Language Endangerment

✒️Normoda Doley

Have you ever wondered how beautiful a role languages play?

Have you ever appreciated the language that you speak?

Yes? No?

If no, let this sink in-

An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers dieout or shift to speaking other languages. It is seen that in day-to-day life and in day-to-day conversation, people tend to adapt themselves in using the developed languages forgetting the ones they were born in. For a small community to accept and use words from a developed one is becoming a fashion nowadays. Parents or teachers may feel it is in children’s best interests to learn a more widely spoken language for educational or economic purposes- or because they want their children to be spared the bullying and discrimination that they themselves suffered for not speaking the language of education when they started school.

The 20 most common languages (Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Punjabi, etc.) are spoken by more than 50% of the total world’s population, i.e, in millions and millions. Now think about the language that you speak. Do you have that much people who speaks your language? Take my language as an example, I speak a language which is used by less than 7 lakhs people and it is very likely to become extinct in a couple of years if not nurtured properly.

Most overviews of language endangerment begin with the by now well-known statistics that of the nearly 7,000 languages in the world, 50 percent are likely to no longer be spoken by 2100. “The coming century will see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind’s languages”.

The UNESCO has divided the languages of the world based on the following pattern-

Safe<Vulnerable<Definitely endangered <Severely endangered<Critically endangered < Extinct.

However, some sign languages are also endangered, such as Alipur Village Sign Language (AVSL) of India, Adamorobe Sign Language of Ghana, Ban Khor Sign Language of Thailand, and Plains Indian Sign Language. Many sign languages are used by small communities; small changes in their environment (such as contact with a larger sign language or dispersal of the deaf community) can lead to the endangerment and loss of their traditional sign language. Methods are being developed to assess the vitality of sign languages.

As with most concept in the field of language endangerment, there is considerable discussion of the term language death.

“To say that a language is dead is like saying that a person is dead. It could be no other way- for languages have no existence without people… If you are the last speaker of a language (your language) – viewed as a tool of communication – is already dead.”

Now you know how hard it is to keep a language/ community/ culture alive. Minority does not mean you cannot impact the world. You have heard the saying drops of water make a river. A language called Manx (Gaelic branch of the Celtic languages of the Indo-European language) is a living example of it. The last traditional speaker of the language died in 1974. However, the language did not die. It was reconstituted (reinvented). Manx has been the subject of language revival.

Regenerating a language involves:

a) Raising people’s awareness of language and language issues.

b) Having positive attitudes towards and valuing a language.

c) Learning a language.

d) Continuously developing the language, and

e) Using the language.

The revival of Manx has been made easier because the language was well recorded. Even the Bible was well translated into Manx.

Imagine being a speaker of a language that might not survive the cruelties of the pro-apacalyptic world. A language that is very likely to sink under the constant threat of the iceberg that is to hit your ancestors' well-preserved ship. I fear that, for I don't want my language to rust.

Mising is one of the tribes of Assam. It comes from the Tibeto-Burman language family which is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Misings have their own folk literature, folklore and folk songs.

According to 2001 census, the total population of Mising is around 6 lakh and 80 thousand. The Misings, also known as Miris, are the second largest tribe of Assam. The tribe prefers to call themselves ‘Mising’. The title ‘Miri’ is mostly used by outsiders. ‘Miri’ is used preferably to denote a class of Mibus/Purohits of the Adi-Mising tribe. It is believed by some that the term ‘Miri’ was first used by the founder of the Neo-Vaishnavite religion, Shankardeva. And it is seen to be true to some extent. The British Raj also used the same term in histories and chronicles in the later years.

During the earlier days, the Misings are known to have dwelt in the northern hills of Assam. The tribe has migrated to the plains of Assam from the Abor hills of Arunachal Pradesh. According to some historians, the Misings are known to have been residing in these plains even before the Ahoms had ruled over Assam. In the present days, they have mostly inhabited the areas beside rivers; namely in the districts of – Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Golaghat, Jorhat, Majuli, Sivsagar, Charaideo, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. A lot of the Mising population is still there in Arunachal Pradesh.

It is seen that in day-to-day life and in day-to-day conversation, Mising people have adapted in using words from Assamese, Hindi and English. They have resorted themselves in using loan words from developed languages.

A very good example to explain the current situation is that of my family. My father was born in a remote village of Jonai, Dhemaji. Our family- my father, mother and I used to speak fluent Mising, eat ethnic Mising cuisines and led a life that a typical Mising family would. But, after a few years, we had to migrate due to my father’s posting in Jorhat, Assam. And Jorhat is one of the major towns of Assam. So, change and development came naturally and unconsciously to us. The changes involve clothing, food habits and “language”. We began speaking Assamese more and almost all the time. The Assamese community had a huge impact on us. For a small group of people - to accept and use words from a developed one is becoming like a fashion nowadays. Children who are studying in town and cities prefer to use the developed language. The question arises here. The way ,we (Misings) are adapted to the use of the developed language, are the people of developed cities willing to learn our “endangered language”?

Yes, endangered. Shocked? It came as a mini heart attack to me when I heard it first. We are the second biggest tribe of Assam, yet, we fall under the endangered category of languages. It is a clarion call to whoever reading this – do not forget where your roots lie. Love your language. Only few get the privilege to be born in a Mising family, cherish it. Even if you don't know it yet, learn it. Better late than never.

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