From offering a different world view to protecting and preserving the diversity of a nation, language acts not just as an important tool of communication but also a cultural resource. However, due to migration and lack of policy support, languages in Tamil Nadu are bearing the brunt of extinction.
According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Tamil Nadu has 17 dying languages, which includes Eravalla and Toda, and Kota languages, which are critically endangered.
This number can be a cause of concern to the nation’s idea of diversity, said linguist Ganesh Devy, founder and director of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre. With increased monoculturalism and monolingualism, languages are slowly dying out in the state.
A sign that a language is nearing the end of its lifespan is if, firstly, one generation speaks a language that the third generation does not fully understand, or secondly, when a language fails to help the livelihood of its people.
“The third sign is when two people having a conversation in one language, stop using that language when a third person, who does not know that language, enters the conversation,” said Devy.
In Tamil Nadu, migration plays a large part in the erasure of languages. With more people migrating from the districts to large cities for employment purposes, the medium for business is shifted to a language that is not their mother tongue.
“Changing laws regarding fishing and marine occupations also affect the lifespan of the language. This affects the communities dependent on fishing and marine activities, be it boat makers, fishermen, net-makers, among others.
When the laws are changed to encourage large, corporate sea-farming, the small-scale fishermen lose their livelihood. These communities are then forced to migrate from the coasts to the interior areas to find other jobs.
In their attempt to adapt to new circumstances, they often have to give up their traditional languages,” said Devy. Devy explained that lack of policy support has also failed the traditional languages.
“If our schools had implemented programmes to teach students their mother tongue, irrespective of their place of birth or language, these languages could have been conserved,” he said.
According to Dr V Thiruvalluvan, dean, faculty of Indian Languages, Annamalai University, the cultural dominance of certain languages can lead to the repression of others.
“Minority languages become associated with poverty, illiteracy and hardship, while the dominant language is associated with progress. Therefore, the youth escape speaking and learning these languages in the hope of a better future,” he said.
This cultural shaming comes at a cultural cost. “Any given language has a particular world view. This view has taken thousands of years to evolve.
It is their unique relation to the cosmos in a certain way, which cannot be replicated by another language. When a language disappears, a complete world view and a way of humans connecting to the world disappears,” said Devy.
There is a need to preserve these languages as a heritage symbol, said Dr Thiruvalluvan. “Language is also a window to learn human psychology and behaviour in a different situation in history.
To preserve a language means to preserve the human knowledge product. Language is the core factor to the continuation and transmission of culture, customs and history,” he said.
Yet preservation is not so easy. According to Dr Thiruvalluvan, preservation of language is culture-specific and requires large-scale assessment, documentation, community and youth involvement, as well as integration into mainstream education systems.
Lack of modern documentation tools, community attitude, and national apathy towards the importance of preserving languages also hinder the process. Another factor is that most speakers of the language are very elderly and monolingual, making it difficult to provide accurate records.
“The decision to retain a language must come from the community on the basis of the community’s self-esteem, and not be decreed by linguistic imposition, however well-meaning.
If the youth are motivated to develop their own culture in the language, then they are likely to do preserve the language.
It is not only the older generation which often fails to practise intergenerational transmission but also the younger generation under peer pressure from the broader context which rejects this,” he said, calling for the public, scholarly community and governments to work together in the preservation process.
Can the digital space preserve languages?
No, says linguist Ganesh Devy. A language in the digital format is a different entity as opposed to the language in the physical world. While offering tools like audio and video to support the language, the digital space has transformed the way in which the language is used and received. “We can see and read Roman and Sanskrit today, but it is not the Roman and Sanskrit practised in that era,” he explained. However, Dr V Thiruvalluvan, dean, faculty of Indian Languages, Annamalai University, believes that the digital space has much potential for the preservation of languages and that the electronic modification of the languages might lead a more culturally- and socially-relevant version of the language in question.
Tamil Nadu's endangered languages
- Alu Kurumba
- Critically endangered