Friday, February 21, 2014

How many languages are there in India?

This is a tricky question! Depending on how you define language and dialect, you get diverse answers. Here are three answers.

1. PLSI. "There are over 780 languages and 66 different scripts in India." Ganesh N Devy, Chairperson of the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), announced this in press conferences in Kolkata and Guwahati in July 2013. As the report in The Hindu said: "Arunachal Pradesh is the richest among the States with 90 languages.... Researchers found that Assam with 55 languages, Gujarat 48, Maharashtra 39, and West Bengal 38 are among the most linguistically diverse States.... The survey, Dr. Devy said, has revealed that the north-eastern parts of the country have one of the highest per capita language densities in the world." Another report quotes Devy as saying, "While it surely is a fact to celebrate the diversity of the country, the sad part is we have lost nearly 250 languages in the last 50 years or so." More elsewhere on this blog.

2. Ethnologue. "The number of individual languages listed for India is 461. Of these, 447 are living and 14 are extinct. Of the living languages, 75 are institutional, 127 are developing, 178 are vigorous, 55 are in trouble, and 12 are dying." This is how the internet's biggest language-database, Ethnologue, characterizes our languages. A-Pucikwar, Adi, Agariya... when I first saw this list many years ago, it was only the 25th language that I recognized -- Assamese.

3. Census of India. "122 languages" says the 2001 census. But wait -- how do they arrive at this number? Well, the enumerators "recorded faithfully" 6661 mother-tongue names from all over the country. These were then "subjected to thorough linguistic scrutiny, edit and rationalization." This resulted in 1635 "rationalized mother tongues" -- each of which is spoken by at least 10,000 speakers -- and 1957 names "which were treated as 'unclassified' and relegated to 'other' mother tongue category." These 1635 "rationalized mother tongues" were further classified following "the usual linguistic methods for rational grouping". The result was 122 languages.

One result of these reclassifications is that under the language-name Hindi, there are 49 "mother-tongues" (from Awadhi to Surjapuri). Besides, there are also 14.8 million "Others", speaking mother-tongues with 10,000 or fewer speakers. 14.8 million "Others": as Wikipedia tells us, there are about 174 countries and dependent territories with smaller populations than that!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Language and environment - a response to Madhav Gadgil

Professor Madhav Gadgil gave a talk at IIIT Hyderabad today. Among other things, he stressed the need to empower local communities with information on and knowledge of how various decisions by governments and corporations will impact their environment. Government-generated environmental information is poor, not-transparent, and frequently manipulated, he said. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2013 came in for special castigation (see also this analysis of the bill by PRS Legislative Research).

He was tremendously optimistic about citizen-science initiatives (like the Australian WaterWatch) and using the Right to Information Act to generate knowledge for informed debate. He was equally optimistic that machine translation "within about 30-40 years" will make this knowledge available in any language.

In the Q&A that followed, I took the following line (spelt out here in greater detail than I had time for in the session):

(a) biodiversity hotspots are also hotspots of linguistic diversity -- researchers in fact speak of "biocultural diversity";

(b) knowledge of biodiversity maintenance is typically encoded in indigenous languages, and many of these are very small languages indeed -- the median number of speakers of the world's languages is a mere 7000 (compare it to the mean -- 878 thousand);

(c) thus, even from a purely instrumental point of view (setting aside any ethical arguments), there is a good case for the flourishing of these languages;

(d) but this linguistic diversity is disappearing very fast -- "between 1970 and 2005 the number of languages spoken globally has decreased by 20%";

(e) among the most effective mechanisms to ensure that a language disappears is an assimilationist language policy in education -- specifically, the use of  a non-mother-tongue as medium of instruction -- what we have elsewhere called "silent ethnocide -- a low-intensity warfare through formal education";

(f) thus, if information and knowledge are to benefit the environmentally most vulnerable in society, a mother-tongue-based multilingual education is necessary -- machine-translation technologies, while welcome, will not by themselves be enough.