Language diversity in digital futures


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THE Census office released the Census of India 2011 data related to languages in July 2018. With all its tables and charts, it appears to be perfectly harmless. But, scratch the surface and you find that it is heavily doctored. It tells us that in 2011, our countrymen stated a total of 19,569 ‘raw returns’ (read, non-doctored claims).1 Of these, close to 17,000 were outright rejected and another 1,474 were dumped because not enough scholarly corroboration for them existed. Only 1,369, roughly 6% of the total claims were admitted as ‘classified mother tongues’. Rather than placing them as languages, they were grouped under 121 headings. These 121 were declared as languages of India.

One may well ask how does this matter. It matters because the data for Hindi has been bolstered up – shown at 52 plus crore – by adding to its core figure of speakers, the speakers of nearly fifty other languages. These include Bhojpuri, claimed by over five crore, many languages in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Bihar, claimed by close to a total six crore people. At the same time 17 of the 22 scheduled languages are reported by the census as showing a downward trend in their rate of growth in comparison to its growth in the previous decade.

The architecture of the presentation of the language census data has at its foundation the principle of exclusion. It is imposed on the languages that people of India have claimed in the census exercise as being their languages. To use a term from medical sciences, this act amounts to imposing an involuntary aphasia on citizens. In this instance, the numbers on whom it is imposed run into crores. And that is no small matter.


Since our Constitution gives us the fundamental and non-negotiable right to free expression, and since it not only accepts but encourages the idea of a multilingual India, is there not something profoundly unconstitutional in intimidating writers and thinkers or in wilfully suppressing people’s languages? The UNESCO brief for language rights describes denial of mother tongues or any wilful concealment of mother tongue by member states as equivalent to genocide. A strong word, indeed, but necessary, thinks UNESCO. Quite ironically, the justification for both these actions is drawn from a common source; and that is a deeply flawed idea of nationalism. It holds that anyone critical of the current regime is an enemy of India, an anti-national trying to ‘spread disaffection towards the state’, in a simple word, seditious.

With respect to languages, the argument says that if we have any large multiplicity of languages, it may result in the disintegration of our national territory. The love for the nation and its integrity are, of course, of prime importance. But a nation becomes great by the thought and knowledge it produces, by nurturing the freedom of mind and by the fearlessness of its citizens. States that consciously encourage creating societies incapable of producing a critique of the system generate what the ancient Latin described as hegemony.

The English language drew the term ‘nation’ during its historical phase known as Middle English from the Latin root ‘nationem’ signifying birth and ancestry. In its semantic trajectory within the English language ‘nation’ was initially rooted in the idea of ‘belonging to a geographical area or location.’ It decidedly referred to an area, territory and the people who inhabited it. The idea that a nation should ideally have a single language that will keep the people bound together was added to its range of signification during the early 19th century. This was the time when a new kind of longing for the past was emerging among the English painters and poets as a result of the devastation of the countryside due to rapid industrialization. In that mood of nostalgia, ancient poets (Homer and Aeschylus, in particular) began to be described as ‘vates’ or prophets and language – more particularly, ‘the original’ language – as a spiritually potent agency of human liberation.


For instance, P.B. Shelley, in his essay, ‘A Defense of Poetry’ (1821), lauds poetic language as a means of providing ‘harmony and unity’ to the prophetic vision of poets. This was precisely the time when the struggle for creating a united Italy had started. The unscientific association between a given language and a given people as ‘nation’ started emerging during this post-Napoleon era of European politics. By the time Germany emerged as a nation during the 1860s, the idea that, in addition to a shared history and a ‘cohesive people’, a common language too became an essential feature of a nation. With language, there were other features of intangible culture and history that got added to the prevalent meanings of the word nation. For instance, the Irish Home Rule League decidedly revolved around Catholic Christianity; and in Spain and Germany, musical heritage and meta-physical philosophy too came to be part of their idea of nationhood.


There is no doubt that the Indian struggle for national independence was influenced by all of these varieties of meaning associated with the term nation. Towards the turn of the century, some of the influential leaders of public opinion in India had started imagining the ‘nation’ for anchoring the complex economic and political struggle towards independence. Lokmanya Tilak and Sri Aurobindo tried to base it on what they thought were the foundations of Indian culture, and they tried to describe the nature of that foundation by harking back to India’s ancient past. It is true that for over a century, since Sir William Jones launched the Asiatic Society as an enterprise in cultural archeology, a lot of that past had been episodically described. Yet, the work of European Indologists, the break in Indian tradition was the centre point.

In the works of nationalist leaders, the main thesis was based on the twin principles of the longevity and continuity of Indian culture. However, as events shaped, following the First World War, the idea of nation in Indian politics came to be imagined quite differently. Just as the Home Rule League, catalyzed in India by Annie Besant of Irish origin, was side-stepped, so was quietly dropped the idea of the Aryan past in the face of the rise of Fascism in Europe quietly dropped. Hence, in the 1920s, public figures in India had to engage with the language issue in the context of the possible formation of India as a free nation.

The first major manifestation of the collective thinking on this issue was the Congress resolution on setting up of Linguistic States (1927) which was a clear acceptance, not so much as the desire, for a multilingual nation, but certainly of the need to preserve linguistic identities of the territories that would eventually join the nation. Previously, the Congress had set up its provincial committees along linguistic lines; and after 1927, the election manifestos of the Congress often included preservation of multiple linguistic identities as one of its obligations. By this time, the eleven volumes of George Grierson’s massive Linguistic Survey of India had been published; and it was well known to opinion makers that India had at the beginning of the 20th century an amazing wealth of languages. Grierson had detailed 189 languages and several hundred others considered by him as ‘dialects’.

Debates in the Constituent Assembly were, therefore, mindful of the need to imagine India as a nation with many languages and the dangers in straightjacketing it within a mono-lingual or bilingual administrative apparatus. Not surprisingly, the Constitution made space for 14 languages in its 8th Schedule as specially designated languages, the Scheduled Languages. Through a series of additions to the list, the number of Scheduled Languages at present is 22.


The years from 1947 to 1956 were quite tumultuous from the language perspective. First there was a committee set up in 1948 by Dr Rajendra Prasad to examine if linguistic states would be a viable idea. Then, another committee was set up in the same year that included Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramaya to examine the proposition. Dr Ambedkar too submitted a memorandum asking for a state for Marathis. Pottu Sriramalu, asking for an Andhra Pradesh for Telugu, died in a fast unto death. Finally, a States Reorganization Commission was appointed in 1955; and on its recommendations several states were created with language at the core of the state identity.

However, throughout this process the idea of India as a nation with many languages had been firmly accepted by people, the state and most importantly was already enshrined in the Constitution. Five years later, when the Census for 1961 was conducted, it showed a remarkable degree of confidence in the idea by listing 1652 mother tongues as being in existence and claimed by the people of India as their mother tongues.


As a result of the extensive debates on the language issue, the Constitution took an extremely nuanced stand. Article 120 provided for the use of Hindi or English for business in the Parliament. Article 210 provided for the use of the state language or Hindi/English for the business of State Assemblies. Article 344 provided for a Language Commission for the upkeep of all languages included in the 8th Schedule. Article 343 stipulated a fixed period of fifteen years for replacing English with Hindi, but in a sub-clause also provided for further extending the period if such an extension was found necessary; and Article 347 empowered the President to recognize any languages not included in the 8th Schedule as ‘State Languages’ if a substantial number of people made such a demand.

Thus, while the Constitution laid down the objective of replacing English with Hindi, it also underscored the improbability of doing so within a very short period and also validated the democratic aspiration of various language communities to have their languages included in the 8th Schedule or, at least, recognized as the ‘state Languages’ within their own state.

By accepting language as the backbone in the state reorganization process soon after Independence, the government of India clearly upheld the idea of a nation that can be one though speaking in many different tongues. This is not to say that the promotion of Hindi as a possible replacement for English was overlooked. That objective was indeed stated many times in speeches and through providing grants. A Hindi kosh (compendium) for providing terminology was mooted and a yearly Hindi week was made mandatory. It is another matter that the kosh soon became a butt of ridicule owing to its preference for Sanskrit-based terminology that was found literally ‘unpalatable’ and ignored the ease of communication.

Language, like other prominent identity markers, is an emotive issue. No government so far has had the courage to openly accept that a complete replacement of the English language by Hindi in the working of Parliament and the administration, in communication between the states and the Centre, in higher education and research and in industry and business; it was a near impossibility. Besides, the Indian demographics are such that owning up to the reality could be politically suicidal for any party or government. Therefore, successive governments have presented the official language data to show a constant growth of Hindi.


In 1971, out of 54.82 cr population, 20.28 cr was reported as Hindi speaking. In successive census counts, the figures for Hindi were shown as steadily rising: 1981: 25.77 cr out of 66.52 cr; 1991: 32.95 cr out of 83.86 cr; 2001: 42.20 cr out of 102.86; and 2011: 52.83 cr out of 121.08 cr. The decadal growth was placed at 36.99% (1971), 38.74% (1981), 39.29% (1991), 41.03% (2001) and 43.63% (2011). What the census does not mention is that since 1971 several ‘other’ languages have been brought under the rubric of the Hindi language.


The 1652 ‘mother tongues’ mentioned previously were reduced to a mere 108 ‘languages’ by introducing a cut-off point of 10,000 for any group of speakers to have their ‘mother tongue’ listed in the published data. The cut-off point has no scientific basis either in linguistics or statistics. Its justification is drawn from the politics of an electoral democracy. It would be interesting to see the language data of the most recent census that was carried out in 2011. In it, the speakers who claimed Hindi as their mother tongue totalled 32.22 cr. But, in order to bolster it up, the following 53 other languages, most of them completely independent as languages and some like Banjari even mutually unintelligible with Hindi, were shown as sub-sets of Hindi:

Awadhi 38,50,906; Baghati/Baghati Pahari 15,835; Bagheli/Baghel Khandi 26,79,129; Bagri Rajasthani 2,34,227; Banjari 15,81,271; Bhadrawahi 98,806; Bhagoria 20,924; Bharmauri/Gaddi 1,81,069; Bhojpuri 5,05,79,447; Bishnoi 12,079; Brajbhasha 15,56,314; Bundeli/Bundelkhandi 56,26,356; Chambeali/Chamrali 1,25,746; Chhattisgarhi 1,62,45,190; Churahi 75,552; Dhundhari 14,76,446; Gawari 19,062; Gojri/Gujjari/Gujar 12,27,901; Handuri 47,803; Hara/Harauti 29,44,356; Haryanvi 98,06,519; Jaunpuri/Jaunsari 1,36,779; Kangri 11,17,342; Khari Boli 50,195; Khortha/Khotta 80,38,735; Kulvi 1,96,295; Kumauni 20,81,057; Kurmali Thar 3,11,175; Lamani/Lambadi/Labani 32,76,548; Laria 89,876; Magadhi/Magahi 1,27,06,825; Malvi 52,12,617; Mandeali 6,22,590; Marwari 78,31,749; Mewari 42,12,262; Mewati 8,56,643; Nagpuria 7,63,014; Nimadi 23,09,265; Padari 17,279; Pahari 32,53,889; Palmuha 23,579; Panch Pargania 2,44,914; Pando/Pandwani 15,595; Pangwali 18,668; Pawari/Powari 3,25,772; Puran/Puran Bhasha 12,375; Rajasthani 2,58,06,344; Sadan/Sadri 43,45,677; Sirmauri 1,07,401; Sondwari 2,29,788; Sugali 1,70,987; Surgujia 17,38,256 and Surjapuri 22,56,228.

If one were to take these out of the Hindi language, the ratio between the total population under the Census, 121.08 cr and the population of the Hindi speakers 32.22 cr to just a little less than 4:1. All of this cold data, otherwise fairly uninteresting, goes to show why no government so far has been able to replace either the regional languages or the English language entirely by Hindi.


India has traditionally been a multilingual area. Neither the Sanskrit language in ancient India nor the Persian language during the 17th century were able to displace the large variety of languages that Indians had been using for communication and imaginative expression. During colonial times, the English language entirely replaced the native languages of North America and Australia; but despite such efforts, it did not displace Indian languages. On the contrary, the contact with Sanskrit strengthened Prakrits, the contact with Arabic and Persian brought a rich vocabulary bounty to Indian languages and the presence and influence of English resulted in an unprecedented efflorescence of literature in the Indian languages. The open spaces and ambivalence in the Constitution on the language issue is a testimony to the deep understanding of the cultural and social history of India.

Archaeological and historical researches during the last two centuries have made it possible for us to learn about the complex linguistic transitions and migrations that took place over the last five millennia, roughly from the early Harappan times to the present. During this long period, the Indian subcontinent accepted language legacies as distinct as the Avestan of the Zoroastrians, the Austro-Asiatic of the Pacific the Tibeto-Burman of the East and Northeast Asia. The Indic (or the Indo-Aryan) languages in the northern states together with the Dravidic languages in the South and the Tibeto-Burman languages in the Northeast, each with a great variety of sub-branches, make for the larger bulk of Indian languages. Throughout the known history of the subcontinent, there has been an active exchange and cultural osmosis between indigenous languages and migratory languages, producing in the process great literature in many tongues.

The People’s Linguistic Survey of India has estimated that there are nearly 780 living languages in the country at present. Scholars claim that there are approximately 6000 living languages in the world. Thus, India is home to one out of every eight languages on earth. The diversity is impressive not only in numerical terms. A language is not just a communication system, it is a unique world view. Hence, the great diversity of languages in India needs be seen as the diversity of world views, of the unique ways of perceiving the world.


Over the last three decades, scientists have come up with mathematical models to predict the life of languages. These predictions have invariably indicated that the human species is rapidly moving closer to extinction of a large part of its linguistic heritage. These predictions may differ on the exact magnitude of the impending disaster, but they all agree on the fact that close to three quarters or more of all existing natural human languages are already half in the grave. Since it is language, mainly of all things, that makes us human and distinguishes us from other species and animates nature, and since human consciousness can but only function given the ability for linguistic expression, it becomes necessary to recognize language as the most crucial aspect of our cultural capital.


It has taken human beings continuous work of about half a million years to accumulate this valuable capital. In our time we have come close to the point of losing most of it. Historians of civilization tell us that probably a comparable, though not exactly similar, situation had arisen in the past some seven or eight thousand years ago. This was when human beings discovered the magic of nature that seeds are. When the shift from an entirely hunting-gathering or pastoralist economies to early agrarian economies started taking place, we are told, the language diversity of the world got 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. This time though the crisis has an added theme as a lot of human activity is dominated by man-made intelligence.

The technologies aligned with artificial intelligence have all been heavily dependent on modelling the activity of the human mind along linguistic transactions. The intelligent machines modelled on entirely neurological or psychological systems are still not commonly in use. The language-based technologies are now well-entrenched partners in the semantic universe(s) that bind human communities together. Language today is as much a system of meaning in the cyberspace effecting communication between a machine and another machine as much as it has been a system of meaning in the social space achieving communication between a human being and another human being.

Neurologists explain the current shift in man’s cognitive processes by pointing to the rapidly changing ways in which the brain stores and analyzes sensory perceptions as well as information. Linguists have raised an alarm about the sinking fortunes of natural languages through which human communication has taken place over the last seven millennia. They have started noticing that the use of man-made memory chips fed into intelligent machines make heavy dents in the human ability to remember and even the tense patterns of natural languages. Technologists, particularly those astride the leading glory of technology – the ICT – have been talking of network communities as a substitute for civilizations.


All in all, there is excitement in the air, and there is alarm in the minds. This is so on all fronts of knowledge, in all aspects of social organizations and all branches of human experience. Collectively, for all nations, all ethnic and cultural groups of humans, the vision of a life well beyond our imagination has started appearing on the horizon even if it has not become fully manifest. This makes a mockery of all that the human brain and mind have so far held as being natural and permanent.

Probably, just as the Industrial Revolution and the associated rise of capitalism in European countries placed the traditional agrarian society at risk, giving rise to the long-drawn conflicts between labour and capital, this great transition facing us globally will create strife and, consequently, violence of an unprecedented order. This time too the post-human societies are likely to get divided between those with access to the digital and those without it. Already, some linguistic laboratories have started publishing lists of ‘digitally dead languages’. Already, the communities not networked are being described as ‘non-civil’. The political economies of the world seem to have already resolved that citizens without unique digital identities can be written off as the nowhere people.

It would be tragic if we forgot to look at the struggles and the plight of those who are on the digital fringe. For a very long part of human history, language continued to retain its character as a predominantly ‘free’ system that was sturdily resistant to government controls, market regulations and cultural oppressions. However, over the last few centuries, particularly since the rise of technologies that apparently function as assistance to language transport – printing, photography, electronic-language-storage-and-reproduction, digital-encoding-and-decoding of human language – language acquisition, languages transmission and language use have started getting rapidly monetized.


Today, as never before, the economically dispossessed classes all over the world are finding it difficult to access language acquisition according to their needs and desires. We now notice a digit-powered linguistic class and a digit-deprived linguistic class. The divide is too deep to bridge by following any conventional or prevailing economic ideologies. A technological reversal in the evolution of languages too is a hugely unrealistic proposition. The only hope for ensuring any future for ‘linguistic homo sapiens’ is to envision together and integrate economic development and linguistic federalism. If the rural landscapes and marginalized communities can be safeguarded, the currently threatened languages will find a safe passage to the future; and only if those languages continue to survive shall we have access to the knowledge that helps us to build a sustainable future society. The two are so intimately interlocked.


* G.N. Devy initiated the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and is the Chief Editor of its 50 Volume series published by Orient BlackSwan.


1. The term ‘return’ in its administrative technical sense = ‘register/stat/present’, normally used during the Census process, official surveys, etc.

‘Raw Returns’ is the heading that the Census uses for ‘unprocessed’ mother tongue names. After they are processed by the Linguistics cell of the Census office, they are called ‘Mother Tongues’, and after a further and more refined processing, they are called ‘languages’.