Soft words for Santhali

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By A software promises to provide a lifeline to a tribal language, reports Kaushik Ghosh
  • Published 22.04.07

Technology has come to the aid of a language in danger of becoming extinct. And in the process, of a tribe denied a voice for decades.

The project — creation of a software module for learning the Santhali language — is the brainchild of two faculty members of the departments of computer science and engineering and comparative literature at Jadavpur University. It is being funded by World Bank under Technical Education for Quality Improvement Programme.

Eleven months into the scheme, Samantak Das and Anirban Ray Chaudhuri, with help from other faculty members, students and a handful of organisations, have developed a Santhali word processing software, similar to Microsoft Word, but with fewer functions. It supports Al Chiki, Bangla, Devnagari, Roman and Oriya scripts, all of which are used to write Santhali.

The software will enable Santhali books to be printed using the latest technology. In the past, publication of Santhali books has often been hampered by the lack of a dedicated word-processing software.

“The software has a glossary (Santhali-Bangla-English) of about 1,000 words and provides transliteration support. This is of great help to those who are familiar with the language but don’t know all the scripts,” says Das, head of the comparative literature department. For example, “tokoy”, which means “who” in Santhali, only needs to be written in the Roman script in the software for its representation in Al Chiki to be found out.

According to the developers, the first standalone multi-script Santhali word processing software is very much a work in progress. It has generated interest among organisations working with Santhalis, some of which, like the e-group Wesanthals, have collaborated on the project.

The software will be embedded in low-cost hardware and provided free of cost to three Santhali agencies, says Ray Chaudhuri of the computer science department. The feedback from the agencies will determine the course of the software’s development.

A teaching stint at Visva-Bharati prompted both Das and Ray Chaudhuri to take on the project. For them, it has been a labour of love. “We worked in our spare time, on a shoestring budget and had only two computers at our disposal. And we don’t want it any other way,” says Das.

Figures bear out the need for the project. The Santhali population is about 10 million and is spread out over parts of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and other Northeastern states. The literacy rate among the population is low (around 25 per cent) and the language survives primarily orally.

Dukhiram Hansda of Adivasi Socio Educational & Cultural Association asserts: “The software will emerge as a vital tool for the spread of Santhali. It will make publication of Santhali books simpler and thus help in the study of the language. Without spread of education, any language will die.”