As a curious and casual reader of linguistics, one of the first things I learned is that there is no monolithic object called a single language. Languages are like a living organism, they grow and sometimes they are said to die, and sometimes, like humans, they disappear into a bureaucracy.
Age and origins of language are not straightforward because languages evolve gradually over time, their origins, often, shrouded in prehistory. So, to determine that a particular language is “pure” or that another one is the world’s oldest language is to make specious determination. And naturally everything specious leads to contention. And then, the idea of linguistic age can vary, depending on how one defines it—whether by the emergence of a common ancestor language, or by early written records, or other criteria. And so it goes. And although one’s language is the closest expression of one’s identity, the more we learn the more we will temper our assumptions with a generous measure of “I don’t know.”
This is exceptionally true of India. There is possibly no other landmass that offers up an overgrowth of languages, dialects and linguistic surprises as India does. All Indians know we have a diverse language landscape. Very few of us understand how astonishingly diverse.
My guest today is the remarkable Prof Ganesh Devy—one of India’s foremost intellectuals, a linguist, a literary critic, and a cultural activist renowned for his pioneering work in documenting endangered languages and championing linguistic and cultural diversity in India. He is the principal behind the mammoth People's Linguistic Survey of India—or PLSI—and the winner of national awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Padma Shri.
Prof. Devy's passion for language extends to his deep concern about the pitfalls of turning language into a political weapon. His idea of political activism is quite real—he lives it. His extensive travel and the time he spent living among tribal communities is a testament to his commitment as would his returning the Sahitya Akademi award in protest after the tragic killing of MM Kalburgi.
His most recent work is the book The Indians—Histories Of A Civilisation. A dazzling project that maps the history and evolution of the peoples of India. Written by over 100 scholars—and edited by Profs GN Devy & Ravi Korisettar and Tony Joseph—it maps every region of the country and speaks of the Indian human heritage of 12,000 years from the Ice Age to the present. And this book distills it into a little less than 700 pages, making it accessible for everyone, even with the most modest curiosity.
You probably have heard of Prof Ganesh Devy but if you have not, it is a very good idea to learn more about someone who has pretty much made it his life mission to unearth, protect and foster the plurality that makes India, India.
ABOUT PROFESSOR GANESH DEVY
He led the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), a comprehensive documentation of all living Indian languages. He has received several awards including the Padma Shri, Prince Claus Award, and Linguapax Award.
Buy The Indians: Histories of a Civilization: https://amzn.to/3ZfoE2I
WHAT'S THAT WORD?!
Co-host Pranati "Pea" Madhav joins Ramjee Chandran in "WHAT'S THAT WORD?!", where they discuss the words "MOB" and “CROWD”