Recently, the world’s spotlight focused briefly on 75-year old Gyani Maiya Sen, the last speaker of Kusunda, a language from western Nepal. Maiya Sen’s two children had refused to learn their mother tongue since this nomadic language was looked down upon by the others.
They migrated from the hills, changed their family names and married outside their group – this was the story of many Kusunda-speaking families in the last century and today hardly anyone self-identifies as a native Kusunda speaker. Yet, Kusunda is considered unique by linguists as it is a language isolate and does not fall into any of the 20 major language families of the world. Experts are learning the language from Maiya Sen so that a unique part of humanity’s linguistic heritage is preserved.
In 2010 when Boa Sr of the Andamans died at 85, with her died Bo, a language that the Bo tribe spoke for the past 65,000 years. When Marie Smith Jones died in Alaska in 2008, so did the aboriginal Eyak language as she was its last speaker. The Manx language of the Isle of Man died in 1974 along with Ned Madrell.
The American Summer Institute of Linguistics reports that 51 of the world’s nearly 7000 languages have only one speaker left — so the disaster of Kusunda, Bo and Eyak is set to repeat itself in the years to come. Further, nearly 500 languages have less than 100 speakers and another 1,500 languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers each.
UNESCO sounded the alarm a few years ago, pointing out that nearly 2500 of the world’s languages are endangered: 538 languages are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe. UNESCO’s Atlas of Endangered Languages also points out that India leads the list with 197 endangered languages, while the US has 192 languages. Indonesia’s count is 147 languages.
“Language is the dress of thought,” said Samuel Johnson. If a group prefers to think in another language than its native tongue, or if a language refuses to catch up with changing times and cannot meet the demands of modern times, can anything be done from the outside to preserve that language?
The problem is complex and so are the answers to these questions.
In most parts of the world language is the basis of identity, culture and nationhood. Most European countries are organized on the basis of the dominant language of their region while recognizing some minority languages. In South Asia, amongst other reasons, Bangladesh was born as a result of the aspirations of the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan. India is divided into different federal states primarily based on language.
The dominant languages in these societies have attained their position because of the number of people who speak it, because of state patronage and by virtue of they being the language of politics, justice and administration. It is a consequence of this that minorities are sidelined unless safeguards are provided within the system.
Efforts have been made world-wide to recognise the importance of linguistic rights —some official, some yet to gain formal support of the international institutions. These are the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (not official) and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (official). Linguistic Rights and the Right not to be discriminated on the basis of language are also covered by the International Bill of Rights.
In the Constitution of India, Articles 29 and 30 provide special measures that guarantee to all minorities, including linguistic minorities, the right to conserve their language and to establish and administer educational institutions. Article 350 A enjoins all state and local authorities to provide adequate facilities for imparting education at the primary level in the mother tongue to children belonging to linguistic minority groups. Of course, it is not always possible to do this because of the stage at which some of the languages are.
For example, not all languages have a script. Further, languages have their own evolution and where a language is not adequate to the needs to the people using it, it is bound to lose out and even disappear. It is believed that since recorded history nearly 7,000 languages have so far become extinct.
What would be unacceptable is that a language’s existence is threatened due to social prejudice which certainly seems to be the case of Kusunda in Nepal or the Gond language in India. Such languages need support for creation of modern dictionaries, language academies and facilities so that they evolve to meet the demands of modern times.
It is possible to preserve languages and protect them. Papua New Guinea’s extraordinary story is inspiring — this country of just 3.9 million people has a dazzling linguistic richness of over 800 languages and only 80 of them are considered endangered. This is possible because the people have been ‘proud to speak their language’.
This is the essential condition for the success of a language.