Tribal Languages in India – Reasons for Decline (3/4)

What has caused the decline in tribal languages spoken in India?

India, as we all know is a multicultural nation where we can find indisputable links between culture and  language. In all obvious sense, it is a multilingual society. However, the contours of being a multi-linguist society are changing drastically and the roots for this change could be seen in its dark history – when the British ruled for over two centuries.

Prior to becoming British territory, India was a flourishing nation and a force to reckon with in all sense – politically, socially, culturally and economically. Gradually, the social and cultural fabric of India started breaking up just like it did politically and economically. At this point, one of the famous controversies of 1835 comes to my mind.

The Orientalist v/s Anglicist Debate (1835)

The General Committee of Public Instruction was (unofficially) divided into two factions of Orientalists and Anglicists, who were discussing upon the medium of instruction in education. The Orientalist faction was led by H.T. Prinsep whereas the advocate for English as the medium of instruction was Anglicist T.B. Macaulay. The entire controversy was later named as Macaulay Minute.

Macaulay was a staunch supporter of English as the medium of instruction in schools, colleges and higher educational institutions. He showed a great deal of contempt for Indian languages when he said: “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. The aim behind educating Indian masses in English language instead of vernaculars was to create a class of people who would be “Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

To pursue their means, the Britishers made half-hearted attempts to develop vernacular languages and the development of literature in these languages was left at the mercy of the people who spoke them. This was the beginning of the death of Indian tribal languages.

Over time, the problems related to survival and maintenance of such minority languages have evolved as an independent branch of minority studies. Several aspects such as language use, language policies, language practices and language politics are inter-related with social and linguistic relations that need comprehensive attention. Due to change in collective values, fashions, human networks and social practices, language too have undergone a reformation process.

source WIkipedia

Rigveda (padapatha) manuscript in Devanagari, early 19th century, source Wikipedia

Though it may come as a surprise, economic and political participation, demographic changes, changes in livelihood patterns and even rights to land served as a contributor to the decline of a language. Some other factors that contribute to the decline of tribal languages are –

  • Changes in employment

The employment needs demand the banishment of the vernacular language and speaking in the language that is spoken by the majority in the workplace.

  • Dispersal of traditional settlement

Tribals are the worst sufferers from displacement as they have to move hither thither sometimes due to nature’s fury and other times when the government asks them to do so. So, coming into new region, the ‘indigenous/native’ aspect of their language gets lost.

  • Abandoning traditional form of livelihood

This comes as the consequence of the above. While going to another destination, one has to leave its memories and ‘language’ behind to adjust in a new set of environment.

  • Rising educational standards

Education all over is conducted in the majority language. And today the reality is that English is the majority language with about 100 million speakers.

Therefore, to save tribal languages from extinguishing, it is important to transmit it to the next generation of speakers through one way or the other.

With this, comes the end of Indian Tribal Languages Part III. In the next part (and the last of this four-part series), I will enumerate the points of How we Can Save Our Indian Tribal Languages.

Till then, stay tuned for #TribalTuesdays.

Tribal Languages
Akanksha Mittal

Akanksha Mittal, an avid reader, frequent traveler and a passionate blogger hails from Delhi, the capital of India. Her key areas of interest lies in politics, foreign policy, and international relations. When it comes to learning about different faiths and cultures, she is always curious. She can be reached at [email protected]
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