Preserving one of the richest languages in the bio-cultural areas in India – Tamil Nadu & Kerala

The indigenous Kaani dialect needs documentation

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The Kaani language spoken by the Kaani indigenous people of Kanyakumari in the Western Ghats is fast vanishing, according to a survey conducted by Tribal Foundation and Enviro Link.

A language is endangered when it is on a path toward extinction. Without adequate documentation, a language that is extinct can never be revived. A language is in danger when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next.

About 97% of the world’s people speak about 4% of the world’s languages; and conversely, about 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by about 3% of the world’s people. Most of the world’s language heterogeneity is under the stewardship of a very small number of people.

Language endangerment may be the result of external forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural, or educational subjugation, or it may be caused by internal forces, such as a community’s negative attitude towards its own language. Internal pressures often have their source in external ones, and both halt the intergenerational transmission of linguistic and cultural traditions.

It is opined by the UNESCO that even languages with many thousands of speakers are no longer being acquired by children; at least 50% of the world’s more than 6,000 languages are losing speakers. In most world regions, about 90% of the languages may be replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century.

Tamil Nadu has 36 tribal languages, and Kaani Pasha or Malam-pasha is one among them, which is dialectical with no script. It is an admixture of Tamil and Malayalam.

The present young generation of the Kaani people exhibits no interest in speaking their language and they speak either Tamil or Malayalam. Some of the indigenous Settlements are in close proximity to Kerala and some are in Tamil Nadu in Kanyakumari District.

While in the primary school level it is advised to teach in the mother tongue, Tamil and English which are foreign languages to the children are taught to the indigenous students, without through their mother tongue. Linguists are of the opinion that a child learns better through the mother tongue the ideas, concepts easily and express easily and recommend teaching through the mother tongue in the pre-primary and primary levels of education. When teachers are not available from the dominant speaking sector, qualified indigenous teachers can be employed as teachers.

A language faces endangerment when its speaking population is below 10,000. When it is not in use by literature and education it faces further endangerment. The Kaani Pasha has no written script and not used in schools.

Among the 900 eco-regions of the world that WWF has mapped out, 238 referred to as Global 200 Eco-regions are found to be of the utmost importance for the maintenance of the world’s ecological viability. Within these Global 200 Eco-regions, a vast number of ethno-linguistic groups exist, who have accumulated rich ecological knowledge in their long history of living in their environment. The Kaani indigenous people live in the South Western Ghats, which is a global Eco-region and are a rich repository of eco-knowledge.

Conservation biology needs to be paralleled by conservation linguistics. Researchers are exploring not just the parallels, but the links between the world’s biodiversity and linguistic, cultural diversity, as well as the causes and consequences of diversity loss at all levels. This connection is significant in itself, because it suggests that the diversity of life is made up of diversity in nature, culture, and language. This has been called bio-cultural diversity and logo-sphere.

One or more dominant languages, Tamil and English rather than the language of the ethno-linguistic group, is the primary language in most official domains: government, public offices, and educational institutions. The Kaani Pasha continues to be integral in the public domains, especially in traditional religious institutions, local stores, and places where members of the community socialize. The coexistence of the dominant and non-dominant languages results in speakers’ using each language for a different function, whereby the non-dominant language is used in informal and home contexts and the dominant language is used in official and public contexts. Speakers consider the dominant language to be the language of social and economic opportunity.

Owing to acculturation, that is the process of social, psychological and cultural change that derives from the blending between cultures, and the process of cross culturisation which is the process of adapting the culture of others contribute largely to the endangerment of the dialect. Due to severe Human Versus Animal Conflict coupled with severe failure of monsoons the forest dwellers seek daily labor in other sectors as construction, agriculture and coolie laborers in  adjoining villages and towns, where they face change of culture that  dilute their traditional culture and language.

The survey revealed that the aged people above the age of 45 only speak their traditional language.

The Kaani community communicate with their oral tradition with songs for various occasions, which are a rich repository of their culture and life in consonance with nature.

The Kaani tribe is inevitably facing immense transition, in all arena of life. The forces of globalization, free trade and the present communication revolution have made indelible impacts in their lives. The impact is felt more severely in the younger generation, who has embraced the modern culture. In this context, documentation of the dialectical language is vital or humanity will lose one of the richest languages in the bio-cultural areas in India.

Source: Davidson Sargunam, Tribal Foundation (Nagercoil), by email 23 January 2018

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“The practice of religious rituals, ceremonies and sanctions by specific cultural groups allow such sacred landscapes to be maintained, emphasizing that humans are intrinsically part of the ecosystem. Taboos, codes and customs specific to activities and community members restrict access to most sacred groves. […] The inclusion of local people’s needs and interests in conservation planning is increasingly accepted as essential, both to promote the well-being of human populations, and to ensure that biodiversity and conservation needs are met in the long-term.” – Nazir A. Pala, Ajeet K. Neg and N.P. Todaria in “The Religious, Social and Cultural Significance of Forest Landscapes in Uttarakhand Himalaya, India” (International Journal of Conservation Science, Vol. 5, Issue 2, April-June 2014) | Sacred groves | Biodiversity and development – Himalaya >>

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