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On Int’l Mother Language Day a look at Bengal’s endangered languages

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Bhasha Divas, the day a nation fought on lines of language to establish the freedom of speech in one’s mother tongue. Yes, Bhasha Andolan of Bangladesh will forever be remembered as a blood-soaked memory, when an entire nation fought for its language. But how many of us recall the lost languages of Bengal, primarily tribal, that might be soon wiped out if not restored?

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is trying to revive endangered tribal languages such as Kurukh, by giving it an official language status. Kurukh, is a mother tongue belonging to the Dravidian family, and spoken by Oraon tribal community of Dooars. Interestingly, most tribal languages of Bengal have their origins in the Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burmese languages. But Kurukh is an exception, which has its origin from the Dravidian family. While, other tribal languages of Bengal such as Santhali, Munda and Hoe, belong to Austro-Asiastic family, languages spoken by Tamang, Lepcha and Bhutia tribes of the Darjeeling Hills are of the Tibeto-Burmese group.

Kurukh language is spoken by around 17 lakh people (2001 census report) of the Oraon tribes of Chotanagpur plateau. It is closely related to Kumarbhag Paharia and Sauria Paharia languages, which are together referred to as Malto. Its script is called Tolong Siki. The language has been listed ‘vulnerable’ in UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. 

As many as nine to 10 languages in Bengal, specifically in the north, are either extinct or on the verge of extinction. In case of languages such as Mogor, there is not much vocabulary. There is only one survivor of the speech community who could not say much about the language! The International Mother Language Day is a world-wide annual observance held every February 21 to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and promote multilingualism.

Thus, it is now of utmost importance to look at the vanishing languages. In some cases, a lone surviving member of a particular speech community exists. In some cases, the member of a particular language community just cannot be traced. The ‘language gap’ between the old (60 to 80 years) and the younger generation (10 to 30 years) has also widened at an alarming rate in recent years. A 20-year-old today can’t string together a single sentence in the same language. This is also alarming, especially for minor languages of Bengal such as Sobor, Goya, Tharu, Jalda, Asur, Hemal and Bedia.