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Posts Tagged ‘survey’

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Photo: Sunaina Kumar
Women of Jad tribe spinning wool in Dunda village, Uttarakhand. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages and is one of 780 (possibly 850) in India.

Here is a heretical thought from someone who loves language: if practically everyone speaks a different language from everyone else, maybe we don’t need language? One must at least ponder the question of whether there is a better way to communicate with others. I’ve no idea what it could be. Even gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

There is always a need to communicate, isn’t there? It’s a puzzle. Even English, despite its frequent role as the bridge language Esperanto was meant to be, suffers from so many Orwellian uses of common words today, you can hardly trust it to convey what you mean.

These thoughts came to me because of an article by Sunaina Kumar at Atlas Obscura on the amazing array of languages in India alone.

Kumar writes, “In 1898, George A. Grierson, an Irish civil servant and philologist, undertook the first ever Linguistic Survey of India. It took Grierson 30 years to gather data on 179 languages and 544 dialects. The survey was published in 19 volumes, spanning 8,000 pages, between 1903 and 1928. …

“Ganesh Devy was frustrated by this lack of contemporary data, especially the discrepancies he saw in the existing numbers. Since the government wasn’t likely to start on a new survey in the near future, Devy, a former professor of English from the western state of Gujarat, launched the People’s Linguistic Survey of India in 2010. The name refers to the fact that it was the people of the country, and not the government, that embarked on this project.

“With single-minded ambition, he put together a team of 3,000 volunteers from all parts of the country. Since 2013, the PLSI has published 37 volumes, featuring detailed profiles of each of India’s languages. The project is expected to be completed by 2020 with 50 volumes. In the linguistic landscape of India, the work done by PLSI is not just pathbreaking, it is crucial in recording and thus preserving the languages of the country for future generations. …

“The challenge of putting a disparate team together with a minuscule budget of 8 million rupees ($1,17,000) — provided by a private trust — to map the languages spoken by 1.3 billion people was enormous.

“ ‘My team was not made of linguists, but people who could speak their own language,’ Devy says. ‘We had writers, school teachers, philosophers, social scientists, some linguists. We also had farmers, daily wagers, car drivers, people who had been in and out of jail. They had an intimacy with their language. Even if it was less scientific, it was authentic.’ These volunteers were asked to record data about the languages they spoke, including the history of the language, its grammatical features, and samples of songs and stories. It was chaotic, Devy admits, but he traveled to every corner of the country to train the team and the final product was vetted with academic rigor.

“So far, the PLSI has recorded 780 languages in India and 68 scripts. When Devy embarked on the mammoth project, even he did not expect to unearth that many. He says that the PLSI could not report on nearly 80 languages for various reasons, including accessibility of a given region due to remoteness or conflict, which brings the estimated total number of languages closer to 850.

“Based on data from the survey, Devy estimates that in the last 50 years, India has lost 220 languages, including some within the last decade. …

“ ‘India has some of the oldest surviving languages,’ says Devy. ‘A language like Tamil has been around for 2,500 years. Some of the tribal languages would be even older.

These languages have survived because they have a philosophical context to them and that philosophy is part of the lived lives of the speakers.’ …

“After mapping India’s languages, Devy, whose spirit is unflagging at 67, has turned his attention to the world at large. His next project is the Global Language Status Report. The UNESCO states that nearly half of the over 6,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear by the end of this century. The GLSR proposes to cover the languages of Africa and South America, two regions where languages are fast disappearing without any trace, and where linguistic diversity has not been mapped. …

“ ‘I have been traveling to Africa for a year now and I am not deterred by the scope of mapping 54 countries,’ Devy says. ‘The experience with PLSI was great fun, and I believe if people decide to do something, they actually can.’ ”

More here, at Atlas Obscura.

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