Expanded version of the speech of  Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the closing session of the Global Languages Meet – January 8th 2012 at the Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh

I should begin by thanking Dr Ganesh Devy for giving us yet another fascinating and stimulating day. It was a wonderful experience to come today to the Adivasi Centre he has set up, and to participate in the exhibition of photographs of their ancestors that he has managed to bring together here, from archives of the colonial period in Cambridge and Leipzig. Those two names make clear the serious scholastic nature of the use made of those photographs, but it is more heartening to see the human reactions of people whose ties to their community are so important, when faced with these early records of their lifestyles.

I am not so sure that I should thank him for asking me suddenly to speak at this closing session at which he would like ideas exchanged about how we are to move forward, with regard to the work we have participated in over the last few days. I am not a linguist, and his work and yours in promoting the study of languages that might otherwise be lost is beyond my area of expertise. However, perhaps I might make some suggestions based on my understanding of the very human element he had helped us to share.

Though I must admit I was more fascinated by the old mosque at Champaner, one of India’s less well known heritage sites, I was involved on the way here in a discussion on the People’s Linguistic Survey, the first fruits of which were launched in Varodara yesterday. There were suggestions that the methodology employed might not have been precise, given the vast range of volunteers involved, and the impossibility, except possibly through an official census, of knowing exactly how many people spoke any language, and at what levels.

But I am not so sure that such precision is required. Whilst one appreciates the careful work of linguists who concentrate on analysis of a small compass of data, whether to trace patterns or to pronounce on the particular usages and spread of their chosen language, a survey of the languages of a country has necessarily to be more impressionistic. The pioneering work of Grierson nearly a century ago, to which this exercise is the first successor, was by modern standards amateur, but Grierson’s sheer commitment, his involvement with people over practically all India, his capacity to apprehend connections rather than establishing them with analytical precision, has made his work of continuing value for those who require an overview of India’s linguistic diversity, to pursue their own particular interests in the field, whether analytical, pedagogical or policy formulation.

Dr Devy’s effort was I think even more remarkable, in that he involved so many committed students of language in the process. The range of individuals who had contributed who were present yesterday, and who will be inspired by the publication to pursue their own work, is the best testament to the enduring value of the current Linguistic Survey. They make it clear that language study is too important to be left to the professional linguists. Whilst linguists obviously have much to contribute, their perceptions are only a part of the truth. Language in the end belongs to people, and it is their contributions, in terms however imperfect of their own understanding of usage and of the community to which they belong, that are most vital for an overview.

In case it seems as though I am playing down the role of linguists since I am not one myself, let me say the same, as the only politician here, however unsuited I am to that role, about politicians. In a sense my assertion harks back to what I tried to suggest yesterday about language policy, that it is too important to be left to professional politicians. We will all have our own views about what will be best for others, but when it comes to something as central to people’s lives as language, I believe people should make the decisions. Thus, while I believe we must ensure, where it is possible, that education in the mother tongue is available, we must also allow people choice. Similarly, whilst linguists might wish to preserve the purity of the languages they study, they cannot prescribe usage, which should be left to those who actively use the language.

We must remember after all that languages have developed with swift changes over the years in the past, until the invention of printing to some extent contributed to ossification. That has changed now with the advent of new media which is much more interactive as compared to print, and sharing and transformation is the rule, as swift as in the ages before the written word set usages down firmly. I find it fascinating, for instance, to watch television in India and see how thoroughly English has entered Hindi usage and vice versa, whether we are talking about cricket commentaries or tele-dramas. The locutions that are used then become part and parcel of the language, and it makes no sense for theoreticians to claim that they are improper. We are talking now not about mistakes but about creative constructions as to which, like Handel I think it was, we can only say, whatever is, is best. That is what a People’s Survey will bring to our notice.

So this shifting scene is one reason why the current Linguistic Survey is so timely, and I hope that all of you who have contributed to this, both the Indian academics and teachers and volunteers who have collected and collated data, and international supporters and advisers, will also be able to move forward on Dr Devy’s idea of a People’s World Linguistic Survey. I do not think this should be left to formal bodies only, for I would agree with his deft characterization of for instance UNESCO, which one might suggest should take the lead in such an exercise, as an admirable body in terms of its dreams, but its lack of an alarm system to summon it to work means that much time will pass before it embarks on such a necessary task.

For, with the changes taking place all over the world, such a task should take place soon. It may not be possible to preserve in usage the languages that are dying out as modernization reaches all areas of the globe, but we must try to record them. We must tabulate those usages which enlarge our perspectives in showing the different ways in which different people assess the world and the experiences it offers. We must trace similarities that help us understand better the way in which the world has developed and people have moved and interacted.

For this we need linguists, but we also need enthusiasts who can communicate and record and classify, with commitment to their work and the people they work with. It is a task that offers much to those who undertake it, as much as to those who will look upon the picture that is created. I hope therefore that all those here who have appreciated the life Dr Devy and his surveyors have brought to language will assist in expanding the reach of this exercise. The world can never be too much with us, it deserves to be recorded.

Daily News 12 Jan 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/01/12/fea04.asp