02/18/2022, 19.19
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The new ways to save tribal languages

by Alessandra De Poli

More than 200 languages have disappeared in India in the past 50 years and another 197 are considered at risk. The languages of Adivasi groups are mostly spoken. Little room is available online and in official documents for those languages with a script. Yet something has changed in recent years, as more grassroots initiatives try to preserve the cultural heritage of indigenous tribes.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The link between a script and any one language is not self-evident. India has hundreds of languages and many of them are likely to disappear in the coming decades since they are only spoken by small numbers of people, in most cases tribal groups.

Some languages are used only with kin or fellow tribal members, and are not used in official documents or social media. But something is changing.

Ganesh Birua, 23, discovered only in 2014 that his language, Ho, a Munda language, had an alphabet, called warang citi. After he learnt it self-faught, he began to use social media to encourage others to learn it as well.

Eventually some linguists and researchers contacted him to include the warang citi script in the international Unicode system, which assigns a unique code to every character, so that language scripts look the same on all keyboards and digital devices.

In 2008 Malati Murmu, tired of reading news only in English, Hindi and a few other languages, founded a newspaper, the Fagun, in the Santali language, with an initial circulation of only 500 copies. The script used, Ol Chiki, was invented in 1925 by writer Ragunath Murmu.

For Malati, the main goal of the newspaper is to protect the Santali language and literature and to promote tribal culture. Its circulation now averages around 5,000 printed copies.

In 2001, when he was only 17, Banwang Losu began to think about a writing system for Wancho, his mother tongue, spoken mainly in Arunachal Pradesh, in lieu of the Latin letters. In 2019 the alphabet he developed in almost 20 years of research was included in the international Unicode system.

In 1971 India carried out a linguistic census, but excluded all languages with less than 10,000 speakers, the threshold at which a language is the risk of extinction according to the United Nations.

In the last 50 years, at least 220 languages in India have disappeared and another 197 are considered endangered. Of these, only two fall under the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution, which recognises 22 official languages.

However, according to some estimates, more than 19,500 native dialects are spoken in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to Ho and Santali, only three other tribal languages – Soura, Munda and Kui – have a script.

Adivasis are the indigenous peoples of the Indian subcontinent, a mosaic of tribal groups that live mostly on the margins of society, poor, with little access to education, and are mostly animists or Christians.

Losing a language means losing the cultural heritage that goes with it. For Ayesha Kidwai of the Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, “Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.”

Being able to speak and write in one's native language has become more pressing with the rise of the Internet. According to 2017 statistics, 70 per cent of Indian online users trust more content in their native language than in English.

Not having content available in one's native language is a huge handicap in terms of access to knowledge and impoverishes the cultural debate. This is worse in India, with 658 million Internet users (less than half of the population), where social media disinformation is rampant.

The most immediate way to document a language at risk without a script is to collect audio-visual material with recordings of people who speak their mother tongue. This however carries the risk of creating a large archive while keeping tribal communities isolated.

In 2014 journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary created CGNet Swara, an online platform dedicated to issues related to the central region of Gondwana, with stories and news in the Gondi language.

Anyone, anywhere in India, can report stories on this platform by making a phone call to a number linked to it. The stories are available for playback online (which is not obvious in rural areas) and over the phone.

This is another way to interact like any other social media, but one that respects the Gondi oral tradition. The Gondi language is spoken by two million people, but only 100 can write it.

Thurs, providing a language with its own script is not always the best solution to the issue of language survival. However, lack of a script has its own problems

Last year the Ho alphabet was excluded from the Unicode system because of “the absence of a modern native user community that would be able to use these scripts for useful mnemonic identifiers in a familiar language” and the “problematic and little understood nature of these scripts”.

In other words, it is necessary for the target community to be able to read and write, not just to speak their own language.

Other speakers have managed to create keyboards and applications in the Ho. Hercules Munda, for example, created a language game application for Munda languages.

A member of the Munda tribal group, he found out that many of its users were Adivasi youth whose parents had left their villages to raise their children in urban centres

All these initiatives are the work of individuals because the Indian state does little or nothing to preserve tribal languages and cultures.

Still, in 2013, India’s Education Ministry established the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL) “to document and archive the country’s languages that have become endangered or likely to be endangered in the near future.

Another positive note came last year from the eastern state of Odisha, where most Indian Adivasis live.

State authorities decided that elementary school textbooks would be published in 21 tribal languages using the Oriya alphabet – except for Santali, which can continue to use Ol Chiki.

However, the project, called Samhati, is not easy to implement. In addition to the challenge of standardising the dialects of Odisha’s 62 tribal groups (to educate at least 2,000,000 tribal children), a thousand teachers need to acquire language skills in tribal languages.




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