Vanishing Languages and Endangered Ecosystems

By: Dr Anvita Abbi
Linguistic and biological diversity are inseparable and the strongest ecosystems are those which are most diverse as diversity contains the potential for adaptation. Uniformity can endanger a species since it is always accompanied by inflexibility and non adaptability.
Tribes

Biocultural Diversity

Scientists maintain that there is an inextricable relationship between biological, cultural and linguistic diversities. It draws from anthropological, ethnobiological, and linguistic insights concerning the relationships of human language, knowledge, culture and practices with environment and nature. It has been proved through the work of Luisa Maffi, titled ‘On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge and the Environment’ published in 2001 by the The Smithsonian Institute Press, that linguistic and biological diversity are inseparable and the strongest ecosystems are those which are most diverse. This is because diversity contains the potential for adaptation. Uniformity can endanger a species since it is always accompanied by inflexibility and non adaptability as discussed in Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s work tiled ‘Linguistic Genocide in Education – or Worldwide diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah’ published in 2008 by Orient Blackswan. The interlinkages, interdependencies, and interaction between linguistic, cultural and biological diversities have serious implications for the conservation of biocultural diversity. A global cross-mapping of endemic languages and endemic higher vertebrate species brings out the remarkable overlap between linguistic and biological diversity throughout the world. It has been observed that social factors combine with geographic and climatic factors in determining higher and lower diversity. Moreover, there is an unavoidable overlap between location of threatened ecosystems and threatened languages.

Image 1 Members of Great Andamanese community 2005: As Andamanese communities have lived in isolation away from contact from outsiders till very recently, the languages of the community are also very old and relics of the language/s of the pre-Neolithic tribes of Southeast Asia. The population of Great Andamanese which was estimated to be 5000 just 150 years ago has dwindled to mere 51 today.
Image 1: Members of Great Andamanese community 2005: As Andamanese communities have lived in isolation away from contact from outsiders till very recently, the languages of the community are also very old and relics of the language/s of the pre-Neolithic tribes of Southeast Asia. The population of Great Andamanese which was estimated to be 5000 just 150 years ago has dwindled to mere 51 today.

Threatened Languages of India

About 6,500 languages are spoken worldwide. Almost half of them are endangered. Every fortnight a language dies. A quarter of these languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, and many of them are already moribund, no longer learnt by children. India represents one of the greatest linguistic diversities with six distinct language families — Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Angan (Onge-Jarawa) and Great Andamanese. With more than 1600 mother tongues in India there are 500 tribal languages which are still spoken but are threatened with extinction under the dominance of the Eighth Schedule languages and English.

The policy of listing a select few languages as scheduled and embracing a large number of languages under the umbrella of one of the ‘scheduled’ languages has created an arbitrary cleavage between major and minor languages. The reductionist policy of the Indian Government to enlist fewer and fewer languages in the census, e.g. 1652 mother tongues reported in 1961 were reduced to 122 languages in the census report of 2001, has left a large number of communities speaking unlisted languages as those belonging to minority communities (Fig 1). Ironically the census 2001 reports — ‘raw returns of mother tongues has totalled 6,661, and this resulted in 1635 rationalised mother tongues and 1957 names which were treated as unclassified and relegated to other mother tongue category’. Obviously, the Government does not equate ‘mother tongues’ with ‘languages’.

 

The Eighth Schedule subsumes a large number of languages under one rubric (under Hindi one finds 49 different languages including eight varieties of Rajasthani) generating a negative attitude towards these subsumed languages. The so called ‘assimilationist goal’ while laudable from the ‘national’ and administrative point of view, is a device to swallow the small fish — the languages not included in the Eighth Schedule. This in turn has led to the loss of identities for many languages and their speakers since language is one of the biggest factors to define an identity of an individual and community.

The Government does not even report those languages which are spoken by less than 10000 people, such as a large number of Tibeto-Burman languages, e.g. Khamti, Dzonkha, Byangsi, Koireng, Singpho, Zyphe and many varieties of Naga languages and other small languages from Munda and Dravidian language families. Then there are those languages which have a small population base but nonetheless very significant from the point of view of Indian history and heritage. These are one of the oldest languages of the world, and are spoken by less than 1000 speakers each, e.g. Parenga, Toda, Tukpa, Dhimal and languages spoken in the Andaman Islands such as Jarawa (300), Onge (100) and Great Andamanese (05). It is these languages which are under serious threat of extinction as the population base is depleting very fast and languages survive as long as the speakers live.

Figure.1 Hierarchical Status of Indian Languages and Varieties
Figure.1 Hierarchical Status of Indian Languages and Varieties

Endangered Knowledge Base

Languages carry evidence of earlier environment, habitat and practices which may or may not be in the memory of the community. Loss of language thus, translates into loss of biodiversity and comprehension of the ancient world-knowledge. Cultural beliefs, values, knowledge, and behaviour in relation to the environment are expressed in language. If intergenerational transfer of heritage language is absent, the loss of language leads to loss of beliefs, values, and knowledge. Removal of indigenous environmental base of the various tribal societies force them to forget their language as it no longer serves the purpose of transferring indigenous knowledge. This may be easily recognisable in indigenous, minority, or local communities that maintain close ties with their environments, such as tribal societies. Each language has unique lexical stock and unique significance. Hence language death signifies the closure of the link with its ancient heritage.

Figure 2. Andamanese indigenous peoples Comparison of territorial distribution: Pre-establishment of British penal colony vs present-day population distribution Great Andamanese is an independent sixth language family of India which had 10 different but mutually intelligible languages in its fold. They were vibrant languages in 1860. What remains today is a mixed variety of 4 Great Andamanese languages which were spoken in the North Andaman, such as Jero, Sare, Khora and Bo. The speakers of Khora and Bo languages, Boro and Boa Sr. respectively died recently within the span of three months leaving this world bereft of unique culture and distinct languages.
Figure 2. Andamanese indigenous peoples
Comparison of territorial distribution: Pre-establishment of British penal colony vs present-day population distribution
Great Andamanese is an independent sixth language family of India which had 10 different but mutually intelligible languages in its fold. They were vibrant languages in 1860. What remains today is a mixed variety of 4 Great Andamanese languages which were spoken in the North Andaman, such as Jero, Sare, Khora and Bo. The speakers of Khora and Bo languages, Boro and Boa Sr. respectively died recently within the span of three months leaving this world bereft of unique culture and distinct languages.

 

Language Contact

India has always offered a fertile ground for language change in a very healthy multilingual environment generated by language contact. The results have been seen in language convergence and emergence of new languages, such as Sadari and Halbi in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, Chakesang in the Northeast as well in number of lingua franca in the Northeast and varieties of communicative Hindi across the nation and more significantly, in the similarities of grammatical structures shared by languages of four language families of mainland India, i.e. excluding Andaman and Nicobar territories. Contact brings in change and not death of a language unless the ethnolinguistic minority status induces a negative attitude towards language loyalty. Communities, in such cases, are happy to do mass linguistic hara-kiri. Absence of institutionalised support to small languages robs communities of their linguistic rights and forces them to move on to the dominant language of the state. To arrest this, one has to provide dignity and honor as well as meaningful functionality to these languages.

Image 2 Feasting on a turtle: The Great Andamanese community is extremely fond of hunting and eating turtles. Their knowledge about nutritional aspects of the various parts of turtles helps them distribute specific portions to pregnant women, old and the young. Above is a visual of the jungles of Strait Island wherein the community is breaking fast after the death of a Great Andamanese member with a turtle feast.
Image 2 Feasting on a turtle: The Great Andamanese community is extremely fond of hunting and eating turtles. Their knowledge about nutritional aspects of the various parts of turtles helps them distribute specific portions to pregnant women, old and the young. Above is a visual of the jungles of Strait Island wherein the community is breaking fast after the death of a Great Andamanese member with a turtle feast.

The Great Andamanese Languages

According to geneticists the Andamanese tribes in general represent one of the oldest tribes in the world with a history that dates back to 70,000 years before present when the first migration of humans took place out of Africa. The population of Great Andamanese which was estimated to be 5000 just 150 years ago has dwindled to mere 51 today.  The present Great Andamanese language incorporates words and linguistic structures drawn from these four languages and fortunately has been documented as extensively as possible in the forms of trilingual pictorial interactive dictionary (Great Andamanese-Hindi-English) with sound files, so that one can hear Boa Sr. or Boro speaking a particular word from their languages, descriptive grammar, folktales, narrations, folk songs, and video recordings of speech, discourse, and glimpses of their daily life in the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese (VOGA) project undertaken by me (the project was supported by Hans Rausing Endangered Language Fund, SOAS, University of London 2005-2009). We have completed ethno-linguistic-ornithological work listing and describing 57 species of birds, mostly endemic, of the Andaman Islands. Local names of a variety of birds in the Great Andamanese language have been mapped by us for the first time in the ethno-biological history. The most disturbing fact however is that not more than 5 speakers remain of this language without any hope of its survival as intergeneration transfer no longer exists.

Globalisation Effect

Various manifestations of language are ecological and archeological signatures of the communities that maintain close ties with their environment. And when this environment is punctured by our senseless policies of either building roads through the jungle, or cleaning the forest for making cities, or establishing power plants and multi star hotels for city users we not only violate the land rights of the tribals but also displace them from their environment, and of their language. When Boa Sr. was migrated from Mayabandar, her original habitat in the North Andaman she was robbed of her base, her link to the ecological and linguistic environments. The time has come to sensitise the custodians of the tribals of the urgent need for sustaining endangered languages. And if we cannot in the last resort, revive the dying languages, we can at least document them so as the world knows what we lost.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *