Back in 2007 I posted about the start of the New Linguistic Survey of India, “a 10-year, US$100M project to survey 400+ Indian languages”; now they’re about to release a report on their work, and Chitra Padmanabhan has an interview in The Hindu with the project’s founder, Ganesh Devy:

What was the aim of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India?
[…] Primarily we wanted to find out how many living languages India has. We also wanted to see if language could be made into a fulcrum of micro-planning for development in diverse ecological and cultural contexts, especially among fragile coastal, island, forest and hill communities.
Working with tribals on their languages at Bhasha since 1996 helped me realise that there was no need to unduly privilege scripts — even English does not have a unique script of its own. Hence the thought that most other languages are derivative forms of Scheduled languages disappeared from my mind. I started according smaller languages greater respect. […]
In four years we have documented 780 languages. There are 22 Scheduled languages, 480 tribal and nomadic languages, 80 coastal languages, major regional languages not yet in the 8th Schedule (Tulu, Kutchhi, Mewati), and international languages spoken in India. The survey will be published in 50 volumes by Orient Blackswan in over a year’s time.

There’s lots of interesting stuff in there; good for Devy and his Bhasha Research and Publication Centre for sponsoring such an effort. (Thanks, Dinesh!)


  1. You might be interested in a conference paper I gave about an oral magazine produced by Bhasha:
    Also, here is a TEDx talk by Dr. Devy:
    And anyone interested in oral literature is encouraged to read his edited volume: “Painted Words: An Anthology of Tribal Literature.”
    ( Basha and Dr. Devy were invaluable partners in the production of our film on Budhan Theatre: )

  2. What does he mean by : “…even English does not have a unique script of its own.” ?

  3. Paul: he just means that English is neither the first nor the only language to use the Latin alphabet.

  4. On this topic somebody has to mention Sir George Abraham Grierson (1851-1941). His Linguistic Survey of India came out between 1903 and 1928, and was reprinted in Delhi in 1967. What has changed linguistically between then and now?

  5. Trond Engen says

    I think he’s addressing a particularly Indian prejudice: that a language is what’s written with a specific alphabet.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    But the various scripts used for Indian languages are all related (I’m frankly not sure how much specialized training is necessary to make them intelligible if you’ve grown up knowing one). It seems almost parallel to a hypothetical world in which each major European language was standardly printed in a particular idiosyncratic font even though they were all recognizably variants of the Latin alphabet (and to some extent there has been a bit of this historically, with fraktur used for German well into the 20th century and “Gaelic type” used in Ireland). But it’s a sufficiently common phenomenon that I suppose it does become a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you don’t have your own distinct script, you don’t seem like a proper high-class language.

  7. I puzzled over it, and I still see two possible interpretations: “Only languages which already have their own scripts count” and “A language doesn’t count as a language until it gets its very own script.”

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