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An Indian language recently went extinct. Why were we not told about it?

Last man gone: William Rozario, the last speaker of his indigenous tongue, died in August. Photo: Dr Hugo Canelas Cardoso

Languages have their own laws of evolution, ones that are not too different from those about species. Some languages survive, grow. Others become extinct. Some merge themselves into other languages. Others combine with another, and a third is born. The history of linguistic evolution is the history of dead languages. Humanity is a melting pot of cultures and languages are in a flux. Changes take place all the time, but most of these are not always discernible since the mutations are usually extremely slow in nature.

As economic and cultural globalisation continue unbridled, growing numbers of languages become endangered and eventually, extinct. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant languages of commerce: English, Chinese, and Spanish. And in case of India, Hindi to quite an extent.

UNESCO estimates that over 50 percent of the world's 6,900 languages are endangered and that one language disappears on average every two weeks. The 80 major languages such as English, Russian and Mandarin are spoken by about 80 per cent of the global population. In fact, 96 percent of the world's languages are spoken by only 4 percent of the world's population, and 90 percent of the world's languages are not represented on the Internet.

Back home, the number of individual languages listed for India is 452. Of those, 438 are living languages and 14 have no known speakers. But that diversity is gradually disappearing. Worse, it is not much talked or written about.

When William Rozario died this August in Vypeen, with him died an indigenous language — Cochin Creole Portuguese. Rozario was the last fluent speaker of this language, which resulted from contact between Malayalam, Portuguese and probably a host of languages spoken by the various communities in ancient Cochin, which was a melting pot of so many cultures, so many languages. Rozario's death was covered only by The Hindu.

The error of omission is glaring indeed. India's diversity makes for excellent nationalistic rhetoric. It makes for extremely colourful essays. But the concern for anything that does not belong or pay subservience to the mainstream is conspicuous by its criminal absence. In that, this was also an error of commission.

There was not even a token word of condolence from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose every speech otherwise is laced with words of patriotic pride. Singh must have been busy salvaging his Indian image that was tarnished in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games. But then, even the Ministry of Human Resources Development had not a word to regret an Indian language that had died. Maybe Kapil Sibal does not read The Hindu.

The report in The Hindu, by the way, had been enlightening:

When the Portuguese language arrived in Asia in the late 15th century, it came into contact with the local languages, and that gave rise to a string of new languages which once dotted the coasts of India, Sri Lanka and beyond. Such languages, born from intense contact between two or more languages, are what linguists call creoles. In Cochin, the equation involved Malayalam, Portuguese and probably a host of languages spoken by various communities there. Since this was the first place where the Portuguese established a stable presence in South Asia, it is usually accepted that Cochin Creole may have been the earliest of all Indo-Portuguese Creoles to be formed, and, if so, probably determined to some extent the development of the other varieties. This language developed hand-in-hand with the formation of Catholic and Indo-Portuguese households, and it was so vital by the time the Dutch took over that it managed to thrive under the new rulers.

In very broad terms, many of the words in the Creole of Cochin are of Portuguese origin but the grammar is very different, and a number of these differences reflect the influence of Malayalam. For instance, where Portuguese (like English) has prepositions, Cochin Creole has postpositions, which appear after the noun. And there is also a strong tendency to place the verb at the end of the clause, which is contrary to the grammar of Portuguese but not to that of Malayalam. The verb system works very differently and there are also striking differences in the shape of the words and even the sounds of the two languages. Even though the Creole is known locally simply as ‘Portuguese' or ‘Cochin Portuguese', it is in fact a new autonomous language which owes as much to Portuguese as it does to the languages of India. This was the language of a good part of the Cochin population for five centuries, and a monument to a crucial period of the city's history.

 
LAST WOMAN GONE: Boa Sr was the last member of the Bo tribe. Photograph: Alok Das

Earlier this year, the last member of a unique tribe died in the remote Andaman Islands. Boa Sr, who passed away in January aged around 85, was the last speaker of Bo, one of the ten Great Andamanese languages. The Bo are thought to have lived in the Andaman Islands for as much as 65,000 years, making them the descendants of one of the oldest human cultures on Earth.

Boa Sr was the oldest of the Great Andamanese group pf people, who now number just 52. Originally ten distinct tribes, the Great Andamanese were 5,000 strong when the British colonised the Andaman Islands in 1858. Most were killed or died of diseases brought by the colonisers. Having failed to "pacify" the tribes through violence, the British tried to "civilise" them by capturing many and keeping them in an Andaman Home. Of the 150 children born in the home, none lived beyond the age of two.

Boa Sr herself survived the tsunami of December 2004, and later recalled, "We were all there when the earthquake came. The eldest told us the Earth would part, don’t run away or move'. The elders told us, that’s how we know." During her last days, she had no one left to converse with. She died a lonely death.

The demise of Boa Sr had not exactly made a splash, but the news had been carried by a number of news outlets, some even following it up. The credit for that, however, had to go to organisations like Survival International which sent out press releases. Or else the news would have remained confined to anthropologists and those who work with the people of the Andamans.

The death of Boa Sr ought to have been a wake-up call for the jingoistic government, the uninformed elite, and the sacrosanct media. But no. The collective conscience of this country remained in that proverbial slumber.

This is not just about the death of their (Rozario or Boa Sr) tribe or language. It is also about something that seems quite dead otherwise — the country's heart. India apparently has a heart that bleeds for only some select people.

The loneliness in Rozario's eyes, the anguish in that of Boa Sr is there for all to see. One has to be callously blind to miss either.

Note: The article in The Hindu was based totally on an interview with Dr Hugo Canelas Cardoso, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Research Centre for Luso-Asian Studies, Department of Portuguese of the University of Macau. Dr Cardoso is one of the few people knowledgeable about Cochin Creole Portuguese.

 
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