It is not as much irony as it is inevitable. We live in an age where time and space have been conquered, where distance is a mere difference in time zones. It’s a clash of cultures, a clash of civilizations and like our good old friend Darwin put it very many years ago, the fittest shall survive. I see a day in the not too far off future when if a language is not available on Google Translate, it probably doesn’t exist anymore.
Today, the statistics say we are communicating more than ever before, we have innumerable tools and technology to this effect; not to forget the multitude of smileys to express even that which the human face cannot! How far can diversity hold out in a global village?
India has always been a land of diversity in culture, and language forms a major part of that diversity. It is a common aphorism in popular culture that every 100 kilometers across the subcontinent speaks a different dialect. The government survey puts the official number at 122, which is more than just a notch under the 780 that were recorded last year by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PSLI).The PSLI is an authentic and comprehensive survey carried out respectable personalities in the linguistic/speech communities. In 2013, they published a 35,000 page survey carried out over the course of four years. The survey suggests the existence of another 100 languages in addition to the recorded 780.
The survey also states we have lost 220 languages in the last fifty years alone. In Sikkim, there is a language called Mahji spoken by exactly four people in one valley. What is the future of Mahji? How do we preserve Mahji? Write more books in Mahji perhaps?! The bottom line is that a language cannot be preserved in books or dictionaries or linguistic archives; a language lives in the people who use it. And when the people cease to exist, what chance does a language have? Literature alone cannot ensure the sustainability of language, case in point, Latin.
It’s important to understand that the ascent or descent of a language does not depend on only the language itself. The fate of a language is explicably entwined with the people who use it. Language is not a means of communication, simply an aid for it. If it provides no utility, then it does not serve a purpose. In the last two years, I have had the opportunity of meeting two tribes that I know are on the verge of extinction: the Masai from East Africa and the Apatani from Arunachal Pradesh. I saw three generations, the dying in all their tribal glory and heritage, the intermediate stuck in between and the new blood gravitating towards conventional education, English and what they perceive to be a “better future”. Everybody wants their kids to learn the English alphabet.
And that’s alright, who are we to judge another man’s choices? If an Apatani girl wants to go to medical school, so be it. If a Masai boy wants to design haute couture, so be it. If you want something, you have got to give something. This leads to a generation struggling with half-baked versions of their ancestral traditions, torn between the glorious past and the promising future, eventually evolving these traditions into twisted versions of their original selves, moulded to convenience. Our lives are strewn with these different versions, our rituals, our marriages, our religions; the English we speak is a far cry from its original Latin roots.
The answer lies in the upliftment of smaller communities, of indigenous colonies; of allowing livelihoods to thrive in spite of linguistic and technological barriers. It’s about picking the local farmer’s market over the corporate supermarket, it’s about picking your local neighbourhood café over Starbucks.
It is inevitable that our languages will die, for we are governed by the laws of evolution, we are governed by change.
By Shivangi Rajendran @ The Jaipur Literature Festival