‘I am charting the horoscope of the languages...’


Prof. G N Devy / Vinod Krishnan T Y

The literary scholar and cultural activist, Ganesh Narayandas Devy writes in Marathi, Gujarati, and English, and has received prestigious literary awards in all three languages. His work reveals a deep interest in India’s classical literature and philosophy as well as in the threatened languages of Adivasi and nomadic communities, in higher education and rural development. After Amnesia (1992) offers an incisive analysis of contemporary literary scholarship by demonstrating how modern Indian languages have posited a false choice of intellectual practices rooted in culturally distant Western or Sanskritic traditions. Of Many Heroes {1997}, a historiography of literary historiography in India, spans the period from the 4th century Bhartrihari to seminal 20th century texts. The Reader with two essays -The Being of Bhasha and Countering Violence- discusses the significance of dialects and vanishing languages in the making of civilization, the place of silence and insanity in the making of meaning and of language itself in the future of knowledge. Prof. Devy discusses these issues and the discredited theory of ‘Aryan occupation’ in interactions conducted over periods of time with Vinod Krishnan, faculty with Kozhikode-based CREST.

Prof. G N Devy
Prof. G N Devy

VK: Your early studies and writings were mainly on literary subjects. What prompted you to focus on linguistics at a later stage?

GND: I have always been amazed by the human ability to observe what is happening around us and to recreate our thoughts in the form of sound. Sound becomes a language through a very complex process that takes place in the brain. It is a miracle that this sound, recorded in our brain as language, can be remembered by human beings even after years. Scientists estimate that 8,500 crore neurons perform this feat!

My love for languages was quite coincidental. We were immigrants from Gujarat living in Maharashtra. At school, I never had any special liking for languages. In fact, I could not wield my mother tongue Gujarati, nor Marathi or English properly. For that reason, I had to drop out of graduation and started working in a mine, owned by the Dempo family in Goa at a very young age.

During that period, I came across the famous novel of Pearl S. Beck, The Good Earth, in a rural library. Since there was nothing else to do with my spare time, I tried to read that novel. It was an endeavour with limited knowledge of English. Amazingly, I was able to fully enjoy and absorb that book without any difficulty. It inspired me to venture into the world of books and letters, which further led me to study English literature, quitting my job. I tried to master all languages that had once troubled me; starting to write in Gujarati, Marathi, and English. Slowly my love of literature fanned into an interest into linguistics. Subsequently, I attempted to gain knowledge about languages that may have become extinct.

Pearl S Buck
American writer Pearl S Buck (1892-1973) - Charcoal with chalk on paper by Samuel Johnson Ahern Woolf at National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift by the artist's daughters, Muriel Woolf Hobson and Dorothy Woolf

VK: Could you please share some of the important observations of the Peoples Linguistic Survey which you had pioneered?

GND: According to the 1961 census, there were 1,652 languages in India classified as ‘mother tongue’. This figure did not include dialects. However, in the 2011 Census, the number of mother tongues dropped to 234. Let us not assume that 1,418 mother tongues have become extinct in the last 50 years. Unlike the 1961 census, the current census definition does not give mother tongue status to a language spoken by less than 10,000 people.

Our language survey conducted during 2010-13 reveals that 780 languages are still mother tongues in our country. This figure does not take into account the number of people who use it, a position different from the 2011 census. We used the 1961 Census as the criteria. It shows that over 800 mother tongues have become extinct during the last fifty years. No exact figures are available. However, we estimate that at least 300 mother tongues have become extinct in India in the last ten years. The survey aimed to document the specific languages of marginalized peoples, especially of nomads and tribals.

The survey observed several interesting facts. What amazed us the most was Nihali language, which is still considered the mother tongue by more than 15,000 people in about 15 villages in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Nihali has no structural relation to any other language anywhere in the world. Perhaps they are completely isolated from other cultures. Another linguistic curiosity is that there are about a thousand Portuguese speakers in a village in Maharashtra. Many of them are illiterate. It is noteworthy that Devanagari is the script used for writing ‘Noling’, the local Portuguese. The survey also found that Arunachal Pradesh, which has only a very small population, is the State that has the highest linguistic diversity.

VK: Can the extinction of a language, spoken by a small number of people, be considered a natural phenomenon?

GND: Of course, a language may die. It would be more appropriate to say that it is more due to sociological reasons than natural. Languages do not die, unlike species extinction, which occurs due to natural causes. Not so with language. It is caused by the pressures of cultural and social factors. Therefore, it can hold its own in certain domains of culture. For example, language associated with rituals or used to communicate with God. They may exist in the realm of faith or practice. But they are relevant only in such areas.

A totally different, newly acquired language is used for communication in everyday life. This process can be seen very clearly in some tribal communities. Today there is a conscious effort to strengthen the native tongues in many tribal communities. The educated among them are taking the initiative. Most of our languages that are seriously under threat are those spoken by the coastal communities. The influx of other cultures and industrialisation is forcing them to move out of their homes. Language death is most likely to occur in such displaced societies.

book cover
“I was able to fully enjoy and absorb that book without any difficulty. It inspired me to venture into the world of books and letters, which further led me to study English literature, quitting my job.”

VK: Does the absence of script also contribute to language extinction?

GND: Such an assumption might not be entirely correct. Many of the prominent world languages have not developed their own script.

English, Spanish and French are some such, which borrowed the Latin alphabet for writing. They still use the Latin script. Hindi is another language without its own script. Devanagari is the script used in Hindi today. The Marathas used the script ‘Modi’ which was completely different from Devanagari. There are still a few people in Maharashtra who know it. Rajasthan has Mewari, a different language from Hindi. Previously it had its own script. Today Devanagari is used.

The relationship between language and script is only cultural. Languages can accept any script. Tulu is a good example. It was once a language with its own script. Even Kannada used the Tulu script once. Today, however, Tulu uses Kannada as its script. The original Tulu script is no longer in use. We also have a history of conflicts between language and script. Until independence, the Sindhis of India used the Persian script. That shifted to Devanagari post-independence.

In the past, scripts were required for languages in communities where commercial activities were abundant. In ancient times, they relied on scripts because writing was mandatory to keep records of trade. In passing, I doubt whether the skill of ‘handwriting’ would last beyond fifty years. The technology to convert sound into text is already gaining popularity. After half a century, I think it would be universal.

VK: Linguists have noted that in some societies in Asia and Africa, there are languages spoken only by women. Have you found their prevalence in India today?

GND: Women-only languages exist in India too. For instance, in the Dakhini language, still popular in Gulbarga in Karnataka and Sholapur in Maharashtra, there are differences when spoken by women and men. Although they understand each other, the vocabulary used by genders is different. There is a small Marathi speaking community in Tamil Nadu. Among them, women speak to one another in Marathi and men in Tamil. There is also an issue of convenience. Men are being required to use Tamil because they are more in contact with the outside world than women. Prof. U.R. Ananthamurthy has written about such complexity of usage. He often referred to the language used by women as ‘backyard language’.

Dr. U R Ananthamurthy
Dr. U R Ananthamurthy (2nd from left) in function at International Relations dept., MG University, with left ideologue P Govinda Pillai, former speaker of Kerala Assembly Varkala Radhakrishnan, and V K Sukumaran Nair | Photo courtesy: Dr. K M Seethi

VK: You are currently leading a global program on languages. Elaborate please.

GND: Of the 6,000 extant languages, at least 4,000 may become extinct soon. That is why an attempt was made to make a comprehensive study on languages globally. At least 10 percent of endangered languages are Indian. In other words, at least 400 of the 750 languages spoken in India today are likely to disappear. Today I am focusing on the longevity of languages. In a sense, I am writing the horoscope of languages.

Language is a man-made thing, created from centuries of effort by a society. We need to understand that the disappearance of a language means the disappearance of a culture. Allowing languages to die is a grave sin against our ancestors and future generations.

VK: I gather that your India Before History is a study that integrates various disciplines. Who all are involved?

GND: Understanding the prehistoric past of India two millennia ago is a complex endeavour. Such an investigation should utilise the possibilities of archaeology, genetics, agricultural history, sociology, linguistics, marine history, and neurology that touches on the evolution of the human brain, ancient migration, and global climate studies. Therefore, the observations of domain experts need to be integrated in this study.

My aim is to keep it completely within the bounds of science and to avoid misconceptions. Only with the backing of science can we answer the question of who we are, where we came from, how we evolved into human beings, how mankind, which was confined to hunting and food gathering, moved to agriculture, how cities were built, how traditions, contemporaneity is integrated, philosophers, artists and poets, and so on.

VK: Has there been any inquiry into such a comprehensive understanding of India before?

GND: Inquiries into the pre-history and proto-history of India began as early as the mid-19th century. New discoveries in archaeology and anthropology have contributed to the development of this field of study in several stages. Researchers from all over the world have shown interest in this field and have made significant contributions to various fields of study related to our history. Collections of studies on the subject have been published in the United States and United Kingdom. However, it is mainly the development of genetics in the last decade that has given much impetus to this field of study.

Recent books by Indian researcher Tony Joseph and American David Reich have sought to integrate different narratives. At the same time, except for a few rare publications, almost all available studies are by scientists for scientists. For those who are unaware of such complex issues, this issue, which is relevant to today’s India, is not easily understood. Through this endeavour I seek to build a bridge between science writing and educated readers without softening the logic or firmness of perspective.

VK: You say in relation to our history that “there has never been a sect in history called the Aryans”. When and why did the term ‘Aryan’ become popular?

GND: The theory of ‘Aryan occupation’ came into use in the late 19th century. They are derived from the works of French and German linguists of the time. Hitler’s idea of German nationalism was based on this theory. It has been completely rejected by historians and linguists. There are some interesting new studies available today showing how Sanskrit evolved from Indo-European and Indo-Iranian languages. From the point of view of such scientific studies, the Aryans were not a people who migrated to West Asia and Northwest India, but a particular culture that gradually influenced this territory over time. The spread of this culture in India has taken more than 1,000 years.

Prof. M M Kalburgi
Indian linguist and historian, Prof. M M Kalburgi (1938-2015), assassinated by the enemies of reason

VK: Finally, could you share your experiences about staying in Dharwad?

GND: I moved to Dharwad in 2016, a few months after Kalburgi was brutally murdered. Therefore, I focus on promoting the voice of reason and working against hate politics. Let me add that Dharwad is abundantly endowed with an unusually high number of musicians, singers, writers, thinkers, and intellectuals working in various fields. Even though it is a small town, I have enormous admiration for Dharwad.

(Interview in Malayalam was published in the Mathrubhumi weekend edition of August 1, 2021)

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