“Coastal languages are the most threatened languages of the country,” says Ganesh N. Devy.

By Kishor Dwivedi

Four hundred of the total 780 languages in India are facing a threat of ‘extinction’ over the next 50 years, says linguist Ganesh N Devy.

India constitutes 10 per cent of the 4,000 languages from across the world which are ‘endangered’, he said, stressing that English does not pose any threat to major Indian languages like Hindi, Bangla, Marathi and Telugu.

Devy was in the national capital yesterday for the release of 11 volumes of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), claimed to be the world’s largest linguistic surveys.

“Out of 6,000 languages in the world, nearly 4,000 are facing a potential, not real, danger of extinction in the next 50 years. Of these 4,000 languages, about 400 are in India. That means about 10 per cent potentially endangered languages are in India, which has 780 languages in total,” he said.

“The notion that English might destroy big languages like Hindi, Bangla, Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati and Punjabi is not well-founded because these languages are among the first 30 languages in the world. These top 30 languages are those which are at least a thousand years old, have over two crore speakers with a strong support from the film industry, good music tradition, educational availability and thriving media,” he said.

Devy said the most threatened are the coastal languages of the country.

“Many languages are on the verge of disappearance and most of them are the coastal languages. The reason is that livelihood in coastal areas is no longer safe. The corporate world is doing deep sea fishing. Traditional fishing communities, on the other hand, have moved inwards…Away from the coast, thus giving up their languages,” he told PTI in an interview.

He, however, said some tribal languages have also shown growth in recent years.

The country’s total 780 languages were surveyed by a team of 3,000 people in 27 states under the study.

Devy, also founder director of the Bhasha Research and Publication Center, Vadodara and Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, said the study will cover the remaining states of Sikkim, Goa and Andaman and Nicobar islands by December.

“I conceived the idea of the survey in 2003 and began the field work in 2010 with a team of 3,000 people. The data collection was completed in 2013 and since then, the publication process was started,” he said.

The literary expert said while the danger of extinction looms large over some languages, many other languages have been thriving.

“For example, Samtali, Gondi (spoken in odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra), Bheli (Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat), Mizo (Mizoram), Garo and Khasi (Meghalaya) and Kotbarak (Tripura) are showing an upward trend because educated people in these communities have started using these languages for writing.

“They publish poems, write plays and perform them. In some of the languages, even films are being made. For instance, they have started making films in Gondi. The Bhojpuri film industry is prospering…The language itself is growing, probably the fastest in the country,” he said.

Devy said the survey also sheds light on ways to conserve our languages.

The 67-year-old Sahitya Akademi award winner also sought to debunk the notion that English posed a threat to many Indian languages.

“And to lose these languages means losing huge human capital, cultural capital and even real capital because languages can be economically productive if they are used imaginatively for developing technology,” he argued.

Devy said people needed to look at this situation more carefully because languages, unlike air or water, are man- made.

“Language is man-made and comes out of great human labour. Thousands of years are spent before a language is born. If we lose our languages, we are doing grave injustice to our predecessors and ancestors,” he said.

Having completed the largest survey on Indian languages, Devy and his team are gearing up to document the world’s existing languages under the project ‘Global Language Status Report’ (GLSR).

“I have been building a team since 2008 which has members from places like Africa and australia and it is my dream to complete this global survey,” he told PTI.

Asked about any similar initiative elsewhere, the PLSI chief said Peter K Austin from England has worked on endangered languages but the scale of the project was “not as huge as that of the PLSI”.

“The GLSR will survey all the 6,000 languages in the world,” he added.


First published in Outlook magazine on 4 Aug 2017.