Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas: A Linguistic Biodiversity Hotspot

In environmental science, a biodiversity hotspot is a biogeographic region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is threatened with destruction. The Eastern Himalayas is a biodiversity hotspot in which the Darjeeling and the Sikkim Himalayas are the distinguished regions. These two distinguished regions, is a single linguistic ecology for shared historical, cultural as well as demographic considerations, and the languages spoken in this linguistic ecology exist in its environment. In an ecolinguistic map (28° 15' N - 26° 45' N and 88° E - 90° E), it roughly includes present day political boundaries of Sikkim, the Darjeeling district and the Doars (In otherwords, Sikkim of 1815).

A cursory idea about the prevalent linguistic ecology of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas can be summed up in response to Haugen's ten ecological questions:

1. Classification : Languages from all four major families are spoken in the region (eventhough one has to be cautious -- ecolinguistics considers ‘language’ associated with nation-states and sustained by political, educational, information technology, etc., as a cultural artefact).

2. Users: The spatial and the ethnic distribution of the language users vary in this 'linguistic hotspot.' Primarily, TB and IA in the hilly region as well in the Doars whereas Dravidian and AA are exclusive to the Doars. However, such profile negates the fact that many languages in the region are merely nominal rather than in actual use. In other words, there is a high degree of language shift among the different ethnic groups.

3. Domains of language use: The languages have lost their traditional domains as well as they have no footholds in the emerging domains. Some of these languages are moribund and many others are 'folkorised'. Note that there are many languages which are no longer used in any of the domains but has an ethno-political significance as a community identity is based on language rather than a language in use.

4. Concurrent language use: A large number of ethnic groups have changed their language trajectory towards the major/dominant language resulting language shift. However, the cline of shift varies on the various other socio-economic factors, and are domain specific in many contexts. At the same time, it is also found that code switching and code mixing are a part of the communication among various ethnic groups. However, a genuine multilingual situation (as in the sense of Eco) is hard to find in the region. On the other hand, Hindi and English is also prevalent in different domains, class, and in various social settings. Indirectly, these two languages along with Bangla and Nepali are indirectly subsuming the domains leading to language endangerment of other languages.

5. Internal varieties : To a large extent there is a general mapping between an ethnic group and a language. Historically, it is true that the different ethnic groups have patronised their respective language not just for their respective ethnic-linguistic identity but also as a code for communication. However, in the changing scenario, such link between an ethnic group and a language has weakened. There are cases where an ethnic community has lost its language and has shifted/adopted another language. There are also cases that some languages are moribund. These languages are no longer transmitted to the younger generation. At the same time, regional, social, lexical as well as other variations are observed in the languages spoken. Such diversity shows the dynamicity of these languages within the ecolinguistic system reflecting survival of the fittest.

6. Written tradition: A large number of languages has a script of their own -- Bangla, Devanagari, Srijanga, Olchiki, etc. Apart from these scripts, Roman and Devanagari is used in writing the languages of the region though it is not widely prevalent. As far as the written tradition is concerned, apart from Hindi and English, Bangla and Nepali have a major share. Lepcha, Tibetan, and Santali need to find its hold in the system. The use of written symbol is reflected in the linguistic landscape of the region. Undoubtedly, one can find Roman i.e. English over other scripts. At the same time, language customisation is hardly available in domains where different language package/option can be selected by the client/customer.

7. Standarisation of written form: Leaving aside Bangla, Nepali language is standarised, and the eastern variety of Nepali is considered as a standard variety. However, in the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas, a variety of Nepali spoken is different. As a result, a diglossic situation arises. Nepali spoken is different from Nepali written in many of its grammatical aspects like in lexicon, intonation, gender agreement, case endings, etc. Similarly, there are differences in spelling too. However, there are efforts to resolve such issues yet it is still a far.

8. Institutional support: A large number of languages of the region receive state patronage. Among them Bangla and Nepali are the foremost. Both these languages are scheduled languages, and receive governmental/institutional support for its vitality and life. Apart from these languages, Lepcha, Bhutia, Sherpa, Tibetan, Gurung, Magar, Tsong (Limbu), Bantawa (Rai), Newari and Koinch (Sunuwar) receive a special status as state recognised languages in Sikkim. However, apart from the cry to develop these languages, both by the concerned institutions and interest groups, there is no significant work which has made difference in the linguistic situation. Note that writing grammars and lexicon won't help languages to flourish in an ecology.

9. Language user's attitude towards the language: In the recent times, speaker's attitude towards language is tied up with political and ethnic identity. It is not surprising to find a person who may not speak or know or judge a word (forget sentence) in a language but the mother tongue claim as well as census return is in the favour of that particular language. This is primarily due to the attitude towards language and it's ethnic patronage -- an ethno-linguistic identity. Apart from the ethno-politically motivated favour/claim, there are also cases where a layman's notion of 'mother tongue' disguises the actual claim for the language that the speaker uses in the reality. However, it is not undermined that due to the socio-economic expectations.

10. Ecological status: There is no doubt that the linguistic ecology of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas is depleting. Like Environmental Impact Assessment, Linguistic Impact Assessment has to be carried out to design an appropriate strategy for a healthy linguistic ecology.

The above cursory take on the linguistic ecology of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas may lead to argue that – “...languages are dying, we must do something to save these languages before...” – a concern advocated and championed by the many. On the other hand, it is to remind the following facts that are prerequisite for linguistic diversity:

1. Linguistic diversity reflects human accommodation to complex environmental conditions. The changes in society affect linguistic diversity, so that it is social policy rather than language policy that is needed to maintain it.

2. A healthy language ecology consisting of a wide diversity of forms of language is claimed to be essential for healthy ecosystems, since local ecological knowledge is built into local language varieties.

3. We cannot create forced linguistic 'reservations', even though they might manage to maintain a particular linguistic variety as it is primarily against the ecolinguistics ethics. It means that if the language users are not interested in preserving and continuing their language, preventive measures cannot be forced despite language loss. Languages have died in history, and will continue to die. But the speakers have always adapted the linguistic environment and they should not die (socio-economically, etc).

4. Ecological linguistics argues that “empowering languages and making them more competitive by giving them grammars, lexica, writing systems, and school syllabi is a recipe that ignores a basic ecological fact: what supports one language may not support another. Each language requires its own ecological system.”

5. LIA for the creation of ecological conditions for the societal vitalisation of languages. The issue here thus is not the preservation of a linguistic ecology, but rather of the promotion of one. Under this conceptualisation, language that the community undertakes revitalisation/development/etc., thus, needs affirmative action, by which an artificial ecology is constructed wherein languages can initially flourish so that it may later be assimilated into natural linguistic ecology.

Finally, it is to make people aware of the vanishing linguistic diversity. Paradoxically, it may prove similar or worth to a statutory warning in a cigarette packet !

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