Recording India’s linguistic riches as leaders push Hindi as national language

The task was gargantuan: to bring together a team of more than 3,500 language specialists, academics and enthusiastic amateurs to determine how many distinct languages ​​still exist in India, a country of astonishing linguistic diversity.

Ganesh Narayan Devy has been obsessed with this question since, as a young literary scholar, he came across a 1971 language census that listed 108 native languages ​​spoken by Indians. At the end of the report, at number 109, it was written “all the others”.

“I wondered what ‘everyone else’ could be,” he said.

It turns out to be a huge number: his team’s survey, perhaps the most comprehensive effort of its kind ever in India, studied 780 languages ​​used in the country, with hundreds more to be studied. .

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The Indian Constitution, on the other hand, lists 22 languages, and the last government census of 2011 named 121 “major” languages ​​with 10,000 or more speakers.

Devy’s findings, which he has gradually published in a series of scholarly volumes, come at a sensitive time, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pushes to adopt Hindi as the national language, as part of its vision widest of first Hindu India. .

As his linguistic research unfolds, Devy has immersed himself in a new project that tackles what is perhaps an even bigger and more controversial issue in India’s culture wars: the country’s long history.

His “Origins of Indian Civilization and Histories of India” aims to trace the trajectory of the entire subcontinent since the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago. He recruited 80 historians from around the world to work with him.

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The ambitious work is meant to be a rejoinder to India’s ruling party’s campaign to rewrite the nation’s history books, including removing sections on Muslim leaders and changing Muslim names of places.

“History is taught to spread political bigotry in this country,” Devy said. “Someone had to show the ruling class a mirror.”

His passions for the languages ​​of India and the rise and course of its civilization converge in his work with India’s vast population of long-oppressed Adivasis, or “original people”.

Adivasi is an umbrella term for indigenous groups in India, covering a population of over 100 million people, with a huge diversity of ethnicities, cultures, languages ​​and language families.

Many of these languages ​​are already dead or rapidly disappearing. And when a language dies, it’s not just the words that are lost.

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Language is the way, Devy said, that a community constructs its ideas of time and space. People who give up their first language to adopt another often lose that distinct perspective with it, he said.

“The world may be a stage there, but language constructs it in a unique way,” he said. “So that one worldview is lost.”

For decades, India has suffered a linguistic hemorrhage, having lost more than 300 languages ​​since independence in 1947, Devy said, and many more are on the verge of extinction as the number of speakers falls below of 10,000.

His research, which received no government funding, was published in 50 of what would eventually comprise nearly 100 volumes. The books capture the history of a language, sample songs and stories, and important terms. He started the project with his own savings; the Tata Trusts, an Indian philanthropic organization, has since contributed around $100,000.

His linguistic research took him across India, from the Himalayas, where he thought the cold would kill him, to the hill tribes living in the jungle. And at times, his research has challenged his own view of the world.

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“Collecting songs from the Banjara community, they insisted that I honor them by accepting their gift to me,” Devy said, referring to a community of nomadic traders. “The greatest respect is expressed between them by asking the guest to eat the ear of a roast goat. I had to accept it, even though I had been a vegetarian for decades.

Devy was born in 1950 in Bhor, a small village in the state of Maharashtra. When he was 10, his father went bankrupt, forcing his son to start working at 15. Among other jobs, he worked in a mine in the coastal state of Goa. To improve his language skills, he recalls, he read 300 pages of English books daily.

He eventually earned a master’s degree in English literature and wrote his doctoral thesis on Sri Aurobindo, a nationalist pioneer in India.

After teaching English for 16 years at university level, he dropped out in 1996 and soon moved to a village in the state of Gujarat which is home to many indigenous tribes. There he established the Adivasi Academy, which has a multilingual school, a health center and a library of more than 60,000 books, including a section devoted to tribal archives.

Devy has long been active in social justice causes and recently coordinated several peaceful protests against a new citizenship law that critics say is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of religion, eroding the secular foundation. of State.

For all his social activism, his life’s work remains in the languages ​​and history of India.

In his research, he found dozens of secret languages ​​spoken by tribal communities as a way to keep their communications from prying ears, including researchers eager to decode the mystery.

He discovered a form of Portuguese spoken in dozens of Indian villages in coastal areas. In the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, there are 16 languages ​​which, combined, have 200 words for snow, including one for “the snow that falls when the moon is up”.

By recording India’s rich tapestry of languages, Devy believes it has a role to play in maintaining India as a multicultural state, as it has been for millennia.

The same goes for telling a complete story that emphasizes evidence rather than ideology.

“We’re going to restore every piece of history they destroy,” he said. “It will take time, but we will win.”