Linguists struggling to document lost Indian languages

The curious case of Nihali
It lies in the stunning Satpuda range, but not many would stop by Jamod-Jalgaon tehsil in Buldhana district, Maharashtra. Its many shrines attract the pious, but that is no claim to any real fame. However, since the last four months, Professor Shailendra Mohan has taken to visiting the same five villages in the tehsil, and each visit sure feels akin to carrying a talisman. He is most likely to be seen tapping the bent shoulders of local farmers of the Nihal community, hoping to lure them for a chat. At other times, he convinces their wide-eyed children to retell their grandparents’ folktales.

Yankee Modi, a Milang tribeswoman and PhD scholar at the University of Berne in Switzerland, conducts fieldwork on Milang language

“But they do not remember,” says Dr Mohan. “And if they do, the versions are very different from what their grandparents relate.” Still, to Dr Mohan, it is providential. To find a child who can tell stories in Nihali, though garbled, is very rare. Dr Mohan, associate professor in Austro-Asiatic Linguistics at Pune’s Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, is working on a year-long project (funded by ELDP, SOAS, London) to document Nihali, the critically endangered language spoken by barely 2,500 people in Jamod-Jalgaon. As part of the research, Dr Mohan plans to prepare a dictionary of the language, its grammar and lexicon, and also document its lifestyle, culture, religious and social practices. 

Nihali, the language of the Nihal community in Jamod-Jalgaon tehsil, Buldhana district in Maharashtra, is critically endangered

Nihali holds many giddy secrets. Languages in India are divided into four families -- Indo Aryan (eg: Marathi, Hindi, Oriya, Bengali), Dravidian (eg: Tamil, Kannada Telugu), Tibeto-Burman (most languages spoken in the Himalayan region and northeast fall in this category) and Austro-Asiatic languages (eg: Koruku, spoken in Maharashtra).  Nihali, however, falls in none of the above four families. In linguistic terms, it is an ‘isolate’ -- it may well be a relic of a long lost language spoken before any of the other Indian languages even came into being. “The question is, how far can we go in the past? The answer lies with 2,500 people tucked away in Jamod-Jalgaon.”

Linguistics professor Shailendra Mohan speaks to a Nihali to document the language and social customs 

Nihali seems to be something of the God particle of linguistics. “It is one of the most puzzling hypotheses of our field. In fact, researchers from Cambridge University have taken blood samples from the Nihals to determine whether their DNA is unique compared to the rest of the area and country.” Documenting an endangered language needs heady perseverance and a healthy belief in luck. Dr Mohan first set about identifying people him would be ready to talk to you --again and again -- because documenting a language takes years. Then, he gathered informants who knew Hindi or Marathi and Nihali. He starts eliciting the data by asking what the word, ladka (boy) means, for instance. “Then, I go on to ek ladka (a boy) and progress to ek chhota ladka (a young boy)... and this is how you document the entire vocabulary of a language,” says Dr Mohan. 

Nihali, spoken by only 2,500 locals in Jamod-Jalgaon tehsil in Buldhana district, Maharashtra, may well be a relic of a long lost language spoken before any of the other Indian languages even came into being. Researchers from Cambridge University are trying to determine whether the Nihali DNA is unique compared to people in the rest of India

Nihal children, he explains, go to Marathi-medium schools and give their mother tongue up. “Nihali is undocumented yet, so you can imagine its fate. Furthermore, many Nihals speak Koruku and many Nihali women end up marrying Nihal men who speak Koruku, and this often means that their children never learn Nihali.” Only the village of Sonballi, adds Dr Mohan, is where Nihali seems to be thriving, because children and adults speak it.

Documenting a language in isolation is a futile exercise, says Dr Mohan. “Writing does not even begin to cover all aspects of a language. You communicate with the five senses. Gestures, for instance, tell you so much about a people. How a community narrates a story is just as insightful as what it narrates. It is very important to document the life, customs and beliefs of the Nihals to understand their history.”

Today, it is rare to come across Nihal children who can tell a coherent story in Nihali Pic Courtesy/Shailendra Mohan

The Nihals, adds Dr Mohan, are unique in many ways. “Take their religion, for instance. They worship female deities, and are believed to have originally worshipped Ravana. Of course, Aryanisation swept it away in time. But, till date, their versions of the Ramayana are different from others.” In their legends, Lakshmana was a snake sent by Ravana to poison Rama, but subsequently transformed. “Among the Nihals, it is the man who offers dowry to the woman’s family before marriage. Holi has been a very important festival for the Nihals, but, since the past five years, they celebrate Ganeshotsav and Durga Pooja, too, which is a learnt practice. I will not be surprised if Nihali turns out to be a language family of its own,” smiles Dr Mohan. 

The linguistic hotbed of India
In the year 2003, a chance conversation with two Assamese classmates made linguist Mark Post very, very curious. That one of the least-known regions of a country also had the largest density of languages piqued him like little else had. “If it were today, I would rush to my laptop and find out more on Wikipedia. But I couldn’t do that back then.”

So, Post simply had to come to Arunachal Pradesh to see for himself. And he has barely left the place since. “More than 300 languages are spoken in seven states. The Northeast is India’s linguistic hotbed. However, little or nothing is known about its languages, their origins and their contexts in history,” he says Between 2004 and 2013, as part of an ongoing project of linguistic research and documentation, Post has completed a grammar of Galo, has published a Galo-English dictionary with the support of Galo community members, and is currently working on Tangam (spoken in the far Northeast, near Tuting) and Minyong, a variety of the Adi language in eastern Arunachal Pradesh.

Post has also been conducting a survey of the 16 or so languages which belong to the Tani subgroup of Tibeto-Burman languages, and is examining how they are related. His work also involves other little-known languages of the region such as Puroik, Idu, Digaru and Miju. “What’s unique about these languages is that their relationships to other languages are as yet unestablished, and there is a very good chance that they are language isolates. If that can be demonstrated to be true, it suggests that they may be among the oldest languages spoken on the Asian continent, pre-dating the arrival not only of Indo-Aryan speakers, but also speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages such as Tibetan and Chinese,” says Post over the telephone from Australia, where he is currently a lecturer at the University of New England.

Tangam, says Post, is critically endangered. Only 150 locals in one village, Kuging, speak the language. “The language is still alive because children are learning to speak it; however, with such a small population of speakers, Tangam’s survival into the future is very hard to guarantee.” Post is working on a Tangam-Minyong-English dictionary at the request of Tangam community members, but adds that documenting the language can only go so far. Formally, the medium of education in Arunachal Pradesh is English; but, on the ground, it is in fact Hindi. “In modern India, economic opportunities are unfortunately tied with leaving villages and learning a more economically viable language, which, here, is mostly Hindi. In Arunachal Pradesh, many children who spoke Galo are switching to a simplified variety of Hindi now -- in remote villages, you may find even there that up to 90 % of children do not speak any Galo. This is an unfortunate pattern that we find repeating itself again and again, all over the world.”

To Post, documenting culture along with a language’s grammar and lexicon is what gives the latter its soul. “Over the course of my research, documenting culture has given me deep insights into the language and vice versa. For instance, I observed a peculiar grammatical feature in this area. The grammar of this region is sensitive to something we call “authority over knowledge” -- so you could say ‘I think X about Z,’ or ‘Do you think X about Z?’, but it is inappropriate to say, ‘He thinks X about Z’, or ‘Does he think X about Z?’ This is because I know the contents of my thoughts, and I can assume that you know the contents of your thoughts, but neither you nor I can know the contents of a third person’s thoughts.

This social convention is so deeply-rooted that it has been encoded into the grammar; the language actually prevents you from acting as though you can know what another person is thinking about. Of course, Indo-European languages are not like that; in English, Russian, or Hindi, I can say, ‘Al Gore thinks he won the election’, and it might be wrong or right, but it’s not ungrammatical. In Galo, you simply aren’t allowed to say that. To me this is a great illustration of how small, close-knit communities in the Himalayan region who place a strong value on truth and honesty can actually develop languages that reflect their values directly.’

The fact that the Northeast has, in a manner of speaking, been largely ‘independent’ over the centuries, contributes to its vibrant linguistic diversity. But that hasn’t rendered it immune to threat. “Institutional support, if present, would greatly help the region to maintain its unique diversity. Documentation of a language doesn’t necessarily mean preservation.  I know for a fact that in Arunachal Pradesh only three people, including me, have been working at large-scale documentation and description in recent years, living in villages, speaking the language, and doing what is necessary to provide the groundwork for a meaningful effort at preservation. Meanwhile, there are 50 languages which remain almost completely undescribed. This is a very poor result, which the field of linguistics as a whole should really be ashamed of.”

‘My language gives me Kashmiriyat’
Aadil Amin Kak, Associate Professor at the University of Kashmir, is no stranger to the question often thrown his way. “As a linguist, I have people asking me why do I bother with the documentation of languages which are fast losing speakers. Little do they know that the answer lies in their question itself.” Since 2009, Prof Kak has been documenting Kashmiri, Burushaski and Sheikha Gal/Watali in Kashmir. “Apart from these languages with less speakers, even Kashmiri is fast losing younger speakers because they wonder what really is in it for them -- government jobs, preference or prestige? Here, even parents prefer making their toddlers fluent in Urdu because their school interviews depend on it,” he argues. Prof Kak has developed the Unicode compliant Kashmiri font, a five lakh-word corpus and a Kashmiri-Hindi-English dictionary online (

Prof Kak says he has had entirely contrasting experiences while documenting Sheikha Gal, Pashtu and Burushaski. The latter two, spoken by the Pashtuns at Gutlibagh and the Burshus, have few speakers, but is thriving because the children of the community are fluent in it. The Sheikha Gal, on the other hand, is an endangered language. About 20,000 people of the Sheikh/Watal community speak it but it is dying because the younger generation wants its distance from the language. “The Sheikhs/Watals are mainly scavengers by occupation, something their children are not proud to be associated with. Alcoholism and substance abuse is common among the Sheikhs/Watals, too, which makes data collection a Herculean task anyway,” says Prof Kak.

He is forthright when it comes to the role of research and documentation. “Documentation, though helpful, cannot ensure the longevity of a language unless younger speakers pick it up. In India, funding is reserved mostly for scheduled languages and lesser-known lose out. But documentation isn’t a romantic endeavour either. The blue/green colour of my eyes, fair skin, a long nose do no make me Kashmiri. It is my which language gives me my Kashmiriyat,” he says.

‘Languages are economic properties’
“In the past 50 years, most of the languages India lost belonged to the coastal and nomadic tribes, who migrated far and wide for livelihood. Languages such as Mangeli in southern Gujarat belong to this category. The Sidis in Gujarat, for instance, know their dance and customs, but not their languages.
Languages in the Northeast, however, fare better because most of the headhunting tribes there confine themselves to smaller regions. The region, excluding Assam, has more than 250 languages even though their combined population is less than Maharashtra’s. In fact, in the future, I believe northeastern languages will gain economic advantage as trade routes open up to Myanmar, Korea and Indonesia. When the British came to Surat in Gujarat, and neither side could speak a common language, it was the Armenian dubashis (translators) who mediated and became rich.

Ganesh Devy, Linguist, lead co-ordinator, People’s Linguistic Survey Of India

Languages die whenever there is a fundamental economic shift around the world. Many languages died between 10,000 BC and 6,000 BC when hunter-gatherers worldwide shifted to an agrarian way of life. It is likely that only 2,000 of the current 6,000 languages in the world will eventually survive. Out of those, only 300 will survive with their domains -- cinema, music, scriptures, rituals -- intact. However, the situation in India is likely to be different. English has wiped out local languages everywhere -- except in India. We are essentially multilingual, and one language, no matter how economically viable it may be, can wipe out our local languages.

That isn’t to say that losing languages isn’t alarming. The only way to preserve our languages is to change our very perception toward them. Languages are not burdens we carry, but opportunities -- economic and cultural. All future technologies will be language-based and our many languages give us a chance to move toward economic properties. We need to do something on the lines of what Senegal did in 1990. They developed classrooms where children were required to learn multiple languages (unlike in India, where we have a concept of English/Hindi-medium schools and are forced to choose). Eventually, Senegal exhibited better employment opportunities than Nigeria. That’s what we need here, too.”

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