. Since each of these criteria had spaces within them for contestation, the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (September 2007) was passed by the UN, but not unanimously. (Countries that voted against the resolution included Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.)

Notwithstanding these semantic difficulties, the existential pathos of the peoples whether identified from outside or through self-identification as ‘marginalised, minority, indigenous’, has common features in all continents. The indigenous have been facing deprivation and dispossession of their natural resource base, denial of access to quality education, health care and other citizenship rights, and have come to be seen as ‘a problem for the development project of modernity.’ In the words of sociologist Shiv Visvanathan,

‘Four positions, four meditations on the problematic of the Other especially as tribal, have been particularly significant and profound. As a rule of thumb they can be classified as the Rousseauist reflection, the Romantic reaction with its own sense of irony, the ethical pragmatist philosophy and the developmentalist position. The last is an abdication of anthropology which argues that the tribe can survive only by becoming the Other. It is an inversion which not only destroys difference but is banally genocidal.’1


The history of the ‘other communities’ during the last few centuries is filled with stories of forced displacement, land alienation, increasing marginalization, the eruption of violence, and counter-violence by the nation state. Going by any parameters of development, these communities always figure at the tail end. The situation of the communities that have been pastoral or nomadic is even worse. Considering the immense odds against which these communities have had to survive, it is not short of a miracle that they have preserved their languages and continue to contribute to the astonishing linguistic diversity of the world. However, if the situation persists, the languages of the marginalized stand the risk of extinction. Aphasia, a loss of speech, seems to be their fate.

It is a daunting task to determine as to which languages have come closest to the condition of aphasia, which ones are decidedly moving in that direction and which ones are merely going through the natural linguistic process of transmigration. It may not be inappropriate to say that the linguistic data available with us is not fully adequate for the purpose.

In India, Sir George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (1903-1923) – material for which was collected in the last decade of the 19th century – had identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. The 1921 Census reports showed 188 languages and 49 dialects. The 1961 Census reports mentioned a total of 1,652 ‘mother tongues’, out of which 184 ‘mother tongues’ had more than 10,000 speakers, and of which 400 ‘mother tongues’ had not been mentioned in Grierson’s survey, while 527 were listed as ‘unclassified’. In addition, 103 ‘mother tongues’ were listed as ‘foreign’. In the 1951 Census, the ‘foreign’ languages found spoken in India were listed at 63, thus showing a ‘discovery’ of 50 new ‘foreign’ languages in a matter of a decade.


In 1971, the linguistic data offered in the census was distributed in two categories, the officially listed languages of the 8th Schedule of the Constitution, and the other languages with a minimum of 10,000 speakers each. All other languages spoken by less than 10,000 speakers were lumped together in a single entry ‘Others’. That practice continued to be followed in subsequent enumerations. Linguist Uday Narayan Singh comments:

‘The problem with Indian labels is that the 1961 Census had floated so many mother tongue labels especially among the unclassified languages that it will have to be worked out as to how many of them finally survived – which is itself a gigantic task. The ones that are spoken above 1,000 speakers have a better chance of survival through later decades, and they included the following 10 unclassified languages: Adibhasha (4,807), Bakerwali (5,941), Beldari (2,702), Jatapu (19,467), Kanjari (1,810), Raj (1,342), Sarodi (1,354), Sohali (1,576), Subba (1,257), and Tirguli (1,000). A few others like Bare (909), Kolhati (952), Khasal (778), Inkari (732), and Uchai (768) are also in a better state. But there are 47 others that are not in this kind of state. There is no doubt that some preliminary verification was done by the Census authorities before releasing these names. But still, we may probably have to leave out these 263 language labels that have been returned by less than five speakers for obvious reasons of their genuineness or difficulty in verification, as there will be too many to handle.’2


Considering how complicated the census operations are in countries that have large migratory populations, and particularly how much the accuracy in census operations is dependent on literacy levels, it is not surprising that the data collected remains insufficiently definitive. What is surprising, however, is that as many as 310 languages, including all those 263 claimed by less than five speakers, and 47 others claimed by less than a 1000 speakers, should have arrived at that stage. These 310 ‘endangered’ languages count in the 1652 ‘mother tongues’ listed in the Census of 1961, however debatable the methodology followed in that particular census may have been.

In other words, a fifth part of India’s linguistic heritage has reached the stage of extinction over the last half-century. Moreover, the method of survey adopted over the last three census enumerations allows scope for overlooking any further depletion in the numbers. One fears that this may be the situation not in any one country alone, but practically all over the world, since the contextual factors responsible for language decline in one country also form the context of modernity in other nation states in the world.


Language loss is experienced in India not just by the ‘minor’ languages and ‘unclassified dialects’, but also by ‘major’ languages that have long literary traditions and a rich heritage of imaginative and philosophical writings. In speech communities that claim major literary languages such as Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada and Oriya as their ‘mother tongues’, the younger generations have little or no contact with the written heritage of those languages, even as they are able to ‘speak’ the languages as ‘native speakers’. It may not be inappropriate to assume that people all over the world are paying a heavy price for a globalized development in terms of their language heritage. This linguistic condition may be described as the condition of ‘partial language acquisition’ in which a fully literate person, with a relatively high degree of education, is able to read, write and speak a language other than her/his mother tongue, while is only able to speak but not write the language that she/he claims as the mother tongue.

The reorganization of Indian states after Independence was carried out along linguistic lines. The languages that had scripts were counted. The ones that had not acquired scripts, and therefore did not have printed literature, did not get their own states. Schools and colleges were established only for the official languages. The ones without scripts, even if they had a great stock of wisdom carried forward orally, were not fortunate enough to get educational institutions for them. However, a guarantee for providing patronage was enshrined in the Constitution, Article 347, which reads:

‘On a demand made in that behalf, the President may, if he is satisfied that a substantial proportion of the population of the State desire the use of any language spoken by them to be recognized by that State, direct that such language shall also be officially recognized throughout that State or any part thereof for such purposes as he may specify.’

Thus, language loss, linguistic shifts and a decline in linguistic heritage cannot be blamed on structural factors alone. There appears to be another and more overwhelming factor at work, and that is the development discourse in a rapidly globalizing world. One notices now in India, and in other Asian and African countries, an overpowering desire among parents to educate their children through the medium of English or French or Spanish in the hope that these languages will provide a certain visibility to the children in the international market of productive labour when they grow up. This desire has affected the schooling pattern in favour of an education through an international language not witnessed in any previous era.


The argument in favour of providing children an education, at least at the primary school level, for a healthy development of their intellect is indeed an incontrovertible one. However, the contrary argument which holds that children not educated in their mother tongues do not achieve a full intellectual development deserves to be reconsidered. If literature is considered to contain the most complex usage of language, one would assume that children who do not get an education in their own language will not be capable of fully appreciating, let alone producing, literature in the given language. Historical evidence, however, shows that such an assumption is not well-founded.

Some of the greatest among the world’s writers are known to have not received schooling in the languages that they used for creative linguistic production. Shakespeare did his schooling in Latin, so did Milton. Dante was not educated in Italian. Valmiki and Kalidasa – with somewhat hazy histories – did not receive education in Sanskrit. It is not clearly known if Jean Genet had any French schooling, or if William Butler Yeats had any Gaelic schooling. Chaucer’s generation of English children had to study French, not English; and in fact, English as a subject was not introduced in schools in England till the Chartist Movement brought up the issue of educating children belonging to the labour classes.


During the early years of the nineteenth century, an interesting debate occupied the centre-stage in the social reform movement in India in which Bengali intellectuals kept asking for education through the English language medium, while an English officer like Mountstuart Elphinstone held that schools in Indian languages would be desirable. The argument came to an end when in 1835, Lord Macaulay’s Minutes on Education recommended that English would be the medium of all serious education in India. Quite remarkably, it is since then that literatures in modern Indian languages showed a significant creativity. These arguments are not intended to take away any substance from the view that mother tongue education is the most suitable for young learners. I am only pointing to the fact that a lack of access to mother tongue education is not a sufficient cultural condition to destroy human creativity. The more significant condition is a lack of hope of survival of a community.

When a speech community comes to believe that education in some other language alone is the way ahead for its very survival, the given community decides to adopt to the new language situation. It would be pertinent therefore to consider if there is something inherent in the dominant development discourse in the contemporary world that requires a diminishing of the world’s language heritage, that demands a kind of a phonocide. And, if that is the case, which is a task for the analysts of political imagination and economies, the future for human languages is frightening. The communities that are already marginalised within their local or national contexts, the ones that are already a minority within their cultural contexts, the ones that have already been dispossessed of their ability to voice the concerns, are obviously placed at the frontline of the phonocide.


In India, universal education is the obligation of parents and the right of the child. State sponsored schooling is almost free and clearly affordable for the most deprived. There is provision of mid-day meals for children so that food insecurity does not drive them away from the classroom. The federal government and the state governments treat school education as one of their primary responsibilities. Child labour is officially made illegal, and even higher education is made free for women in many states. There are provisions for educational reservations for the children belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes as also for children from other backward communities.

The Indian state operates primary schools in nearly fifty Indian languages and several ‘foreign’ languages. Adult literacy and non-formal schooling are continuously promoted. There are constitutional guarantees built in the educational programmes aimed at promoting all listed languages. The Central Institute of Indian Languages is charged with the production of educational materials in the marginalised and minority languages.


In spite of such efforts, many marginalised languages and indeed some of the ‘major’ languages seem to display an inscrutable indifference towards their upkeep. An unimaginably large number of children seem to join schools that charge exorbitant fees and use the English language as the medium of instruction. In sum, the schooling is all geared towards enabling children to join the 45,000 institutions of higher learning, more than 60 per cent of which are devoted to Information Technology. When a child joins a school giving instruction in an Indian language, it is seen as an act of social disadvantage. Under these circumstances, the preservation of languages, particularly the ones that need a very special effort, is a daunting task, and not one that can be accomplished merely by initiating structural changes.

Thanks to the rights-based intervention by civil society actors in India, in recent years tribals have taken to writing. Many tribal languages now have their own scripts or have taken recourse to the state scripts. Some four decades back, when Dalit literature started attracting the nation’s attention, it was not usual to think of tribal writers among them as part of the Dalit movement. In Marathi, for instance, Atmaram Rathod, Laxman Mane and Laxman Gaikwad, though from nomadic tribal communities, were hailed as Dalit writers. At that time, the North East was no more than a rumour for the rest of India. Perhaps some were aware of the monumental collections presented by Verrier Elwin, but there was no inkling of tribal creativity.

It is only during the last twenty years that various tribal voices and works have started making their presence felt. Thus, Kochereti from Kerala and Alma Kabutri from the North surprised readers at almost the same time as L. Khiangte’s anthology of Mizo literature, Desmond Kharmaplang’s anthology of Khasi literature, and Govind Chatak’s anthology of Garhwali literature appeared in English and Hindi translation, respectively. This made possible the publication of The Painted Words (Penguin India, 2002), an anthology of tribal literature in English translation.


The last two decades have demonstrated that tribal literature is much more than folk songs and folk tales. It now encompasses other complex genres such as the novel and drama. Daxin Bajarange’s Budhan Theatre in Ahmedabad has been producing stunningly refreshing plays, modern in form and contemporary in content. Little magazines such as Chattisgarhi Lokakshar and Dhol have started appearing which provide space for tribal poets and writers. Ramanika Gupta’s Aam Admi has made a significant contribution to this movement. Literary conferences providing a platform for tribal writers are frequently held at Ranchi in Jharkhand and Dandi in Gujarat.

There is now a greater understanding among tribal activists all over the country that tribal identity and culture cannot be preserved unless the tribal languages and literature are foregrounded. Every continent has its own story, or stories, of the colonial experience, the marginalization of the indigenous, their struggles and the emergence of their voice in the respective national literature.


The conservation or preservation of languages needs to be seen as being significantly different from the preservation of monuments. Languages are social systems, as every student of linguistics knows. They get impacted by all other contextual social developments. Language as a social system has an objective existence in the sense that dictionaries and grammars of languages can be prepared, and languages can be transcribed, orthographed, mimeographed, recorded on a tape by way of documents and objects; but, essentially language does not have an existence entirely free of the human consciousness. Therefore, a given language cannot be completely dissociated from the community that uses it. Quite logically, therefore, the preservation of a language entails the preservation of the community that keeps that language in circulation.

Between the collective consciousness of a given community, and the language it uses to articulate the consciousness, is situated what may be described as the ‘world view’ of that community. The preservation of a language therefore, involves respecting the world view of the given speech-community. If such a community believes that human destiny is to belong to the earth, and not to offend the earth by claiming that it belongs to us, the language of that community cannot be preserved if one invites the community to share a political imagination that believes in vandalizing the earth’s resources in the name of development. In such a situation, the community will have only two options: it can either reject the Utopia that asserts the human right to exploit natural resources and turn them into exclusively commercial commodities, or it can reject its own world view and step out of the language system that binds it with the world view.

Indeed, the situation of the world’s languages, more particularly the languages of the indigenous peoples, marginalized and minority communities and of the cultures that have experienced or continue to experience alien cultural domination, has become precarious. It will not be even a day too early to raise the alarm. Yet, it would be ambitious to hope that this task can be achieved even in a small way by merely placing the onus and responsibility on the state parties. The mission will have to be carried out, through the agency of nation states, and independent of it, through a large number of civil society actors – universities, literary and linguistic academies, goodwill societies and associations, non-governmental organizations, individual scholars, researchers and activists.


The creation of texts, dictionaries, glossaries and grammars in the declining languages will be of use; documentation, museumization and archiving too will be of some help; but if the languages are to survive, the speech communities need to be given the dignity and respect that they deserve, not as anthropological others, not as the last and underdeveloped traces of the self, but in their own right as deserving of respect because of who they are.

It takes centuries for a community to create a language. All languages created by human communities are our collective cultural heritage. Therefore, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that they do not face the global phonocide let loose in our time.


* Modified version of the text of UNESCO lecture, October 2008.


1. Shiv Visvanathan, ‘Listening to the Pterodactyl’, in G.N. Devy, Geoffrey V. Davis and K.K. Chakravarty (eds.), Indigeniety: Representation and Interpretation, Orient Black-Swan, 2009.

2. Uday Narayan Singh, ‘Minor and Minority Languages in India’, in Report by G.N. Devy Sub-Group, Protecting Non-Scheduled Languages, 11th five year plan proposal, Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2006.