Speaking of us

Over the last half century, 220 languages were lost. But India still speaks in many tongues

In India, it is said, the water changes every two miles and the dialect, every four. The idea of the infinite diversity of culture is introduced in schools, and its reality is reinforced through myriad life experiences. Most of all, it is there in the many tongues we use to express ourselves. Now, through the efforts of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, comes another attempt to put a number to the diversity. The Vadodara-based NGO, engaged in what may be called the largest-ever survey of languages in the world, spread over four years, found that in 2013, India spoke some 780 languages well over the 122 listed in the 2001 Census. The survey took into account languages spoken by less than 10,000 people. So, it includes Majhi, spoken by only four people, and Mehali, spoken by 130.

The survey captures the sheer breadth of diversity in India, but it also finds evidence of a creeping homogenisation: 220 languages have died in the past 50 years. More tongues will disappear with their last guardians. For a country that has been the site of so many language-based insecurities, from linguistically motivated statehood demands to the pursuit of cultural superiority in claims of "classical" status for certain languages, it seems odd that so many are dead, or dying.

What do we lose when a language dies? The death of a language is more than an aesthetic loss. It marks the disappearance of a living codex of a culture. But change is constant, and as cultures mesh and people become more connected to each other, it is natural that they would seek to interact in languages other than those they grew up speaking. India is not yet flat there is life yet in the primary regional languages like Tamil and Bengali.

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