Protecting India's Linguistic Riches

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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In New Delhi this week, the findings of an ambitious and methodologically inventive survey of Indian linguistic plenitude were made available to the public. The project, called the People's Linguistic Survey of India, establishes the number of languages currently in circulation at an astonishing 780.

The survey, headed by the scholar Ganesh Devy, and drawing on hundreds of scholars and research workers, is impressive not just for its findings but also for the principles it applied in thinking about India's languages. They dramatically extend, for instance, the official view of India's languages in the Constitution of 1950, which recognizes 22 official languages, or Scheduled Languages. All have their own script and print cultures, and are now sanctified as the "high languages" of modern India.

A wider view of Indian languages is taken by the decadal census of India. The census lists the 22 official languages and all their recognized dialects and variants (my mother tongue, Oriya, for instance, is divided into Oriya, Bhatri, Proja, Relli and Sambalpuri). Then it also details another 100 "non-scheduled languages" that either don't have scripts (the major tribal languages for instance, such as Bhili or Munda) or aren't native to India but are still used by a large amount of people (Persian, Arabic). It also provides comparative figures across the decades for the number of self-declared speakers of each of these languages.

The PLSI survey, though, breaks new ground by not making distinctions between languages and dialects, bestowing autonomy on variant forms of major languages with deep roots in local history and geography. And it takes a special interest in languages spoken by very small groups of people, which the state surveys don't do. The survey opens a view of Indian languages that avoids the tracks left by the combined forces of print culture, colonialism, and the Indian state over three centuries. Instead, it adopts the principle that every language expresses a unique worldview and is worthy of the same interest as any other.

It is a view that links the 21st century to the deep Indian past, bypassing some of the anxieties and hierarchies of the new nation-state of the mid-20th century and the colonial state that preceded it, and building from the ground up rather than top-down. In an interview, Devy stressed that the survey's major advance was its enumeration of the languages of indigenous peoples and the ability to draw revealing portraits of many small languages by aggregating details supplied by its speakers:

In four years we have documented 780 languages. There are 22 Scheduled languages, 480 tribal and nomadic languages, 80 coastal languages, major regional languages not yet in the 8th Schedule (Tulu, Kutchhi, Mewati), and international languages spoken in India. The survey will be published in 50 volumes by Orient Blackswan in over a year's time. There are State-specific volumes and volumes with national overviews on themes like Scheduled, tribal, and coastal languages; Indian languages in the diaspora and international languages in India; and, kinship, time and space, among others...

Kinship terms are shrinking in most languages — 'mummy' has replaced amma, and 'papa', bapu. Terms for distant relations are losing ground, reflecting kinship erosion. Weakening ecological bonds are reflected in people's inability to name surrounding trees or birds. Terms for forms of prayer are also shrinking. Interestingly, while migrations are encouraging a growing multilingualism, we are talking more using fewer words.

In a globalizing world where certain languages are repositories of economic power, it is almost inevitable that many of the smaller Indian languages will soon become extinct. But more Indians should know that these languages exist as living forces, both forming, and being formed by, the thoughts of small speech communities in far-flung areas, such as the northeast, the most language-rich region. Some of the ideas and assumptions that underlie the survey can also be traced to a lecture delivered by Devy to UNESCO in 2008, where he asserted:

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.

The evidence shows that India doesn't have any single language that could be said to be spoken by the majority of Indian people, and so in a sense every Indian language is a minority language -- a fact that is politically enabling rather than disabling. Further, a number of "high languages" owe their status as much to the weight of history and tradition as to their use in the present day. Conversely, "non-scheduled languages" tend to be those whose speakers lack economic or political power.

The networks of influence of language in India are studied in a paper from 2002 by Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande that tries to analyze languages in terms of both the number of people who speak them and their "functional power" or dominance in the world:

In a multilingual country such as India, different languages are dominant in different domains. For example, Sanskrit is dominant in religion but not in economics, politics and business. The regional languages are dominant at home, but in higher education and business at the national level they are not. English is dominant in higher education, business and politics but not in religion. The criterion of dominance will indicate the same language as dominant and non-dominant in different domains.

Over the next year, publishers from several Indian states will release to the public, and in many languages, the findings of the PLSI surveys. For now, though, the survey's work reminds Indians that their country has a richer human soundscape than any other.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)

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