Over the last two decades, scientists have come up with mathematical models for predicting the life of languages. These predictions have invariably indicated that we are moving rapidly towards the extinction of a large part of our linguistic heritage. These predictions do not agree on the exact magnitude of the impending disaster; but they all agree that about three-quarters of all natural human languages are half in the grave.

There are, on the other hand, advocates of linguistic globalisation. They would prefer one or only a few languages across the world to make communication across national boundaries the easiest ever.

Obviously, nations and communities that have learnt to live within one language, whose economic well-being is not dependent on knowing languages other than their own, whose knowledge systems are secure within their own languages, will not experience the stress of loss, at least not immediately, though the loss of our total language heritage, which will weaken the global stock of human intellect and civilisations, will have numerous indirect enfeebling effects for them, too.

It is language that distinguishes us from other species, and since the human consciousness can but function given the ability for linguistic expression, we need to recognise language as the most crucial aspect of our cultural capital. It took us about half a million years to accumulate this capital. Now we are close to the point of losing most of it. Some predictions maintain that out of approximately 6,000 existing languages, not more than 300 will survive in the 22nd century. In the absence of thorough surveys, it is difficult to decide how many languages there really are; and it is even more difficult to predict how many, and precisely which, will survive.

The history of every language has strange and sometimes completely unpredictable turns. The recent upward trend of some of the tribal languages in India such as Bhilli is an example. It defies all established sociolinguistic assumptions.

Some mighty languages, supported by mighty empires, disintegrate and give rise to new languages under the influence of others on the power margins.

But, while these amazing exceptions do exist, and will continue to emerge in future as well, people in countries like Nigeria, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India are finding that most languages are passing through a rapid depletion in domains of language transaction and word-stocks. The ability of speakers in non-global languages to express complex concepts is seen as being alarmingly reduced; and the semantic layering of words in most languages is wearing off.

Historians of civilisation tell us that a comparable, though obviously not identical, situation arose some 7,000 or 8,000 years ago. This was when human beings discovered the magic of nature in seeds. When the shift from an entirely hunting–gathering or pastoral economies to early agrarian economies started taking place, we are told, language diversity was severely affected.

It may not be wrong to surmise that the current crisis in human languages too is triggered by the fundamental economic shift that has enveloped the entire world, north or south, west or east.

This time, though, the crisis has an added theme as a lot of human activity is dominated by man-made intelligence. Technologies aligned with artificial intelligence all depend heavily on modelling the activity of the human mind along linguistic transactions. Intelligent machines modelled on neurological and psychological paths of the mind are still not commonly in use. Language-based technologies are now entrenched partners in the semantic universes that bind human communities. Therefore, those universes are being re-shaped and re-constructed.

In the given situation, though all this can be conceptualised in philosophic terms or presented in sociological formulae, it is the life of communities that is affected, particularly communities whose voices are not heard. Having a language of your own, yet not placed within any system of orthographic representation is seen as a liability, a developmental debacle and a sign of backwardness. The knowledge stock in these languages is being trashed as non-knowledge.

The countries named above, which developed a large number of languages—Papua New Guinea (900); India (700); Indonesia (600); Nigeria (400); Mexico (300)—assessed through varying kinds of estimates, have started forgetting that the rich variety is their cultural capital.

In our country, the census authorities decided after the 1971 census that there was no need to disclose statistics for languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 persons, in turn making those languages “non-citizens” of the republic of languages that India has been all through its history. The census decision during the 1970s was neither abrupt nor sudden. The process was initiated in colonial times, when about two per cent of India’s languages were committed to print. Besides, it was a culmination of the intellectual history that had been in the making for the last two centuries.

I first read the Grierson Survey during the 1970s. As a young reader of his monumental work what struck me most was not the amazing range of his knowledge of India’s language situation, nor his determination to complete the task in the face of enormous challenges. These, it is needless to say, will leave no reader cold. The most overwhelming feature of Grierson’s Survey that I noticed was the silent spaces in them.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century—Grierson’s time—one notices through his account the beginnings of a slow death spelt for nearly 165 of the 179 languages that he documented and described. I am not aware of any full-scale comparison between Grierson’s “linguistic discovery of India” with a similar discovery by his eminent predecessor Sir William Jones.

Jones was excited about the presence of “different” languages in India, though of course he had no way to know how many of them existed in his time. In contrast, Grierson’s description had no such “eureka” about it. When one wades through the Grierson volumes, one returns home with the impression that these are in most part rustic varieties, fit for childish songs and materials good enough for folklorists subservient to anthropology. Against the less than 200 languages he described, he had over 500 dialects to describe. The arithmetic of this great work is indicative of its essential bias. Perhaps, the beginning of it was embedded in William Jones’s work, despite his apparent euphoria in discovering India as an unknown continent of civilisation.

Since the times of Sir William Jones major attempts have been made to propose and formulate cognitive categories for describing the bio-cultural diversity and knowledge traditions in India. The process of decolonisation too has produced attempts at synchronisation of traditional knowledge with the colonial production of knowledge within the context of western modernity.

While the clash as well as collaboration between what is seen as knowledge compatible with western cognitive categories and knowledge traditions rooted in the lives of predominantly oral communities continue to occupy the imaginative transactions in India, mainstream institutions of knowledge—schools, universities, hospitals, courts, etc.—have acquired forms that often leave out the complexities involved in the “great transition of civilisation in the Indian subcontinent”. This situation poses an intellectual challenge that thinkers in the 21st century have to negotiate.


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.

In recent times there have been moves towards opening the question of descriptive categories in relation to language and orality. This was the most central focus of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. Describing languages is the method that the PLSI has adopted for serving the purpose. Therefore, the PLSI has consciously decided to stay away from the question that historical linguistics obsessively follows, the question of the origin and the family of a given language. The PLSI has adopted, instead, an apparently ahistorical method of presenting merely a snapshot of languages as they are in the early years of the 21st century.

Apart from the principle of determining language identity in terms of its filial relation with a given Language Family, the most ardently followed principle from Jones to Grierson, and a lot beyond them, was that of the language and dialect distinction.

I decided after thinking through nearly three decades and after numerous discussions with my colleagues in communities and within the PLSI Editorial Collective to avoid branding any language as a dialect. If a large number of people who speak a given language think that it is a language and not a dialect, then it had better be accepted as such, even if linguistics finds the claim untenable.

In any case linguistics, while it has made very impressive progress in the last two centuries as a field of study, has still a long way to go before it can address all and every mystery surrounding the behaviour of verbal signs used by human beings for externalising complex and abstract transactions. The question of dialects too is one of those yet unsettled.

The process of human evolution holds many secrets. Our inadequate understanding of the process leads us to build apparently scientific hypotheses. But these hypotheses are such that even the exactly contrary hypotheses sound equally convincing.

Language as a social institution, the nature of its exact origin, and the clear sequence in its formation are some of the mysteries in the epic text of human evolution.

Was there an attendant sound when the universe came into existence? Did sound exist at all prior to the animal ability to perceive sound? Do the eternal sound—the anahat dhvani—and the sound of vocal chords belong to the same material type?

Why did the human animal select regulation of breath by the vocal chords as the means for meaning-transaction, while through the eyes, or through body movement (as with honey bees) the meaning transaction might have been equally effective?

Why did the human animal not cultivate those other means of expression with an equal degree of obsession? 

All these questions can be answered at a theoretical level; but the answers do not cross the level of philosophical propositions that are true but at the same time not entirely so.

Regulation of air by the vocal chords came to be the central mode of meaning transaction at some stage in the evolution of the intellect, subsequently numerical and letters—a higher order of signs—became surrogates for sound. 

Why, then, did the script language not entirely displace the sound language?

While the theory of language acquisition inherent in the psychic structure of an infant has been formulated, why has no theory as yet been postulated regarding the natural ability to perceive the correspondence between those geometrical shapes called letters and the human sounds called syllables?

“Meaning” consists of the meaning expressed through gesticulation, sound-regulation and script marks as well as through the silence and stillness outside the pale of these three. Therefore, what exactly constitutes “meaning” has not been conclusively determined. At the most, the theories of meaning have remained at the level of philosophical speculation. Besides, it has not been possible so far to state with precision whether meaning is language, or if meaning exists prior to language, and if it is yet another social or metaphysical system completely independent of verbal language, capable of transcending human language.

It is true that language as an experiential phenomenon is within the range of an individual’s perception, but it is also true that an individual’s ability to perceive the world is conditioned by verbal language. This has led us to conclude that language is a social institution.

But is language “meaning”, or is it some material “thing”? Is it a transcendental energy or a purely social institution? Is it a mere biological function given to the human body and mind in the process of evolution? Or is it all of these at once or in various aspects of the language phenomenon?

All these questions need to be tackled fully despite linguistics being the most developed among the human sciences. There is a well-established view that culture has no other expression but language, that the two are one and the same. It is maintained that cognition too would be impossible without language. A similar view on meaning too exists. In other words, “language” has been used as a synonym for that which determines the outer boundaries of each transaction of the human intelligence.

Even when the structure of dreams is not based on language content, it is conceptualised as being the same as language structure; the origin of dreams is in the ability to remember, in memory. In others words we are made to believe that memory cannot exist entirely in absence of language.

Similarly, we have come to believe that other psychic possibilities such as inspiration, imagination and reason cannot exist in the absence of language.

While these hypotheses seem unexceptionable, it is true that there are experiences that the human animal shares with other animals that show a marked absence of language based on sound regulation. Vertigo, or the fear of falling, and love or sensuous attraction are the main instances of such experiences.

Phenomenology, which is one of the sciences of human understanding, maintains that language develops “in tune” with the perpetually increasing scope of the phenomenon perceived by the human mind. As against this, it has been argued that the human grasp of the phenomenal reality increases in proportion to the ever-increasing ability of language to grasp complexities. It is indeed difficult to establish if a domain of experience exists independently and outside the domain of language.

At the same time it is even more difficult to overrule the existence of such a domain of experience. Similarly complicated is the question whether those semi-verbal or verbal substances that scripts, grammars and cultures do not admit as language, are language or not. At best they find a place in marginal categories such as dialects and regional varieties.

In fact, in the vast spectrum of meaning beginning with the mysterious origin of sound, to its pervasive spread through human space and time, human languages may at best be seen as dialects of the uninterrupted dhvani.

Similarly, in the total range of meaning capable of being conducted through material and symbolic means, the sound-symbol based language will have to be counted as a dialect of the total range of meaning.

Moreover, the process of the perpetual enlargement and deepening of our understanding of the world indicates the possibility that, perhaps, the language-substance known to us at the present stage of our evolution is but a partial fraction of the ultimate possibilities of the meaning substance available to the human senses. Therefore, in some ways language will have to be thought of as a part, as a dialect, of the totality of experience. And the totality of the human languages stabilised through words and scripts will have to be seen as a dialect of the totality of all experience, all meaning and all sound as a single entity. Therefore, to be a dialect is not to be left behind but to be the avant-garde.


In the 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. Great works like the 'Mahabharata' continued to exist in several versions handed down through a number of different languages almost till the beginning of the 20th century. 

One can understand the true nature of dialect if one considers it a necessary component—not a decaying remnant— of language whose destiny it is to be at the turbulent interface of an ever-expanding reality, to be the “advance party” for grasping untapped frontiers of meaning.

Histories of languages show that it has been their fate to keep catching up with the dialects, not the other way round. The destiny of dialects is to persist in their exploration of new possibilities of meaning, albeit without losing their relationship with the standardised languages to which they are bound by political and historical circumstances.

The destiny of a dialect is to remain in currency but, unfortunately, with the value of the counterfeit. To use a metaphor, dialect is like the amorphous substance surrounding a newly born planet, which is yet to find its ultimate rate of revolution. The planet environment of the language is defined by its dialects. It is through them that languages keep their ceaseless contact with the universe outside them, and therefore manage to belong to it. 

So far it has been maintained that the speech variety of the dominant class acquires the status of the standard language, whereas the speech varieties of the dominated are seen as dialects. This view is based on the history of the English language in England.

Going by this logic the Hindi spoken by the politically dominant Indians should have by now become the standard variety, and the Marathi of the Maratha rulers should now be its main variety. This however has not been so. The Indian experience indicates that the history of English in England does not provide enough scientific foundation for a universal dialectology.

Besides, for cultures where the politically dominant class happens to be speaking a non-native language, and where the culturally dominant class is not monolingual, dialects have to be thought about all over again. 

If we set aside this questionable equation and postulate that language is a means of bringing the ever-expanding universe of experience within the grasp of human understanding, then it follows that dialects (or sub-languages) have a place of primary importance in the process of internalisation of meaning for a given language.

In this process, it becomes necessary to achieve a meaningful amalgamation of new sensations with the most ancient memories. While achieving this amalgamation, dialects put to stake their existence and identity, and bring to a given language an enriched sensitivity and ability to express.

A language without dialects will tend to become a meaningless heap of clichés. In such a situation words will become faceless materials without personalities.

Perhaps such a language might achieve, out of a grammatical purity, the power of perfect abstraction, as in mathematics. But the sound tokens will be so impersonal that they will alienate the “animal” user, with a living consciousness, altogether.

A language must have a personality. Human beings will carry the burden of language only so long as they feel proud of belonging to their languages.

For centuries, European linguists have made attempts at tracing the one original language, the mother of all languages. At the back of these attempts was the myth of the Tower of Babel, the one original dispersed into innumerable imitations. The “fallen” dialects have come to be viewed as the backyard of the pure language. These backyards are really the sources of their being and growth.

The dialects, sub-languages, language varieties and the backyard tongues are the energy that has kept the stream of Indian languages flowing. To continue the metaphor of the stream, the so-called main languages are its banks; the dialects are the flow of the stream. To keep the streams going is the minimum that we should do.

In the 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. Great works like the 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 mediaeval compendium of styles, Brihad-deshi, is an outstanding example of criticism arising out of the principle that language diversity is normal.

In 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 for reproducing written texts. However, despite being “written” texts had been circulating mainly through oral means.

Print technology diminished existing oral traditions. New norms of literature were introduced, privileging the written over the oral, and brought in the idea that a literary text needs be essentially mono-lingual. These ideas, and the power relations in the colonial context started affecting the language stock in India.

The languages that were not within the ambit of print came to be seen as “inferior”. After Independence, states were created on the “linguistic” principle. If a language had a script, and if it had printed literature, it got 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 states.

Further, a state’s official language became the medium of primary and high school education. Similarly, a special Schedule of Languages (8th Schedule) was created in the Constitution. In the beginning it had 14 languages. Now the list has 22.

It became obligatory for the government to commit all education related expenditure on these languages alone.

The 1961 Census had a list of 1,652 “Mother Tongues”. In the findings of the next census (1971), only 108 languages spoken by more than 10,000 people were officially acknowledged. Thus, over 1,500 “Mother Tongues” were silenced.

Most of these are spoken by nomadic communities and indigenous communities. Most are on the way to rapid extinction, if they are not already gone. The “margins” of the Indian language spectrum, constituted by indigenous peoples and nomadic communities are thus marginalised mainly due to the “aphasia” being systemically imposed on them.

The PLSI is a collective effort by the people of India to register their “voices”. It is not a repeat, or a replacement or a substitute for the Grierson-like Survey. The parameters for the accomplishments of those surveys are different.

The PLSI is more of an informal attempt to bring to the world’s notice the phenomenal diversity of language in India, and by extension in the rest of the world, in the interest of keeping the biosphere alive, and preserving the democracy that India has acquired through a long and pitched struggle.

It is a daunting task to determine which languages have come closest to the condition of aphasia, which are decidedly moving in that direction and which are merely going through the natural linguistic process of transmigration. It may not be inappropriate to say that the linguistic data available are not adequate for the purpose.

In India, Sir George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (1903-1923)—material for which was collected in the last decade of the 19th century—had identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. The 1921 census reports showed 188 languages and 49 dialects.

The 1961 Census had a list of 1,652 “Mother Tongues”. In the findings of the next census (1971), only 108 languages spoken by more than 10,000 people were officially acknowledged. Thus, over 1,500 “Mother Tongues” were silenced. Most of these are spoken by nomadic communities and indigenous communities.

In 1971, the linguistic data offered in the census was distributed in two categories, the officially listed languages of the 8th Schedule, and other languages with a minimum of 10,000 speakers each. All languages spoken by less than 10,000 speakers were lumped in a single entry, “Others”.

Considering how complicated census operations are in countries with large migratory populations, and particularly how much accuracy is dependent on literacy levels, it is not surprising that the data collected remain insufficiently definitive. What is surprising, however, is that as many as 310 languages, including all those 263 claimed by less than five speakers, and 47 others claimed by less than 1,000 speakers, should have reached endangerment. These 310 “endangered” languages count in the 1,652 “mother tongues” listed in the census of 1961, however debatable the methodology followed in that particular census.

In other words, a fifth of India’s linguistic heritage has reached the stage of extinction over the last half-century. Moreover, the method of survey adopted over the last three census enumerations allows scope for overlooking any further depletion in the numbers.

One fears that this may not be the situation in any one country alone, that this may be so all over the world, since the contextual factors responsible for language decline in one country also form the context of modernity in other nation states.

Language loss is experienced in India not just by “minor” languages and “unclassified dialects”, but also by “major” languages that have long literary traditions and a rich heritage of imaginative and philosophical writings. In speech communities that claim major literary languages such as Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada and Oriya as their “mother tongues”, the younger generations have little or no contact with the written heritage of those languages, while they are able to “speak” the languages as “native speakers”. This condition may be described as “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 only to speak the language she/he claims as the mother tongue.

Language loss, linguistic shifts and decline in the linguistic heritage cannot be blamed on structural factors alone. There is, for instance, at least as a theoretical constitutional provision Article 347, which reads:

“On a demand made in that behalf, the President may, if he is satisfied that a substantial proportion of the population of the State desire the use of any language spoken by them to be recognized by that State, direct that such language shall also be officially recognised throughout that State, or any part thereof, for such purposes as he may specify.”

There appears to be another and more overwhelming factor at work, and that is the development discourse in a rapidly globalising world. One notices now in India, and in other Asian and African countries, an overpowering desire among parents to educate their children through the medium of English or French or Spanish in the hope that these languages will provide a certain visibility to the children when they grow up in the international market of productive labour. This desire has affected the schooling pattern in favour of education through an international language not witnessed in any previous era.

During the early years of the 19th century, an interesting debate occupied centre-stage in the social reform movement in India, in which Bengali intellectuals kept asking for education through the English medium, while an English officer like Mountstuart Elphinstone held that schools in Indian languages would be desirable. The argument came to an end when in 1835, Lord Macaulay’s Minutes on Education held that English be the medium of all serious education in India, a view endorsed soon after in Wood’s Dispatch.

Quite remarkably, it was since then that literatures in modern Indian languages showed significant creativity. These arguments are not intended to take away any substance from the view that mother tongue education is the most suitable for young learners. I am only pointing to the fact that a lack of access to mother tongue education is not enough of a cultural condition to destroy human creativity. The more significant condition is of having no hope of survival of a community.

When a speech community comes to believe that education in some other language alone is the way ahead for it for its very survival, the community decides to adapt to the new language situation. It would be pertinent therefore to consider if there is something inherent in the dominant development discourse in the contemporary world that requires a diminishing of world’s language heritage, or demands a kind of a phonocide. And, if that is the case, the future for the human languages is frightening.

The communities that are already marginalised within their local or national context, the ones that are already in a minority within their cultural contexts, the ones that have already been dispossessed of their ability to voice their concerns, are obviously placed in the frontlines of the phonocide.

In India, universal education is the obligation of parents and the right of the child. State-sponsored schooling is almost free and clearly affordable for the most deprived. There is provision of mid-day meals for children so that food insecurity does not drive them from classrooms. The federal and state governments treat school education as one of their primary responsibilities. Child labour is officially illegal, and even higher education is free for women in many states. There are provisions for educational reservations for children from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, as also for children from other backward communities. The Indian state operates primary schools in nearly 50 Indian languages and several foreign languages. Adult literacy and non-formal schooling are continuously promoted.

There are constitutional guarantees built in the educational programmes aimed at promoting all listed languages.

In spite of such efforts, many marginalised languages and indeed some “major” languages seem to display an inscrutable indifference towards their upkeep. An unimaginably large number of children join schools that charge exorbitant fees and use English as the medium of instruction. When a child joins a school giving instruction in an Indian language, it is seen as the beginning of a social disadvantage. Under these circumstances, the preservation of languages, particularly the ones that need special efforts, is a daunting task, not one that can be accomplished merely by initiating structural changes
Conservation or preservation of languages needs to be seen as being significantly different from the preservation of monuments.

Language as a social system has an objective existence in the sense that dictionaries and grammars of languages can be prepared, and languages can be transcribed, orthographed, mimeographed, recorded on tape by way of documents and objects, but essentially language does not have an existence entirely free of the human consciousness.

Therefore, a given language cannot be completely dissociated from the community that uses it. Logically, therefore, preservation of a language entails the preservation of the community that puts that language in circulation.

Between the collective consciousness of a given community and the language it uses to articulate that consciousness is situated what is described as the “world view” of that community. Preservation of a language involves, therefore, respecting the world-view of the given speech-community.

If such a community believes the human destiny is to belong to the earth and not to offend the earth by claiming that it belongs to us, the language of that community cannot be preserved when we invite the community to share a political imagination that believes in vandalising the earth’s resources in the name of development.

If such a community believes the human destiny is to belong to the earth and not to offend the earth by claiming that it belongs to us, the language of that community cannot be preserved when we invite the community 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 Utopia that asserts the human right to exploit the natural resources and turn them into exclusively commercial commodities, or it can reject its own world view and step out of the language system that binds it with the world view.

Indeed, the situation of languages in the world, more particularly the languages of indigenous peoples, marginalised and minority communities, and of cultures that have experienced or continue to experience alien cultural domination, has become precarious. The alarm to be raised will not be even a day too soon.

Yet, it would be ambitious to hope that this task can be achieved even in a small degree by merely placing the onus and the responsibility on the state parties. The mission will have to be carried out, through the agency of the nation-states, and independent of it, through a large number of civil society actors–universities, literary and linguistic academies, goodwill societies and associations, non-governmental organisations, individual scholars, researchers and activists.

Creation of texts, dictionaries, glossaries and grammars in the declining languages will be of use; documentation, museumisation and archiving too will be of some use; but if the languages are expected to survive, the speech communities need to be given the dignity and respect that they deserve, not as anthropological others, not as the last and under-developed traces of the self, but in their own right as deserving of respect because of what they are.
It takes centuries for a community to create a language. All languages created by human communities are our collective cultural heritage. Therefore, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that they do not face the global phonocide let loose in our time.