Cultural invisibility – India’s 600 potentially endangered languages

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There are 600 potentially endangered languages in India… each dead language takes away a culture system’

In the interview, Ganesh Devy spoke about the dying and dead languages of India, how some languages gain popularity while others remain marginalised, and the impact of colonisation on the language system of India. Devy, who documented 780 Indian languages while conducting the People’s Linguistic Survey of India in 2010, also, shockingly, found that 600 of these languages were dying. He added close to 250 languages in India had already died over the past 60 years.| Read the full interview here >>

Some excerpts:

What are some of the dying and dead languages of India?

According to UNESCO, any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people is potentially endangered. In India, after the 1971 census, the government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people need not be included in the official list of languages. In India, therefore, all the languages that are spoken by less than 10,000 people are treated by the state as not worthy of mention and treated by the UNESCO as potentially endangered. As per my survey, there are close to 780 languages in India, out of which about 600 are potentially endangered. The census of 1991 and 2001 show not more than 122 languages. So, most others have to be called potentially endangered.

Examples of such languages would be Wadari, Kolhati, Golla, Gisari. These are languages of nomadic people in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana. Then there several tribal languages as well, such as Pauri, Korku, Haldi, Mavchi. In Assam, there is Moran, Tangsa, Aiton. There seems to be about 250 languages that disappeared in the last 60 years. There used to be languages called Adhuni, Dichi, Ghallu, Helgo, Katagi. The Bo language in Andaman disappeared in 2010 and the Majhi language in Sikkim disappeared in 2015. But we need to remember that it is impossible to show a language dying in the last moment of its life. A language is not a single life system. It is a very large symbolic system. When the symbols collapse they do not do so in a single moment. The collapse is sprayed over a large time. […]

When a language dies, its speakers decide to migrate. First, they migrate to another language and then they physically start migrating to another region. The second thing that happens is that their traditional livelihood patterns go down. They may have some special skills and that disappears. Thirdly, a unique way of looking at the world disappears. Every language is a unique worldview.

How do we conserve a dying language?

It is very simple. We need to create livelihood support for the speakers of the language. If they have livelihood available within their language, nobody would want to switch from their language to any other language.

Source: Interview by Adrija Roychowdhury, Indian Express 3 May 3 2020
Date visited: 26 May 2020

It is almost impossible to characterize all of India’s tribals in a single ethnographic or historic framework. – Ganesh [GN] Devy in his Introduction to Painted Words: An Anthology of Tribal Literature >>

“The state of indigenous languages today mirrors the situation of indigenous peoples. In many parts of the world, they are on the verge of extinction. […] However, with the growing global recognition of indigenous knowledge systems, the hope that indigenous languages will thrive and spread in spoken and written forms is being rekindled. Many indigenous communities have already instituted their own systems of revitalizing their languages.” | Read the full article titled “Indigenous languages: Knowledge and hope” by Minnie Degawan published by Unesco >>

Source Indigenous languages: Knowledge and hope
Date visited: 20 May 2020

Convention on the Rights of the Child – Article 5

States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention. […]

Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989 entry into force 2 September 1990, in accordance with article 49

Source: The Convention on the Rights of the Child: The children’s version | Read and download the child-friendly text.
Date Visited: 9 February 2022

Objective of EMRS (“Eklavya Model Residential Schools”)
[Peruse the government guidelines here or in the 2010 backup included below]

i. Comprehensive physical, mental and socially relevant development of all students enrolled in each and every EMRS. Students will be empowered to be change agent, beginning in their school, in their homes, in their village and finally in a large context.

ii. Focus differentially on the educational support to be made available to those in Standards XI to X, so that their distinctive needs can be met.

iii. Support the annual running expenses in a manner that offers reasonable remuneration to the staff and upkeep of the facilities.

iv. Support the construction of infrastructure that provides education, physical, environmental and cultural needs of student life. […]

Date visited: 30 Jul7 2021

Ekalavya (Eklavya, Eklabya), EMR & Factory schools >>

“The Big-brother attitude of educators must end. The approach to tribal education has to be a two-way transaction of give and take, based on an informed appreciation of traditional tribal values and wisdom.” – Uma Ram (Professor & Head Department of English, Kakatiya PG College, Chhattisgarh) in Issues in Tribal Education in Bastar, Chhattisgarh (Folklore Foundation, Lokaratna, Volume IV 2011)

Residential, Ashram and Factory schools

Backgrounder & image © Economic Times >>
  • Ekalavya* Residential School Scheme (EMR): a network of boarding schools where tribal children are to be educated in accordance with rules and syllabi provided by the government; such schools are being designated as “Eklavya Model Residential School (EMR)” with the objective of empowering students “to be change agent, beginning in their school, in their homes, in their village and finally in a large context.” – Government Guidelines 2010 | Backup >>
  • Residential School and Ashram School
    In some regions there are similar “Residential Schools” and “Ashram Schools” for tribal children, as in Tripura where they are managed by a society called “Tripura Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TTWREIS)” – Tribal Welfare Department, Government of Tripura
  • Factory schools “exist to turn tribal and indigenous children – who have their own language and culture – into compliant workers-of-the-future. The world’s largest Factory School stated that it turns ‘Tax consumers into tax payers, liabilities into assets’.” – | Learn more >>

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* Ekalavya (Eklavya, Eklabya): the name of a legendary archer prodigy “who, being a Nishada [Sanskrit Niṣāda, “tribal, hunter, mountaineer, degraded person, outcast”], had to give his thumb as a fee to the brahmin guru thus terminating his skill as an archer.” – Romila Thapar (“The epic of the Bharatas”) | Read the full paper here | Backup download link (pdf) >>

Note: “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” amounts to genocide, which the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention defines as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (Article II, d & e)

Learn more about Childrens rights: UNICEF India | Ekalavya (Eklavya, Eklabya), EMR & Factory schools | Rights of Indigenous Peoples >>

Tip: click on any red marker for details on endangered languages in a particular region of India.
Please note: the facts and figures cited (via hyperlinks) links call for updates and fact checking >>
Cultural invisibility – India’s 600 potentially endangered languages | Linguistic Survey of India (official website) >> 

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Literacy level among women in India being alarmingly low, it will be necessary to expand our school education system so as to introduce and include as many languages as possible, so that the girl children are educated in their own languages. For this purpose, CIIL should take lead in studying and preparing materials in as many minority and tribal languages as possible.

It should be a special endeavour of CIIL to promote and document the endangered languages of India, which are very much a part of India’s plural cultural heritage.

Special drives will be undertaken to promote literary and other creative activities in minority Languages of India […]

Source: “Looking Ahead”, Director, Central Institute of Indian Languages
Date visited: 20 April 2022

We may teach people to read and write, but if we ban books and silence voices, are we really a literate society? […]

The majority of the world’s illiterates are women. Too often, girls either get pulled out of school early to work at home, or they aren’t sent at all. Why educate a girl who is going to leave anyway? Now consider this: Women who can read and write have fewer children than those who can’t. Nothing wrong with children, but it’s nice to be able to choose and afford them. Families with educated women are also more likely to enjoy better health, housing, income, food, water and sanitation. Reading lets you decipher your own land deeds, stock certificates, marriage licences and bus tickets, and develop an awareness of the world outside the circle of the kerosene lamp.

According to the 2011 census, the female literacy level in India is about 65%, and the male literacy rate about 80%. Tribal rates are worse: The Union ministry of tribal affairs reports that in 2011, the overall Scheduled Tribes literacy rate was about 59%, but only 49% of tribal women were considered literate. What does this even mean? It means the percentage of people over seven years old who can read and write. This is vague. Plenty of people are “literate” and wouldn’t be able to open a book and tell you whether it contains love sonnets or instructions on how to dismantle a carburettor. […]

Source: “Women’s literacy and the art of knowing” by Sohaila Abdulali, Mint Features, 18 March 2016
Date visited: 20 April 2022

“India already starts off from a weak position of having very low spending in the critical areas of social protection, education and health. […] This continued negligence does not bode well for inclusive development in India.” – Dipa Sinha (Dr. B. R. Ambed­kar Uni­ver­sity Delhi) | Learn more | Read the full article titled “A betrayal of the social sector when it needs help” in The Hindu (2 February 2022) >>

Overall, Scheduled Tribes account for 8.6% of India’s population, according to the 2011 Census.

If we focus on language alone, almost every indigenous tribe speaks its own language or dialect. In fact, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, as many as 780 different languages are spoken and 86 different scripts are used in the country. However, only 22 of them are recognized by the government as scheduled languages.

What is even more disappointing is that India has lost nearly 250 languages in the last half century, and 196 more have been declared endangered by UNESCO. As many as 120 of these 196 languages are spoken in the North-East. With most of these languages spoken by tribes and lacking a script, it has been particularly difficult to preserve them.

However, digital media allows for their documentation in audio-visual formats now. Simply recording audio or video of folk songs/folk tales in different languages can help preserve not just the language/dialect but also the folk culture.

In the same manner, the traditional knowledge about sustainable living, medicines, farming and architecture that tribals store in their memories can also be documented for preservation and dissemination. […]

Source: “Preserving our vanishing tribes, their heritage, language and wisdom” by Osama Manzar in (Livemint, 8 September 2017)
Date visited: 17 March 2021

Mind your language! Save dying 100 – HRD ministry plans rescue effort in schools & varsities

The programme would include setting up departments in central universities to study the dying languages and work towards their promotion, introduction of these languages as school subjects in areas where they are spoken, and schemes to mobilise communities to continue the language traditions. […]

India has around 196 endangered languages, including about 80 in the Northeast, according to the Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2009.

The Unesco’s endangered-language category includes languages that face the threat of becoming extinct because of a fall in the number of people speaking them.

The government, however, does not agree with the Unesco list which it says has put certain dominant Indian languages within the endangered category.

The Unesco list, for instance, has described Manipuri (Meitei), the Karbi language of Assam and Khasi in Meghalaya as endangered languages.

The ministry’s eight-member experts panel had said the government should undertake a detailed survey of dying languages in Arunachal Pradesh, where several languages are in danger. Many languages in Arunchal and other northeastern states have less than 10,000 speakers each. […]

“The idea is to start schemes under which the speakers of minor languages may get certain employment or earning opportunities,” a source said.

Another suggestion from the experts panel was to introduce short courses in endangered languages at primary school level. The government will consult the states on how to implement this.

The proposed language departments in central universities can set up libraries or museums with audio and video material showing the oral traditions of these languages. Such documentation is expected to help preserve these tongues, and the audiotapes could be used as teaching tools within the communities.

The question, though, is whether some experts studying a dead language in certain universities can bring life to a dying language.

Even as tens and thousands of Europeans have been studying Latin at schools and colleges for centuries and have a certain grasp over the language, it remains a dead language still.

“A living language has speakers who use it for communication,” said Lawrence D. Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska.

He said a language survives through its speakers but it is not necessary that it be the speakers’ mother tongue. The mother tongue is the language a person learns automatically from family and society.

Mark Turin, research associate at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities in the University of Cambridge, agreed.

He cited the examples of Nagamese, a creole that is a mixture of the various Naga languages and Assamese and is spoken by many in Nagaland although it is not any one’s mother tongue.

Turin said a lot more had to be done apart from setting up language departments in universities.“The government’s effort to set up language departments is a good step in documenting and preserving the Indian languages.

But steps have to be taken for revitalisation of language through community participation, education and giving economic and social benefits,” Turin, also the director of the World Oral Literature Project, told The Telegraph over the phone from Cambridge.

Turin said India had an incredible amount of linguistic diversity but there was a variance with respect to the importance being given to languages. He said one could speak of a caste system of languages in India.

There are hundreds of spoken languages but they were often treated as less valuable. This was regrettable. […]

According to Prof Omkar N. Koul, former director of the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), certain languages face the threat of extinction as they are not used as mediums of instruction in educational institutions, government transactions and the media.

“If a language is not getting sufficient role in these three domains, there is every possibility that it will die. The fate of a number of languages in India is the same as they are neither used for education or governance purpose,” he said.

Koul said the best way to keep a language alive was to prepare instructional material in that language and make it part of studies. For dialects that do not have scripts, he said, the Roman or Devanagari scripts may be used when writing.

Social and economic pressures drive once-isolated communities to assimilate and adopt the popular languages of the region, he said. Any language becomes endangered if it is spoken by a minority and is held in low esteem, forcing its speakers to avoid use or to pass it on to their children.

There are quite a few such languages in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. For example, Onge is spoken only by 96 people and Shompen by about 200. These languages face a high risk of extinction in the near future, he said.

Koul said no one knew how many minor and tribal languages existed in India at present. The Constitution protects the right of children to learn through their mother tongue. […]

Panchanan Mohanty, professor and coordinator, the Centre for Endangered Languages and Mother Tongue Studies at the University of Hyderabad, said the economic power associated with a language was very important for its survival.

“English is very important because it gives good jobs to people who are learning it. Apart from jobs, some sort of prestige is attached to the speakers of English in India,” he said.

So, there should be an assurance of jobs or some sort of earning if the speakers of minor languages continue to speak it. One option could be the introduction of a scholarship for students who choose to study a minor language as a fourth language.

At present, many schools follow a tri-lingual format under which students study their mother tongue, English and Hindi.

Another reason for language endangerment is a feeling of upward mobility among speakers of a minor language when they shift to major languages, Mohanty said.

“Speakers of major languages should be sympathetic to other minor languages,” he said. […]

He said nearly 100 languages in the country are certainly in danger. But the degree may vary from language to language. The endangered languages could be categorised as extinct, moribund, critically endangered, seriously endangered and potentially endangered.

While certain languages like Pali and Ahom have already become extinct, the majority of tribal languages are in danger.

These include Saura and Kui in Orissa; Aiton in Assam; Zakhring in Arunachal; and Yakha, Koda and Kharia Thar in Bengal; Vishavan and Thachanadan in Kerala; Sunam in Himachal Pradesh; Ralte in Mizoram and Phudagi in Maharashtra. […]

New Delhi, Jan. 20: Last year, an Indian language went extinct with the death of an 85-year-old in the Andamans, while one apparently extinct tongue was rediscovered as being still spoken by about 1,000 people in a corner of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Centre is now poised to launch a programme to save the 100-odd Indian languages that Unesco has classified as dying languages. The human resource development (HRD) ministry will start schemes in consultation with the state governments to try and help these languages overcome the threat of extinction.

One proposal is to introduce these languages in primary schools in areas where they are spoken.

These languages face a threat “because many people living in remote and tribal areas do not get education in their mother tongue”, said former Jawaharlal Nehru University vice-chancellor B.B. Bhattacharya. […]

Oct. 7: A previously unknown language has been uncovered in the far reaches of Arunachal Pradesh, researchers have said.”

“Koro, a tongue apparently new to the world and which is spoken by just 800 to 1,200 people, could soon face extinction as younger speakers abandon it for more widely used Hindi or English.”

“Koro is unlike any language in the various branches of the Tibeto-Burman family, a collection of 400 related languages used by peoples across Asia, according to the two National Geographic researchers who announced the discovery on Tuesday.”

“The findings will be published in the journal Indian Linguistics.” […]

“There’s a sort of a cultural invisibility; they’re culturally identical in what they wear, what they eat, the houses they live in…. They just happen to have a different word for everything,” Harrison said. 

Source: “Mind your language! Save dying 100” by BASANT KUMAR MOHANTY, The Telegraph, 2 March 2011
Address :
Date visited: 20 May 2020

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

See also

Adivasi Academy & Museum of Adivasi Voice at Tejgadh

Adverse inclusion | Casteism


eBook | Background guide for education

Endangered language

Ganesh [G.N.] Devy | Publications | A View of Higher Education in India

Languages and linguistic heritage

Multilingual education is a pillar of intergenerational learning – Unesco

People’s Linguistic Survey of India | Volumes (PLSI) |

Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Video | “Nations don’t make us human – languages make us human”: Ganesh Devy