A staggering 780 languages are spoken across India, a new survey has found. While this is a huge number, the poll also revealed more than 200 have become extinct in the country in the last 50 years.

The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) is the country’s most comprehensive language survey carried out in decades. Unlike the nation’s census, it takes in every language spoken among its population, no matter how few speak it. The census, meanwhile, only includes languages spoken by at least 10,000 people.

It took four years to complete the poll and dozens of institutions were involved in making it happen, including 3,000 volunteers. As a result, the PLSI is among the most comprehensive language surveys ever to take place in the world. In total, the experts behind the survey estimate there could even be as many as 880 spoken across India, as some have so few speakers they believe the poll must have missed out around 100 languages.

The completed 68 volumes of the survey will be released in early September to mark the birthday of Dr S Radhakrishnan, who was India’s first vice-president. The poll also honours George A Grierson, an official of the Indian Civil Service who carried out the Linguistic Survey of India between 1894 and 1928. Back then some 733 different languages and dialects were identified, which is fewer than listed in the PLSI. However, the new survey now calculates that there were as many as 1,100 languages spoken in 1961, which means around 20 per cent of these have died out in the relatively short period of time since.

Some of the languages listed were spoken by just a handful of people, like Majhi, which has only four fluent speakers. This is in stark contrast to Hindi, which is spoken by approximately 400 million people in India. Meanwhile, Gorpa is a little-spoken language that evolved among the agricultural fishermen who live in the Dadra and Nagar Haveli territory. So little was previously known about Gorpa that there was not even an official record of it.

It is thought one of the main reasons these languages went extinct is that there is no policy in place to promote and preserve them. Other contributing risk factors were named as communities dispersing, largely as a result of the need to seek employment further afield. There may also be some bias against the languages that locals consider to be ‘under-developed’, the researchers suggest. The majority of the languages that died out were spoken by tribal and nomadic communities.

Speaking to the Indian Express, activist Ganesh Devy said: “We are not here to dig up any graveyard of languages but to celebrate and admire the finest of languages that India has.” He added that one of the reasons such a huge number of languages have stuck around is that communities have kept them alive in song, and by telling old stories.

Other interesting findings listed in the survey include the disparity in the number of languages spoken by populations from state to state. For instance, just three languages are spoken in Goa, while 90 are spoken in Arunachal Pradesh. Indeed, this was found to be the largest number of languages spoken in a single state.

Mr Devy began his mission to preserve and promote India’s non-scheduled languages by opening the Bhasha Research Centre. The centre is located in the village of Tejgadh in the Vadodara district and launched in 1996. Volunteers investigating their own languages for the centre were asked to look at the way their mother tongue had evolved, and to consider which words they still used in day-to-day life and what slang featured. The involvement of these communities marked the survey out as being something other than the typical government poll.

Volunteers charged with visiting communities to conduct the surveys had the challenge of finding the right person to speak to, when many of the younger members had little or no knowledge of the rarer languages spoken by their elders. To integrate themselves into the communities and get a thorough understanding of the language, volunteers would dedicate a month to each one.

One of the volunteers, Balaram Pandey, said: “Majhi, a language spoken by a handful of people, is surviving in its folk heritage. The younger generation now speaks Hindi, English and Nepali.” Where the spoken version of a language had died, in many instances it was found to have been preserved in song or poem form.

It is hoped now the vast number of languages spoken in India has been revealed, more will be done to maintain them, both by the people who speak them and the government. Mr Patel suggests that some communities who would previously have spoken the rarer languages could be “overawed” by the dominant languages spoken by the mainstream. “Empowering people is possible by giving them their language,” he concludes.

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