The turn of the silenced oral: language in our time 

It is time to think of several approaches to collectively make our mainstream narrative of Adivasis, marginal castes, unnoticed belief sects and the nomadic communities in India

Photo courtesy: Adivasi Academy Archives
Photo courtesy: Adivasi Academy Archives

GN Devy

Since the times of Sir William Jones, major attempts have been made to propose and formulate conceptual categories for describing the bio-cultural diversity and knowledge traditions in India. The corresponding process of decolonisation, too, has produced attempts at synchronisation of traditional knowledge with the colonial production of knowledge within the context of the western modernity. While the clash as well as collaboration between what is seen as knowledge compatible with the western cognitive categories and knowledge traditions rooted in the lives of predominantly oral communities continue to occupy the imaginative transactions in India, the mainstream institutions of knowledge — such as schools, universities, hospitals, courts, etc. — have acquired forms that often leave out the complexities involved in the ‘great transition of civilisation in the Indian sub-continent’. This situation poses an intellectual challenge that thinkers in the 21st century need to negotiate.

Probably, the most important among the cognitive categories that continue to carry the stress of this ‘transition in civilisation’ belong to the field of creative expression in language and language description. Decolonisation of Indian aesthetics and Indian linguistics, without an obscurantist turning back entirely to the past, is the larger task at hand for the contemporary Indian intellectual, attempted several times over but not yet accomplished. In the recent times, there have been moves towards opening the question of descriptive categories in relation to language, written as well as in entirely oral tradition. It is indeed time to think of an approach or several approached relevant to cultural and ecological contexts in India, particularly from the perspective of the vast silenced minorities, making collectively our main-stream, of Adivasis, marginal castes, unnoticed belief sects and the nomadic communities in India.

Changed epistemology of language

In pre-colonial epistemologies of language, hierarchy in terms of a ‘standard’ and a ‘dialect’ was not common. Language diversity was an accepted fact of life. Literary artists could use several languages within a single composition, and their audience accepted the practice as normal. In most of the celebrated literary classics of ancient India one sees this practice being followed. Great works like the epic Mahabharata continued to exist in several versions handed down through a number of different languages almost till the beginning of the 20th century. When literary critics theorised, they took into account literature in numerous languages. Matanga’s early medieval compendium of styles, Brihaddeshi, is the most outstanding example of criticism arising out of the principle that language diversity is normal.

During the colonial times, many of India’s languages were brought into the print medium. Previously, writing was known and numerous scripts were used for writing. Paper too was used as a means for reproducing written texts. However, despite being ‘written’, texts had been circulating mainly through the oral means. The print technology diminished the existing oral traditions. New norms of literature were introduced, privileging the written over the oral, and bring in the idea that a literary text needs be essentially mono-lingual. These ideas, and the power relation created by the colonial context, started affecting the stock of languages in India. The languages that had not been placed within the print technology came to be seen as ‘inferior’ languages. Yet, they continue to survive, and some of them are quite active in creative imagination even now.

After Independence, the Indian states were created on the basis of languages and are known as ‘linguistic states’. If a language had a script, and if the language had printed literature in it, it was given a geographical zone as a separate state within the Union of India. Languages that did not have printed literature, even though they had rich tradition of oral literature were not given such states. Further, the State official language was used as a medium of primary and high-school education within a given state. Similarly, a special Schedule of Languages (The 8th Schedule) was created within the Indian Constitution. In the beginning, it had a list of fourteen languages. At present, the list has twenty-two languages in it. It became obligatory for the government to commit all education related expenditure on these languages alone. The 1961 Census of India had a list of 1652 ‘Mother Tongues’. In the figures of the next Census (1971), the figure was substantially reduced, and only 108 languages spoken by more than 10,000 were officially acknowledged. Thus, more than 1500 ‘Mother Tongues’ were in a manner of speaking ‘silenced’. Most of these languages are spoken by nomadic communities and the indigenous communities. Many of them are on way to a rapid extinction, if they are not already gone.

The ‘Margins’ of Indian literature, coming from the Indigenous peoples and the nomadic communities are thus marginalised mainly due to the ‘Aphasia’ being systemically imposed on them. Besides, there is the question of an ‘even linguistic citizenship’ which is implicit in the sacred principle of ‘freedom of expression’ that the Constitution guarantees.

Marginalisation and Aphasia

One may argue, so what Is it not a necessary cost that nations pay for progress towards modernity? Indeed, the existential pathos of the peoples whether identified from outside, or through self-identification as ‘marginalised, minority, indigenous’, has common features in all continents. But has the linguistic emasculation brought them modernity in any sense at all? The indigenous have been facing deprivation and dispossession of their natural resource base, denial of access to quality education, healthcare and other citizenship rights, and have come to be seen as ‘a problem for the development project of modernity’.

Going by any parameters of development, these communities always figure at the tail end of all development indices. The situation of the communities that have been pastoral or nomadic has been even worse. Considering the immense odds against which these communities have had to survive, it is not short of a miracle that they have preserved their languages and continue to contribute to the astonishing linguistic diversity of the world. However, if the situation persists, the languages of the marginalised stand the risk of extinction. Aphasia, a loss of speech, seems to be their fate. And the communities themselves will follow the way their languages are going. It may not be inappropriate to assume that people all over the world are paying a heavy cost for a ‘global’ development in terms of their language heritage. This linguistic condition may be described as the condition of ‘partial language acquisition’ in which a fully literate person, with a relatively high degree of education, is able to read, write and speak a language other than her/ his mother tongue, but is able to only speak but not write the language she/ he claims as the mother tongue. However, it is necessary to remember that between the collective consciousness of a given community, and the language it uses to articulate the consciousness, is situated what is described as the ‘worldview’ of that community. While building modern societies it is necessary to respect the diverse world views as well.

Diversity is at the heart of democracy. Preservation of a language involves, therefore, respecting the worldview of the given speech-community. If such a community believes that the human destiny is to belong to the earth and not to offend the earth as against claiming that the earth belongs to us, we need to respect that world view. The language of the already marginalize community cannot be preserved if we insist on the communities to share a political imagination that believes in vandalising the earth’s resources in the name of development. In such a situation, the community will have only two options: it can either reject the myopic development vision which asserts the unrestrained claim to exploit the natural resources and turn them into exclusively commercial commodities, or it can reject its own worldview and step out of the language system that binds it with the worldview. It takes centuries for a community to create a language. All languages created by human communities are our collective cultural heritage. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that they do not face the global phonocide let loose upon the world. Hence, India must learn to listen to all of the languages that our many traditions have brought to the threshold of our time.

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