The quest for cultural generosity: A book on linguistic diversity and the human ability to “forge a safe and sustainable relationship with nature”

The extinction of languages leads to cultural loss and disinheritance of the human race as a part of its collective past vanishes, argues G.N. Devy

The silence the eminent scholar and cultural activist G.N. Devy refers to in The Question of Silence is a malaise of modernity. | To read the full book review, click here >>

An estimate by the UN’s cultural body counted 7,000 languages worldwide at the beginning of the 20th century, of which only some 300 are expected to survive to the end of the 21st.

The scenario that Devy sketches in India points to more catastrophic loss. Between the Indian census enumerations of 1961 and 1971, the number of languages listed fell from 1,652 to 109. This was a policy decision born in nationalist paranoia. As the war for the liberation of Bangladesh raged in 1971, census authorities seemingly determined that India’s safety lay in reducing linguistic multiplicity to manageable numbers.

Other measures by which states consolidate their authority could result in cultural dis-entitlement. The colonial government’s notification of social groups as ‘criminal tribes’ mischaracterised an independent streak as incurable delinquency. It effectively externed entire groups into a limbo of lawlessness, where they were deprived of basic protections. That legacy lives on in independent India, despite a republican constitution promising equality.

The corporate assault that reduces language to a commodity that can be packaged in cultural products is another threat. Modernisation proves an enemy of diversity in its quest of convenience and communicative efficiency. A variety of Indian languages emerged from Sanskrit, Dravidian and Persian roots through the 14th to the 18th centuries. Often, these were written languages that used multiple scripts. Any one script likewise, could be used for various languages.

That spirit of equality and not least, cultural generosity, may be difficult to retrieve, but Devy’s book gives hope. For those who may lack access to the larger body of his work, this volume provides a conspectus of sorts, in language that is easy and deeply intimate.

The Question of Silence – A Para-biography; G.N. Devy, Orient BlackSwan, ₹475

Source: “The Question of Silence – A Para-biography review: Republic of threatened voices” by Sukumar Muralidharan, The Hindu, 4 January 2020
Date visited: 8 January 2020

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