The race to find India’s hidden languages

Around this time, he came across a taxi driver who used to work for the district magistrate in Odisha. Whenever the district magistrate used to go for a visit in the villages, the driver preferred talking to the villagers rather than sitting in his car.

“Over the years, he had mastered four languages and he had constructed grammar for those four languages and had collected folk songs and stories,” says Devy. “It was material that was worthy of giving him a doctorate, maybe two doctorates.”

Devy has come across several such people, including a schoolteacher in Gujarat who documented an entire epic from a different language in Rajasthan. It took him 20 years to document the epic and the entire project was funded with his own money.

“What I discovered is that it’s not for monetary reasons that people learn and love languages,” says Devy. “I always thought that it was only researchers who love languages, who were aware of grants and funds to support their work.” Devy explains that he had not expected to find so many language specialists, especially among people who had not had much of a formal education. It was people like this whose knowledge proved invaluable to the linguistic survey.

But despite the layman’s love for languages, Devy still estimates that close to 220 languages have been lost over the years. The languages spoken by remote communities in the North East and the Andaman Islands have been identified as the most vulnerable by linguists.

In 2003, Anvita Abbi, visiting professor of Indian studies at Simon Fraser University, Canada, undertook a documentation project, Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese (Voga).

Abbi’s study of the Andamanese tribe led to the identification of a sixth language family in India, namely the Great Andamanese, which is spoken by indigenous people who inhabit the Andaman Islands. She studied the major languages of the Great Andamanese such as Sare, Bo, Khora and Jeru.

In 2010, Boa Senior died in the Andaman Islands. She was the last fluent speaker of Bo – one of the oldest languages in the world, dating back to pre-Neolithic times.  

“Boa Senior died and Bo language went extinct, then the last speaker of Sare died as well as the last speaker of Khora,” says Abbi. “To be very frank, a feeling of sheer helplessness engulfs us, especially the linguists, because we have been trying to promote these languages,” she says, explaining that she had written many letters to politicians, asking them for help, but felt that no one was listening.

In 2013, Abbi won the Padma Shri – an award handed out by the Indian government for civilian contributions to various fields – for her role in studying and documenting the languages of the Great Andamanese.