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Tongue-tracker to crack India babel

New Delhi, Dec. 22: India is about to start a massive exercise to catalogue the nation’s myriad known and unknown languages for the first time since an incomplete British effort over a century ago.

The New Linguistic Survey of India (NLSI) also aims to salvage languages on the brink of extinction, officials in charge of the project said.

Although a count of mother tongues ó languages and dialects ó can be based on census data, a linguistic survey is necessary because little is known about most of these languages.

Several remain “unclassified”, their position on the language tree unclear. The confusion has been deepened by the fluctuating count of mother tongues as reported by the various censuses (see chart).

The NLSI, likely to start in early 2008, will span a decade and involve 12,000 surveyors. It will be conducted by several university departments and monitored by the Mysore-based Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL).

Briton George Abraham Grierson carried out the first and only recorded linguistic survey in India between 1898 and 1927. But he and his 100,000 surveyors did not cover southern India and skimmed over the Northeast, which has the highest density of languages in the country.

“The information is dated. Scholars have also raised concerns about the reliability of its data,” CIIL director Udaya Narayan Singh said.

Classified South Asian languages belong to at least four big families ó Indo-European (most belong to the sub-group Indo-Aryan), Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan, he said. But several other languages have not been assigned a family, and next to nothing is known about them.

The NLSI’s priority will be classification, but with growing evidence that languages mutate, merge or simply disappear, the survey will also study their evolution. Linguists say dominant languages tend to eat into the geographical and demographic terrains of “minority” languages.

Of classified-language speakers in India, 73 per cent use mother tongues belonging to the Indo-Aryan family (573 languages), Singh said. Hindi, spoken by 33.8 crore people, tops the list. The Dravidian set (153) is spoken by 24 per cent. The 226 Sino-Tibetan and 65 Austro-Asiatic tongues are spoken by less than 1 per cent each.

“The extinction threat is faced by not just the smaller languages in each group but entire families,” Singh said.

The HRD ministry is providing Rs 200 crore and the UGC Rs 80 crore under the 11th five-year plan.

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