Thursday, November 29, 2007

Do Our Languages Need a Life ?

A recent issue of India's Outlook magazine covered the valiant efforts being made by some languages to survive and the threats looming over them. According to the report, this silent killer which does not attract so much attention takes away one language every fifteen days some where in the world. In India, the Mysore based Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) is at the vanguard of efforts to salvage Indian languages from extinction. Among the languages on death row are languages like Great Andamenese (7 speakers), Onge (100 speakers) and Ahom (150 speakers). The urgency for these languages is obviously great and efforts are being made to salvage the language and the culture associated with them for posterity even if the tribes which speak these languages seem doomed.

A couple of issues later a debate began regarding the need for these languages to survive and for CIIL to do the work it is attempting to do. An anthropologist argued that it made little sense tracking grammar and diction of a language that would soon be history. Wasn’t there any thing better to do? What after all would be the value of preserving a language if there was no one around to speak it? Another reader argued that this was not extinction but rather evolution. The big ticket languages like Hindi, Bengali and Telegu for instance would certainly swallow up a lot of the smaller languages but the languages themselves would survive in some form – albeit in a different avatar – much like Sanskrit or Latin surviving not so much in terms of the numbers of people speaking them but in they having contributed a large chunk of the vocabulary of the languages that live and that people speak. A third reader went on to say that even the major regional languages – the vernaculars as we used to call them are becoming irrelevant and with the gradual creep of English, even the so languages that millions speak are no longer the same – watch for example the gradual emergence and promotion of hinglish from a semi pariah bastardized conglomerate of words to the preferred form of communication of most. This reader went on to include that the death and demise of any language and culture that did not serve commercial and business interests was inevitable and that eventually regional languages would be reduced to being the vehicles of ritualistic communication and nothing more – much like Latin chants or Sanskrit mantras. So are institutions like CIIL fighting a fool’s battle? Do languages have a right to live and thrive and a right to protection against extinction? Ever since Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani island in 1492 to "take possession" of the land for the king and queen of Spain, his legacy of erasing the language, culture and customs of the conquered has been derided a lot, but has nevertheless had no shortage of disciples to carry on with his ideology. And so main landers displace islanders and highlanders, the neo colonizer conquers lands politically as well as economically and displaces the defeated and all of those victorious stamp their cultural footprint on the dust of the defeated.Each extinction of a language means that a fascinating way of putting words together is no longer alive and that an intangible part of our human heritage is gone forever. I remember the outrage of the world when the Bamian Buddhas were blasted out of existence by the Taliban. They had stood for two thousand years and more and were a symbol of our existence and our history. And yet as pointed out in the beginning of this article, every fifteen days a language that may be older than even the Bamian Buddhas dies out unlamented. And yet sadly our eyes shed few tears at this slow and silent extinction that is happening before our eyes.

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