World Biodiversity Day: Why language should not be forgotten

By Rajat GhaionMay. 24, 2019in Perspectives

The word “Welcome” in some world languages. Photo: Flickr

Every year, the United Nations and its members observe May 22 as the International Day of Biodiversity. The first things that come to mind when one says the word “biodiversity” are the oceans and seas, forests, plants and animals as well as indigenous peoples.

But an issue we must never forget while speaking about biodiversity is that of language, especially the tongues of tribal communities.

“Man is a part of evolution. Humans have developed diverse ways of expressing themselves by creating different languages. Language is a clear marker of diversity within the process of evolution. Hence language is biodiversity,” veteran linguist and activist Ganesh Devy told Down To Earth (DTE).

“For tribal communities in India, their lived experience, namely their relationship with the forest, water, plants and animals is expressed in words and terms, which is vanishing now,” Virginius Xaxa, professor and deputy director at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus told DTE.

Prominent linguist and expert on the languages of the Andaman islands, Anvita Abbi said that it was not an accident that global distribution of species and languages overlapped. “There is an inextricable relation between biological and linguistic diversity. Scientists have proved that a total of 3,202 languages, nearly half of those on Earth, are currently found in the planet’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. Diversity is the manta for human existence and sustenance,” she told DTE.

Abbi mourned the loss of linguistic diversity in today’s world. “Unfortunately, linguistic diversity, the greatest man-made treasure, is at stake, ironically at the hands of those who created it,” she said.

“Loss of language is the biggest intellectual catastrophe. Modern education does not take cognizance of our multilingual nature and does not incorporate indigenous languages, with their hidden knowledge in the school systems in the country. This has resulted in an un-mitigatable divide in societies.  Discrimination between various languages, especially those which are not written down and those which are, between those which are used as the medium of education and those which are not, leads to a situation of linguistic apartheid,” Abbi added.

According to the findings of the 2011 Language Census released by the government last year, a number of small and relatively lesser-known tribal languages spoken in remote corners of India have shown a decline.

These include the Sema language of the Naga tribe of the same name, which showed a decadal decrease (between 2001-2011) of -89.57, the Monpa language of Arunachal Pradesh (-75.48), Nagaland’s Phom (-55.58), Odisha’s Jatapu (-49.08), Himachal Pradesh’s Lahauli (-48.89) and Bhumij of Eastern India (-42.02).

Only two major tribal languages have so far bucked this trend. Bodo and Santali have also slowed down though not declined. Bodo shows a total decadal percentage increase of 9.81. Santali shows a total decadal percentage increase of 13.89.

“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants,”  Ayesha Kidwai of the Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, had told DTE at the time the findings were released. “Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone. With the loss of language comes the loss of everything in a culture and loss of solidarity, the loss of Man himself.”

First published by Down to Earth on 22 May 2019

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