The Indian sub-continent has been a crucible of civilisations where numerous people have left their cultural mark. All the cultural systems are embodied by a significant common factor that is Language. Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. It is not only a medium to share thoughts, but also a way to present one's traditions and beliefs.
A potpourri of different cultures, religions, and ideologies, India is home to not just one or two, but more than 19,500 languages, most of which are dialects. These are restricted to specific regions and many of them are on the verge of extinction.
The Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India pertains to the official languages of the Republic of India. It recognises 22 languages which are obligatory for the Government to promote and safeguard. These languages are called scheduled languages, which are Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.
According to Census 2011, apart from these 22 scheduled languages, there are 99 other languages which are spoken by at least 10,000 people respectively. These 99 languages are called non-scheduled languages.
Mother tongue is the language in which a mother converses with a person in his/her childhood. Since a household may consist of persons related by blood or of unrelated persons, or a mix of both, the mother tongue of each member of a household need not necessarily be the same.
Moreover, mother tongue may take the form of many varieties spoken in a particular region. Among these varieties, only some are standard, while the others are non-standard. The standard varieties are noted as a language.
The 2011 census has recorded 19,569 mother tongues from all over the country. These raw returns were subjected to thorough linguistic scrutiny, edit, and rationalisation. As a result, there were 1,369 rationalised mother tongues, and 1,474 names which were treated as ‘unclassified’ and relegated to ‘other’ mother tongue category.
The 1,369 rationalised mother tongues were further classified following the usual linguistic methods for rational grouping based on available linguistic information.
Thus, an inventory of classified mother tongues returned by 10,000 or more speakers are grouped under appropriate languages at the all India level. The total number of languages arrived at is 121 (22 scheduled and 99 non-scheduled)
The 1,474 dialects which belong to the ‘other’ category are the languages which are spoken by less than 10,000 people each. These languages need protection and promotion from the government and civil society.
Moreover, Article 29, which is a part of the Fundamental rights, provides that a section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture have the right to conserve the same.
According to UNESCO, there are 197 endangered languages in India which need special safeguard in order to be revived. With every extinct language, a system of culture also goes extinct.
UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 talks about the severity of endangerment of these 197 languages. The degree of endangerment is classified from the following table.
To celebrate International Mother Language Day (21st February), which is about promoting awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, we will bring to your notice the most endangered languages of India.