The findings of the recently conducted survey of the languages of India under the aegis of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India have been the talking point since the past few days. The survey results are yet to be published in its entirety, but parts of it has been released through the mainstream media. The numbers about the scheduled and non-scheduled languages, scripts, speakers are fascinating.
Besides the statistics from the census, this independent survey has identified languages which are spoken in remote corners of the country and by as less as 4 people. From some of the reports that have been published, what one can gather is that there are ~780 languages and ~66 scripts presently in use in India. Of which the North Eastern states of India have the largest per capita density of languages and contribute with more than 100 (closer to ~200 if one sums things up) of those. It has also been known that in the last 50 years, ~250 languages have been lost, which I am assuming means that no more speakers of these languages remain.
This and some other things have led onto a few conversations around the elements of language diversity that creep into the everyday Indian life. Things that we assume for normal, yet are so diametrically varied from monolingual cultures. To demonstrate, we picked names of acquaintances/friends/co-workers and put 2 or more of them together to find what was a common language for each group. In quite a few cases we had to settle that English was the only language a group of randomly picked people could converse in. Well if one has been born in (mostly) urban India anytime onwards from the 1970s (or maybe even earlier), this wouldn’t be much of a surprise. The bigger cities have various degrees of cosmopolitan pockets. From a young age people are dragged through these either as part of their own social circle (like school) or their parents’. Depending upon the location and social circumstances English is often the first choice.
When at age 10 I had to change schools for the very first time, I came home open-mouthed and narrated to my mother that in the new school the children speak to each other in Bengali! Until that time, Bengali was the exotic language that was only spoken at home and was heard very infrequently on the telly on sunday afternoons. The conservative convent school where I went was a melting pot of cultures with students from local North East Indian tribes, Nepalis (both from India and Nepal), Tibetans, Chinese, Bhutanese and Indians from all possible regions where Government and Armed Forces personnel are recruited from. Even the kid next door who went to the same school spoke in English with me at school and in Bengali at the playground in the evening.
The alternative would be the pidgin that people have to practice out of necessity. Like me and the vegetable vendor in the sunday market. I don’t know her language fluent enough to speak (especially due to the variation in dialect), she probably hasn’t even heard of mine, and we both speak laughable hindi. What we use is part Hindi and part Marathi and a lot of hand movements to transact business. I do not know what I would do if I was living further south were Hindi is spoken much less. But it would be fun to try out how that works.
An insanely popular comic strip has been running since the past year – Guddu ang Gang, by Garbage Bin Studios. The stories are a throwback to our growing up years from the late 80s and 90s and touched so many chords on a personal level. The conversations are in Hindi, but the script they use is English. Like so many other thousands of people I have been following it and even purchased the book that came out. But maybe it wouldn’t have been the same amount of fun if the script was in Devanagari. I don’t read it fast enough. And no, in this case translating the text won’t make any sense. There is Chacha Chaudhary for that. Or even Tintin comics. Thanks to Anandamela, most people my age have grown up reading Tintin and Aranyadeb (The Phantom) comics in Bengali. There also exist juicy versions of Captain Haddock’s abuses.
Last year I gave a talk at Akademy touching on some of these aspects of living in a multi-cultural environment. TL&DR version: the necessities that requires people to embrace so many languages – either for sheer existence or for the fringes, and how we can build optimized software and technical content. For me, its still an area of curiosity and learning. Especially the balance between practical needs and cultural preservation.
** Note about the title: bolta – Hindi:’saying’, Bengali:’wasp’. Go figure!