Lifestyle & Belief

India's languages dying faster than anywhere else in the world

The Australian Age's Ben Doherty has a nice piece on India's endangered tribal languages today, in print and video, with some rare footage of the Toto people living along India's border with Bhutan.  Ganesh Devy's People's Linguistic Survey of India, which I profiled for GlobalPost, gets a nod as well.  There's also some relevance here to my series on the danger posed to tribal peoples by the dams slated for Arunachal Pradesh.

Some sad facts from Doherty's article:

Of the 7000 languages now spoken across the world, only about 600 are expected to survive until the end of the century.

India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries on earth. Just how diverse is a matter of contention, but it is believed India today speaks between 850 and 900 distinct languages, though only 122 are recognised in the census and just 22 are scheduled as official languages in the constitution. Of mother tongues — the vernacular first learned at home — it was estimated in 1961 that India was home to more than 1600.

But as well as being one of the world’s most linguistically diverse nations, India is also losing languages faster than any other place on earth. UNESCO currently lists 197 Indian languages as endangered or vulnerable.

Let's hope Devy's project can make some impact in preserving them, if not as living tongues, then at least as historical literature.

Incidentally: As usual, some of the comments on my dam series were of the "foreigners have no business criticizing India" variety, due to America's dismal record of killing and exploiting its own native peoples. My point was that India shouldn't follow that same road, any more than it should build steam engines or lay thousands of miles of telephone cables, when better solutions are available.  

But I did run across some more direct parallels in American history to the dam crisis in Arunachal Pradesh. Namely, the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the state of Washington, which was blamed for devastating the culture of native tribes by blocking the salmon migration.