‘Importance of languages go beyound the cultural sphere’

Book release: The Languages of Meghalaya

By Keshav Pariat

SHILLONG: One of the highlights of the second day of the CALM Festival was the release of a book – The Languages of Meghalaya by Professor Ganesh Devy of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India at the State Central Library premises on Thursday.
The importance of language, according to Devy, can be felt not only in the cultural sphere, but also in economics and the environment.
A true labour of love, the book is part of a mission to document all the languages of India, something not done since the 1920s when Indian Civil Service officer George Grierson published his survey during the British Raj.
Post independence, the Government of India did little in the way of updating the survey and after the 1971 Bangladesh War, they went so far as to “clamp down on language diversity,” Devy said while speaking to The Shillong Times.
“The list of mother tongues they disclosed had 1,500 fewer names than in the previous census,” he added.
There was then a tussle between the Home and Education ministries over who should conduct a dedicated survey of languages in the country. The entire idea of a survey then collapsed and Devy, “pained” with this development, decided on embarking on a non-governmental approach.
With around 4,000 people volunteering their time from across society and at a tiny fraction of the cost of what the government’s plan would have amounted to, the PLSI has undertaken a massive task, crucial because the loss humanity faces when a language dies is massive, Devy added.
“When a language dies, so does the wisdom that that language holds, which has accumulated over hundreds or thousands of years. The glaciers are disappearing in the Himalayas where certain languages have 220 words for snow. They understand micro movements in climate. Local languages have tremendous knowledge of ecology and if they disappear, knowledge will be at peril,” he said.
Devy is opposed to moves in certain states towards monolingualism, which he describes as a 19th century idea and he also wants the government to take into consideration the diversity of language in the country when planning for economic development, as people move out of their language zone due to economic pressures.
The word ‘dialect’ has not been used in the book, Professor Esther Syiem, who led the Meghalaya edition, said, because of its colonial connotations, with ‘varieties’ used instead.
She said that there were many surprising discoveries made by the team during their research and she pointed out the use of measurements particular to some communities.
“In Garo Hills, you have 20 different terms for bamboo, something people in the cities wouldn’t know about. Different bamboo for naming ceremonies or for cutting the navel cord at birth,” Syiem explained.
All of the languages in the state, she feels, are threatened to some degree, although the full extent will take some time to fully understand.
“People are moving into cities and speaking English as well as standard Khasi and Garo, although in villages the local varieties stand a chance,” she said. “The mix of Khasi and English, for example, spoken by many in Shillong, is seen as a threat by some, but we will have to wait a few years to fully understand whether there really is a danger.”

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