Aiyo! How To Save A Language From Extinction

Aiyo! How To Save A Language From Extinction
Last September, Oxford English Dictionary has added a tamil word aiyo in their lexical database along with other foreign words like mamak, and pancit.

Though, it is not first time, OED has borrowed and added words into English definition database. But if you look at English in general, it is heavily made up of foreign loan words. It is a routine exercise by popular language dictionaries like OED to incoporate new words in English lexical database, so that English can be more accessible and adaptable to new language learners.

On contradictory note, a news broke out that on August 30, 2016, Doris Lamar-McLemore, the last fluent Wichita speaker passed away. With her death, a beautiful language Wichita, once spoken by Wichita tribe of America also passed away.

Earlier in February, something similar happened in Canada. Alban Michael, the last native speaker of Nuchatlaht dialect of Nuu-chah-nulth, took his last breath and with his last breath, the dialect also suffocated to the death. In past two decades, more than 50 languages have met their fate, a number which is likely to grow in coming decades.

According to SIL International’s Ethnolouge, there are 7067 spoken languages in the world, but majority of these languages have less than 1000 surviving native speakers. According to their prediction, 50 to 90 per cent of world languages will extinct by the end of 21st century.

The UNESCO also approves the same and according to their data, the situation is much more serious in India than anywhere else. The UNESCO Atlas of World’s Endangered Languages lists 197 Indian languages which are in danger of extinction. The report also suggests 5 languages have been wiped out from Indian sub-continent as they have not found any surviving speaker in last 50 yers of recorded history. Last Indian language which was exterminated from the Indian sub-continent, Aka-Bo, a language of Andamanese language family.

There is a clear paradox. On one hand, we have a language which is thriving with more than 943 million speakers whereas on other hand, we have thousands of languages that are in danger of facing extinction. Therefore, the question pops up, what went right for English and what went wrong for thousands of other languages.

The three major causes behind the popularization of English and demise of every other languages are globalization, world economy, and politics. One can argue globalisation has united the world and benefited it in every other sense, but globalisation has marred majority of world languages, and only benefited the major languages like English, Spanish and German. The world economy has also contributed to the language deaths, the more economically powerful languages are leading the race, as they are the source of well paid jobs and flourishing businesses. One can easily see how world economy is affecting native languages with Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan decision to introduce German as the third language replacing Sanskrit from curriculum. Moreover, a recent report released by IIMs that many students are applying for Mandarin (Chinese) and other foreign language courses, in order to get more offshore job opportunities. The third cause as I have mentioned, the politics. The majority and politically powerful people are forcing minorities to stop using their native languages by either social boycott or communal violence. One can see such examples in Maharashtra, when Marathi speaking natives forced Uttar Pradesh and Bihar Hindi speakers to adopt Marathi or face the wrath. Such political demands can be heard in other parts of the Union of India.

However, there are two more rarely talked about factors, which has led to popularisation of English worldwide beside above, inclusiveness and ability to form pidgin languages. Inclusive nature of English has benefited the language in many ways, with its ability to incoporate words from other language and make them usable is somewhat beautiful. The OED as mentioned earlier, now lists more than 1.16 lakh words in their definition database. On other hand, if you go by Harvard University and Google joint research, the number stands at 1,022,000 with addition of 8500 new words every year in the new millennium.

The ability to from pidgins and portmanteaus is another major reason behind the popularisation of English, as people finds it easier to talk in pidgin and portmanteau languages. Hinglish is one such example, which is mixed form of Hindi, English and other Indian languages, and people find it easy to use and fashionable. Furthermore, these pidgins and portmanteau motivates a speaker to opt for more rich and powerful language. In case of Hinglish and many such mixed languages, people opt for English.

So what we can learn from the English story, and how we can save our languages from losing out in the modern times. First, we need to understand the need of the times and before forcing the government, we need to change ourselves. Though, English is the language of employability and economy but we can support our native languages on local levels. We can see thousands of examples on daily basis, people who are fluent in English harass people who are not, and institution prefer English-speaking candidates to native language speaking candidates for jobs. We also need to expand our native language lexicon, as many words are losing out to English counterparts due to difficult and redundant usage. For example, people are using train over lohpathgamini, engineer over abhyantrik, doctor over chikitsak and so on.

We need to ask our government to provide basic education in our native languages. Though, we have such provisions in our Constitution under Article 350 to provide basic education in our native language, but it is not fully implemented. We need Government to come up with newspapers, journals, books, radio, and television programmes in native languages if private sector is not coming up with such solution due to economical feasibility. We need government to encourage private sector to come up with schemes to promote a native language because government cannot do it all alone.

I believe we cannot save our native languages alone. We need participation from everyone, i.e. people, government, and private sector. Having said that, we also need to start somewhere. So start now.

Image: Hulk Anna by Raj Kamal
Note: You can read my Hindi blog here, in case you are searching for that.

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