“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”
Cultural Diversity, we all have heard this term before but have we actually given a thought to what really constitutes this diversity? So, cultural diversity or multiculturalism refers to a group of individuals belonging to diverse cultures and societies. This cultural diversity takes into account religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity and language. Of all, it is the linguistic diversity which is the benchmark of cultural diversity and if we lose a language, we lose the knowledge of that language and culture. As languages are repositories of history, they are the perfect expression of identity.
Once it is lost, the entire cultural diversity prevalent in that language will also be lost. In 2010, India suffered a huge loss with the death of Boa Sr. She was the last speaker of one of Andaman’s ancient tribal languages – Bo. With her death, came the extinction of the Bo language which is thought to date back to pre-Neolithic human settlement of South-east Asia. Thus, a unique part of human society will be preserved in memories because the loss of a language means loss of humanity.
Why Preservation of Tribal Languages Is Essential?
We all know what distinguishes us from the animals is our language – the faculty of speech which we possess but they don’t. David Crystal, the renowned British linguist says: “Just like biological species, multiplicity of languages amounts to diversity and that language is an expression of identity.” Therefore, tribal languages are significant due to the following reasons:
- Cultural Transmission:
Language can be referred to as a critical means without which the passage of people’s experiences through generations is not possible. Furthermore, it is the language that facilitates the transmission of culture and makes it a vehicle for storing and transmitting from one generation to another. Now, you must be wondering how this cultural knowledge (read language) is transmitted? Since time immemorial, India had followed the teacher-pupil tradition (known as Guru-Shishya Pratha) where the teacher used to narrate a text and the pupil used to repeat it aloud. For a better understanding, they used fables, proverbs, stories, idioms, sayings, songs and riddles in their text. Even today, the same practice is followed by the tribal community and the knowledge is transmitted either vertical or horizontal. Therefore, cultural experiences can be accumulated in three ways namely:
- Over the years, the tribes have developed a unique indigenous knowledge system by interacting with the members of the society and their milieu. Consequently, this led to thriving of the knowledge environment.
- This continuous interaction has led to the evolution of customs within their society. This is why we see that each tribal community has its own set of traditional practices and beliefs.
- As we traverse along any tribal region, we experience that they believe in having a link with the supernatural world (they worship a special deity) and defines ancestry as a people’s way of life.
It is language that distinguishes one ethnic community from another. It is an important tool for mapping out the geographical identity of the speaker particularly in a crisis situation. For instance, to identify the number of native speakers ‘left’, it becomes important that the person enumerating it is fully conversant in that particular language. With it, the exact number of native speakers can be established and agencies like UNESCO can list the particular tribal language under safe or endangered category.
You all must be aware of the popular saying by the legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle: “Man is by nature a social animal and society is something that precedes the individual”. Even today, the quote mirrors the current society. Each individual has a natural urge to satisfy his social needs and language is the tool that facilitates this process. Apart from socialization, it fosters cohesion and solidarity amongst the members of the community.
Therefore, the preservation of linguistic diversity means the conservation of all the aforementioned functions. UNESCO, the pioneer agency working for the protection of endangered languages say: “The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. Each language is a unique expression of the human experience of the world. Thus, the knowledge of any single language may be the key to answering fundamental questions of the future. This means that every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and function of human language, human prehistory and the maintenance of the world’s diverse ecosystems.”
Can anyone refute any part of the above statement? With each dying language, we are losing a part of evidence for understanding the structure, pattern and function of human language. Now, as Boa Sr is no more, we have lost a part of cultural diversity.
This was about the importance of tribal language and how it impacts the evolution of a community. The next part will focus on the Reasons for the Decline of Tribal Languages.
Till then, stay tuned for #TribalTuesdays.