India is home to a rich linguistic diversity, with a vast number of languages spoken across the country. However, many of these languages are endangered, facing the risk of extinction due to various factors. Read here to learn more about them.
The endangerment of languages is often associated with language shift, where speakers shift to using another, usually dominant, language.
Recently, it was reported that Madhika, a language spoken by the Chakaliya community that migrated from Karnataka centuries ago, is fast becoming extinct with the younger generation opting for Malayalam.
Only two people remain who speak this language which is a blend of Telugu, Tulu, Kannada, and Malayalam.
Endangered languages are languages that face the risk of becoming extinct or are no longer spoken as a native language by a community.
- The endangerment of languages can result from various factors, including globalization, cultural assimilation, migration, and socioeconomic pressures.
- The extinction of a language often implies the loss of cultural knowledge, traditions, and a unique way of understanding the world.
UNESCO defines four levels of language endangerment between “safe” (not endangered) and “extinct”.
- Definitely endangered
- Severely endangered
- Critically endangered
Thousands of languages are spoken in India even today.
The beliefs, culture, and languages of the land were significantly affected by different rulers.
- After the 1971 census, the Indian government declared that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people did not need to be included in the official list of languages.
- The 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution now recognizes only 22 major languages. Although not all of them have a lot of speakers, many of them are still going steady.
The concept of mother tongue is central to the preservation of languages, especially in the face of the extinction of many languages around the world. As dominant languages continue to spread globally, there is a risk of losing linguistic diversity.
Mother tongue, the first language a person learns at home, plays a vital role in cultural identity.
Efforts to revitalize and protect endangered languages are essential to maintaining the rich tapestry of linguistic heritage in our global community.
Indian languages have not received attention and care since the country has lost over 220 languages in the last 50 years alone.
Every two weeks, according to United Nations studies, an indigenous language dies.
Endangered languages in India
The UNESCO list of endangered languages in India gives us some idea about the vernaculars that will go extinct shortly and which ones can be saved with efforts from the people. India’s Endangered Languages Language loss has been a fact of life throughout history.
Andamanese Languages: The Great Andamanese languages were once spoken by several tribes in the Andaman Islands. Today, only a few elderly individuals speak these languages, and they are considered critically endangered.
Toda: Spoken by the Toda people in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu, Toda is a Dravidian language with few speakers. Efforts are being made to document and revitalize the language.
Kusunda: Kusunda is a language isolate spoken by a small community in western Nepal and, historically, in parts of northern India. It is critically endangered, with only a handful of elderly speakers.
Sentinelese: The Sentinelese language is spoken by the Sentinalese people, an isolated tribe on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Due to their isolation, little is known about their language.
Mandaic: Mandaic is the language of the Mandaeans, a small religious community in Iraq and Iran. In India, the Mandaic community resides in Maharashtra, and their language is considered endangered.
Koro: Koro is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is considered severely endangered, with a dwindling number of speakers.
Nihali: Nihali is a language isolate spoken by the Nihali people in parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana. It is critically endangered, and efforts are being made for documentation and preservation.
Irula: Irula is a Dravidian language spoken by the Irula tribe in parts of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. While it is not yet critically endangered, there are concerns about its sustainability due to language shift.
Garo: Garo is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by the Garo people in the northeastern states of Meghalaya and Assam. While it is not critically endangered, there are concerns about its future.
Boro: Boro, also known as Bodo, is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by the Bodo people in the northeastern states of Assam and West Bengal. Despite having a significant number of speakers, there are concerns about its sustainability.
Balti: Spoken in both India and Pakistan, this is a Tibetan language. It has less than 400,000 speakers and could go extinct in a hundred years. For now, it is considered a vulnerable tongue. The Perso-Arabic script is used to write Balti. But in the past, it was written using Tibetan script. The language has been separated from other Tibetan vernaculars. Nowadays, it gets pressurized by the dominant tongues of the region.
Darma: This tribal tongue had less than two thousand speakers in 2006. It is closely related to a bunch of vernaculars that are spoken by different tribes.
Gangte: Spoken by the people of Manipur and Assam, this Kuki-Chin tongue has no known dialects. But it is mutually intelligible with other Kuki-Chin vernaculars. It also has a few speakers in Burma. In the census of 2011, its speakers were 17,542.
Koch: Koch is another Sino-Tibetan language in India that is endangered. Despite being spoken in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and India, the tongue still appears on the list of endangered tongues.
Mandeali: One of the highly endangered vernaculars in India is Mandeali. The number of its speakers has decreased drastically since 1961. The vernacular is divided into multiple dialects, mostly not mutually intelligible.
Sumi: The people of the ethnic group known as Sumi Naga speak this language. They were less than eleven thousand in number in the census of 2011. The speakers of Sumi can be found in different parts of the country, but Nagaland is the central region where the tongue can be heard.
Zakhring: Spoken in Arunachal Pradesh, this tongue has only nine hundred speakers, which is highly at risk. A close relative of Zakhring is spoken in China. The vernacular has adopted a lot of foreign words over the years.
Mahasu Pahari or Mahasuvi: Mahasu Pahari or Mahasuvi is one of the western Pahari languages with origins in the Mahasu district of Himachal Pradesh. Like all other Pahari languages, Mahasuvi’s history goes back to the Maurya period, i.e., 4th century BC. The language was originally recorded in the Takri script, but due to modern distortions and convenience reasons, it is now written in the Devanagari script. Its decline can be attributed to the Colonisation of Lands Act levied upon Himachal Pradesh in 1912.
Efforts for Language Preservation
Documentation: Linguists and anthropologists are working on documenting endangered languages, creating dictionaries, and compiling grammatical resources.
Language Revitalization Programs: Some communities and organizations are implementing language revitalization programs, including language classes, cultural events, and publications.
- International Decade of Indigenous Languages: Following the 2016 Resolution 71/178 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in 2019, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming the period of 2022-2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, based on a recommendation by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The proclamation of the IDIL2022-2032 is a key outcome of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019).
Government Initiatives: Governments, both at the state and national levels, are recognizing the importance of preserving linguistic diversity and supporting initiatives for language preservation.
- Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages of India (SPPEL): Under this Scheme, the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore works on the protection, preservation, and documentation of all the mother tongues/languages of India spoken by less than 10,000 people which are called endangered languages. In the first phase of the scheme, 117 endangered languages/mother tongues have been chosen from all over India for study and documentation on a priority basis.
- The University Grants Commission (UGC) has also initiated two schemes for the protection of endangered languages, namely ‘Funding Support to the State Universities for Study and Research in Indigenous and Endangered Languages in India’ and ‘Establishment of Centres for Endangered Languages in Central Universities’.
Efforts to preserve endangered languages are crucial for maintaining cultural diversity and ensuring the survival of unique linguistic heritage. Ongoing initiatives and increased awareness can contribute to the revitalization of endangered languages in India.
-Article by Swathi Satish