Life after Death—Reviving Vulnerable Languages

EDUCATION, TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 11 Jul 2016

Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Ravi P BhatiaEvery living being has a finite lifetime and thereafter dies. But before dying there is often a feeling among many people that it would be better if one could live a little longer or if that was not possible then one may be born again. This is called reincarnation or punar janam, which many Hindus believe in. They believe that after death, they would again be born in some form or another — even as a human being if one’s karma in this life has been noble and selfless.

Like living beings, languages spoken by people also die and become extinct.  There are thousands of languages and dialects in the world. We all know of important languages such as English, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and Hindi to name a few of these.  But who, other than the linguists has heard about languages such as the languages Ainu, Khasi, Ho or Nihali? When languages are studied the focus is also on the people living in those regions and speaking those tongues.

While the major languages are flourishing in the sense that there are large number of speakers who speak them as their mother tongues or produce outstanding literary and scientific works in them, the plight of some small languages is not so good. Many languages are vulnerable and are facing extinction due to socio-political and economic factors.

These small languages are facing extinction because they are spoken only in small specific regions, and when people migrate from those regions, the number of persons speaking those languages dwindles and ultimately when the few remaining speakers die, the languages themselves die. This is happening to hundreds of languages worldwide.   Most of these do not have a written script and are only oral languages and so when the speakers die, the language is lost forever. For instance Eyak language in Alaska died when its last speaker died in 2008. Another language Aka-kora died when its last speaker passed away in 2006.

Other languages such as Abom and Dumpu (also known as Watiwa) spoken in the Pacific islands are extremely vulnerable because only a few persons — generally old people remain in these regions. Younger people looking for education or better opportunities  have moved out to neighbouring regions. So when these elderly  persons pass away the languages also become extinct. However, the loss of a language is a cultural loss

In Asia Tirahi (Afghanistan) and Ainu (Japan) languages are facing the same dilemma and are on the verge of disappearing for reasons explained above. Some of the vulnerable languages of India are Ao, Adi and Bodo. Languages such as Khasi and Ho are spoken in eastern parts of India are not in immediate danger but the number of people speaking is small. The same is happening in other parts of the world — in Russia, Europe or Australia etc.

There are about 7000 living and spoken languages in the world today; it is estimated that on an average one language is dying  abput every ten days somewhere or the other in the world and ethnologic studies show that approximately 90 % of these will have become extinct in the next four or five decades.

Death of any language is a huge loss from a cultural point of view. When languages die, their cultures and knowledge systems — their architectural practices, folk tales and songs, their cuisine, their indigenous medicines also are lost forever.

Fortunately Maori language which was the language of native people of New Zealand is in a happy position since it has been declared an official language in addition to English in the country.

Hebrew which was almost dead is now a living language after Israel decided to make it their official language about twenty five years ago. Several artefacts written in the earlier form of Hebrew language have been  rediscovered. The Jewish religious book Torah written in an earlier form of Hebrew can be read and understood now that Hebrew is flourishing in Israel. There are now about 5 million people who speak the language in Israel and USA.

Sindhi is spoken by a large number of people in Pakistan but in India few Sindhi speakers remain today. However  efforts are being made to bolster Sindhi by the government and other agencies. Similar encouragement is being provided to northern eastern languages such as Khasi and Ho.

The case of Sanskrit language is perhaps unique. It was a pan-South Asian language in Vedic times but lost its prominence among spoken dialects in modern India. Although there are very few speakers of Sanskrit worldwide (in India about  15,000 speakers who claim it as their mother tongue according to the 2001 census), it is a language that is studied in the universities as well as in specialised institutions for its rich repertoire of writings in the form of plays, epics and so on. We know the philosophical text Bhagavad-gita was written in this language. Similarly, Kalidas was another ancient writer of Sanskrit who is known for his works like Meghdootam, Abhigyan Shakuntalam etc.

Another well-known epic in Sanskrit is Mahabharata, perhaps the longest epic of the world. There are several versions of the epic but the one that is now extant is believed to have been authored by Vyas in the 4th century CE.  It recounts the story of two dynasties of princes but the most important character is Krishna. There are numerous adorable and interesting stories of Krishna’s birth and his childhood pranks and important aspects of his life. The epic provides stories of his life; his teachings or rather his philosophy that is presented in the Gita — the song eternal. Many scholarly reviews of the Gita‘s message and relevance are available by people such as Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and S Radhakrishnan (the second president of India) to name a few. The Gita written originally in Sanskrit has been translated into almost all the principal languages of the world.

The civilisations that helped produce such marvellous works are dead but the Sanskrit and the Hebrew languages help to provide punar janam (reincarnation) of those ancient tongues.

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Dr Ravi P Bhatia – Educationist and Peace Researcher. Retired Professor, Delhi University.  ravipbhatia@gmail.com

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Jul 2016.

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