“When a language dies, along dies the culture, knowledge and a way of life.”
This quote is a blaring reminder to what is at stake for the humankind as we see languages around us perishing from the face of the earth, as a result depricating its diversity and opulence. Once a language dies, there is effectively no way it can be revitalized back to popular consciousness. In this piece, Kaushik Deori and Sheetal Verma present an avid explainer to the layperson about the diversity of languages in Northeast India, the endangerment of several indigenous languages of the region, efforts of documentation and preservation of these languages and the urgency of taking a rearguard action.
Diversity of Languages in NE
Northeastern part of India with approximately 220 languages spoken is a bonafide melting point of tremendous socio-cultural interaction. The region covers a meagre 7.9 percent of the country’s total geographical area, but is home to various languages belonging to five language families, viz. Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Tai-Kadai, Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian (small population of Tamil speakers in Moreh District of Manipur). Northeast India has a high concentration of indigenous population as the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are largely inhabited by a number of native tribes. Each tribe has its own distinct tradition of art, culture, dance, music, lifestyle and language.
According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2009, India has around 196 endangered languages, of various degrees including about 80 in the Northeast. So it is perennial that we accept the urgency of the situation and work on actively preserving and spreading the word for resuscitating of the languages.
Concept of Endangered Language
By definition, an endangered language, or moribund language, is a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language. Language loss occurs when the language has no more native speakers and becomes a “dead language”.
UNESCO’s 2003 document entitled Language vitality and endangerment outlines nine factors for determining language vitality:
1. Intergenerational language transmission
2. Absolute number of speakers
3. Proportion of speakers existing within the total (global) population
4. Language use within existing contexts and domains
5. Response to language use in new domains and media
6. Availability of materials for language education and literacy
7. Government and institutional language policies
8. Community attitudes toward their language
9. Amount and quality of documentation
Furthermore, there are set thresholds to gauge various levels of endangered languages which have been defined by the following characteristics:
Overview Of Linguistic Distribution And Endangered Languages In Each State
Arunachal Pradesh is linguistically very rich and one of the most diverse regions in all of Asia, being home to near about 50 distinct languages in addition to innumerable dialects and sub-dialects within them. Boundaries between languages very often correlate with tribal divisions—for example, the Apatani and Nyishi are tribally and linguistically distinct—but shifts in tribal identity and alignment over time have also ensured that a certain amount of complication enters into the picture—for example, the Galo language is and has seemingly always been linguistically distinct from Adi, whereas the earlier tribal alignment of Galo with Adi (i.e., “Adi Gallong”) has only recently been essentially dissolved.
The speakers of major languages of the state according to the 2011 census are Nyishi (28.60%, which includes Nyishi, Tagin and Apatani), Adi (17.35%, which includes adi, adi gallong and galo), Bengali (7.27%, which includes Bengali, Chakma and Hajong), Hindi (7.09%), Nepali (6.89%), Bhotia (4.51%), Assamese (3.9%), Mishmi (3.04%), Nocte (2.9%), Tangsa (2.64%), Wancho (2.19%) and Others (13.62%).
There are a number of languages which are spoken by less than 5,000 native speakers which is a clear indication that they at the cusp of extinction. The number is rapidly decreasing with the speakers shifting to the majority language of the area. Languages like Sherdukpen, Bugun, Aka/Hruso, Koro, Miji, Bangru and Puroik/Sulung of the Bodic and Tani areas are largely undocumented add heading towards extinction. Another language, Lish (also called Lishpa or Khispi) a Kho-Bwa language of West Kameng district is spoken by a paltry 1,500 speakers in three main villages. These statistics are an indication of the intensity of endangerment and the need to address them at a priority basis.
Chief Minister Pema Khandu led government in the 2019-20 budget has allocated budget to aid the documentation and preservation of languages of the states. While it is clearly a positive step, the implementation on ground will be perennial to its fruitfulness.
Assam is another state which has a vibrant linguistic diaspora. With Assamese, Bodo and Bengali as the major and official languages of the region, the state also has a number of aboriginal tribes who have their own language and culture. According to the language census of 2011 in Assam, out of a total population of around 31 million, Assamese is spoken by around half that number: 15 million. Although the number of speakers is growing, the percentage of Assam’s population who have it as a mother tongue has fallen slightly. The various Bengali dialects and closely related languages are spoken by around 9 million people in Assam, and the portion of the population that speaks these languages has grown slightly. Hindi is the third most-spoken language.
The aboriginal language which majorly belong to the larger tibetoburman language family are spoken all over the state in different pockets. While Bodo is spoken majorly in the Bodo Territorial Council comprising of four districts and in several other pockets of the state, languages like Mising, Deori, Rabha, Dimasa, Tiwa etc. also find their place in the demography.
Some of the languages are increasingly staring at becoming moribund with the speakers shifting to the majority languages of the state. A number of them are in the list of endangered language which is a mark of alarm and an SOS call to preserve and document them.
Additionally, there are speakers of Tai languages in Assam. A total of six Tai language were spoken in Assam. Two are now extinct, namely, Ahom and Turung, while Khamyang is critically endangered.
Nagaland which uses English as the official language, have several native communities which have their own language. As per Grierson’s classification system, Naga languages can be grouped into Western, Central and Eastern groups. The Western group includes (among others) Angami, Chokri and Kheza. The Central group includes Ao, Sumi, Lotha and Sangtam, whereas the Eastern group includes Konyak and Chang. In addition, there are Naga-Bodo group illustrated by Mikir language, and Kuki group of languages illustrated by Sopvama (also called Mao Naga) and Luppa languages. These belong mostly to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Languages like Pochury, Kuki and Chakhesang have less than 20,000 native speakers.
Manipur also takes pride in being a multicultural society. With Meitei (one of the language in the Eight Schedule of the Indian Constitution), being the lingua franca of the region, there are a number of languages which are spoken by a staggeringly low number of speakers. According to the 2011 census the following is the distribution of linguistic groups in Manipur. It is a clear indication of its diversity.
The languages spoken in Manipur(2011 census) are Meitei (1,522,132), Thadou (223,779), Tangkhul (183,509), Poula (135,349), Kabui (Ruanglat and Inpui) (109,611), Mao (89,011), Nepali (63,756), Paite (55,031), Hmar (49,081), Lianglad (45,546), Vaiphei (39,902), Kuki (37,805), Maram (32,098), Hindi (31,703), Bengali (30,611), Anal (26,508), Zou (25,841), Maring (25,657), Zeme (18,795), Kom (14,528), Gangte (15,274), Chiru (8,475), Khezha (6,977), Mizo (6,500), Zeliang (2,727), Assamese (2,453), Monsang (2,381), Dogri (1,853), Tamil (1,657), Marathi (1,583), Malayalam (1,519), Punjabi (1,370), Bishnupriya Manipuri (1,288), Chakhesang (1,146), Telugu (1,098), Odia (931),Khasi language (670), Kannada (639), Others (37,636).
Mizo being the major language of the state with 73.16% of the total population, English and Hindi are the other two official languages. The major languages spoken as per census 2011 are Mizo (7,34,910), Chakma (96,972), Pawi (51,406), Kuki(45,754), Lakher (42,754), Hmar (29,587), Paite (23,183), etc.
The Kuki-Chin languages are a green pasture as far as research and documentation works are concerned. There are several other sub-communities and dialects which are gradually losing existence and assimilating with the larger language group of the area.
English is the official language of Meghalaya. The most spoken languages in the state are Khasi (33.82%) and Garo (31.60%) followed by Pnar (10.69%), Bengali (6.44%), Nepali (1.85%), War (1.73%), Hindi (1.62%), Hajong (1.40%) and Assamese (1.34%).
Khasi (also spelled Khasia, Khassee, Cossyah, and Kyi) is a branch of the Mon–Khmer family of the Austroasiatic stock and according to 2001 census, Khasi is spoken by about 1,128,575 people residing in Meghalaya. The Khasi language is one of the very few surviving Mon–Khmer languages in India today. While Garo, spoken by a large chunk of the population, is spoken in many dialects such as Abeng or Ambeng, Atong, Akawe (or Awe), Matchi Dual, Chibok, Chisak Megam or Lyngngam, Ruga, Gara-Ganching and Matabeng.
Tripura is a state which has been in constant power struggle revolving around language. Sharing its border with Bangladesh, according to 2001 census 63.43% of the population are Bengali speakers followed by Tripuri or Kokborok, a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by 25.88% of the population. Several other languages such as Mog, Odia, Bishnupriya Manipuri, Manipuri, Halam, Garo and Chakma belonging to Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan families are spoken in the state.
The political issues revolving around ethnicity and the hegemony of a particular community has seen the demise of the aboriginal languages of the state, which has triggered native communities to demand separate state. This is an example of fallout that can be caused due to rifts caused by linguistic lines.
While the official languages of the state are English, Nepali, Sikkimese (Bhutia) and Lepcha, Nepali is the lingua franca of the state.
Additional official languages include Gurung, Limbu, Magar, Mukhia, Newari, Rai, Sherpa and Tamang for the purpose of preservation of culture and tradition in the state.
Other languages which are in an endangered state are Groma, Majhwar, Thulung, and Yakha which have between 20,000 to 25,000 native speakers each, according to census.
Why do we need to preserve language?
Simply put, Language enables people to communicate and express themselves. When a language dies out, future generations lose a vital part of the culture that is necessary to completely understand it. More than 3,000 languages are reportedly spoken by fewer than 10,000 people each. Ethnologue, a reference work published by SIL International, has cataloged the world’s known living languages, and it estimates that 417 languages are on the verge of extinction.
When a language dies, the knowledge of and ability to understand the culture who spoke it is threatened because the teachings, customs, oral traditions and other inherited knowledge are no longer transmitted among native speakers. As each language dies, various field of study lose some diversity in data sources.
2019: International Year of Indigenous Language
Realizing the urgency of the situation, United Nations has declared 2019 as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”, zeroing in on the following founding principles:
1. Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation.
2. Creation of favorable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to indigenous languages.
3. Integration of indigenous languages into standard setting.
4. Empowerment through capacity building.
5. Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge.
The good news is, people are gradually sizing up the urgency of the matter and are now consciously spreading the word in their own capacity. The government has to step in and devise ways to revitalize the endangered languages and plan out schemes to document and archive language data. One cannot but stress enough that when a language dies; along die the stories, traditions, food habits, medicines, and knowledge that the community holds. The world loses a way of life.
Each one of us will have to take the mantle of being the ambassador for spreading awareness and discussing the benefits and necessity of preserving languages. The task of reinvigorating a dying language is tough but can be achieved, we just need the intent to work concertedly, which one believes is not a tough ask.