Human languages play a predominant role in the social life of people as they are the most effective means of communication and cultural expression.  In a multilingual country like India most often the dominant languages come to the forefront for extended use of language beyond oral discourse. The dominant languages occupy a large number of domains of language use within a political unit such as a nation or a state. The formation of states, nations is not always based on languages but on social, political, religious and economic factors. India has been well known as a multilingual, multiethnic, multi-religious country for many centuries. There are four major language families viz, Indo-Aryan (IA), Dravidian, Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman (TB). The minor languages or isolates include Nahali, Andamanese, Onge, Jarwa, Sentinelese. If we include South Asia as a whole, we have to include Kusunda in Nepal and Burushaski in Pakistan as the other minor languages. Linguists have termed these minor languages as isolates, as they are not related genetically to any other families of languages. It may not be out of place to treat these minor languages as language families as over the generations in the face of the dominant language, they were reduced to single languages. 

Language Endangerment and Multilingualism

An endangered language is a language that is at risk of disappearing as its speakers die out or shift to speaking a dominant language. Soon after Indian independence, the country was divided into various states keeping the major languages in mind. As a consequence, we have states like, Panjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, etc., where the major languages like Panjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Odia, Kannada, Tamil etc., are the major languages. But due to the multiplicity of languages, it was not always possible to form states based on language alone. Indian Census records 2011 show that there are 121 languages spoken in India. It has also been surveyed that most Indians command more than one or two languages. The entire country is interconnected with the network of multilingualism. 

This article will focus on the question of multilingualism and language endangerment in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Both the states are not formed on the basis of language criteria like many other major Indian states. Some parts of Himachal Pradesh were under the state of Panjab and others were under union territory till 1971 when the state was formed with Hindi as the state official language. The state of Uttarakhand was formed in 2000 from the state of Uttar Pradesh. In the absence of any one state language, they also adopted Hindi as the official language and Sanskrit as the second state language. Both the states have a number of indigenous languages belonging to Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman families of languages.

Historically, we may divide the use of language in India into three periods: First, there was the Hindu period i.e Maurya Kings and Gupta Kings when Sanskrit being the language of religion was also used in daily discourse simultaneously followed by Prakrit and Pali. Then during the Muslim period from 1192 AD to the eighteenth century Persian and then Urdu/Hindustani became the language of administration. During the British period, English was introduced though in a limited way. But during the above periods the vernacular languages, Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Kannada and others also developed a huge amount of written literature and were in use side by side with the official languages.

Sociolinguistic Profile of Himachal Pradesh

The state of Himachal Pradesh is divided into twelve districts, viz Kangra, Mandi, Shimla, Solan, Sirmaur, Una, Chamba, Hamirpur, Kullu, Bilaspur, Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti. Almost each district has its own language/dialect. The districts of Lahaul Spiti and Kinnaur have Tibeto-Burman languages and all others have Indo-Aryan languages placed under Western Pahari group of languages except Kanashi spoken in an isolated village, Malana in Kullu district. Indo-Aryan languages/dialects include Kangri, Chambyali, Curahi, Kulvi, Siraji, Sirmauri, Kotgarhi (Mahasui), Baghati, Mandyali, Bilaspuri, Pangwali, Bharmauri (Gaddi) and other minor dialects peculiar to some areas. Most of them are used in oral in-group communication and have not developed written forms. Only a few languages/dialects have some literary activity written in Devanāgarī Script. However, these languages are not in small numbers as such. Since these Indo-Aryan languages/dialects are not markers of ethnic identity, therefore, these are not conflicting with Hindi as such. Moreover, these are well maintained in homes and within the social groups. Actually, there is a greater mutual intelligibility among Kangri, Chambyali, Bilaspuri, and Mandyali. But Kulvi, Sirmauri, and Mahasui are distinct and have no mutual intelligibility. I have noted one interesting fact that the speakers of one dialect consider the other neighbouring dialect as sweeter than their own. Due to their restricted use and greater use of Hindi and English in all official domains they may be treated as endangered languages. The Tibeto-Burman languages spoken along the Indo-Tibet border include Manchad, Bunan, Tinan, Tod Bhoti, Patnam Bhoti, Khoksar, Spiti, Kinnauri, Kanashi in Himachal Pradesh. The term Bhoti is used for the languages/dialects that are closer to standard Tibetan. The languages like Manchad, Tinan, Bunan Kinnauri, Kanashi are not included under Tibetan dialects. Standard written Tibetan is considered highly prestigious as Tibetan is the language of Buddhism. Most TB speakers are Buddhists by religion. The languages like Manchand, Tinan, Kinnauri are included under pronominalized languages as the person number categories are incorporated in the verb forms. All the TB languages are spoken by less than 10,000 speakers except Kinnauri and are most endangered as compared to IA languages due to their small populations.

In such a state of affairs it was difficult for the state to choose any one of the indigenous languages as state language for the official or educational purposes. First of all, none of them has well-developed writings and literary activity and if one language is chosen the speakers of the others may object. Moreover, Hindi and English were already in use before the state was formed. Hindi serves as the lingua franca while speaking to out-group people. The native languages have no official status. Increasing use of Hindi and English for written, official, educational and mass media purposes, renders native tongues as endangered. However, there is a daily radio broadcast devoted to social welfare, folk literature, and agriculture programs. Some languages like Kangri, Sirmauri and Kulvi are being written in Devanāgarī script producing literature of various kinds. Tourism, migration of populations to other states is also contributing to the endangerment of all the indigenous languages of both Himachal and Uttarakhand. A special mention may be made of the district of Lahaul-Spiti from where the maximum migration has taken place. Many people who get various jobs get settled outside their native places due to their isolation as the valley remains cut off from the rest of the world due to snowfall during winter.  Therefore, their native tongues are most endangered.

Sociolinguistic Profile of Uttarakhand

The state of Uttarakhand was formed in 2000 from the state of Uttar Pradesh. The areas of Kumaun and Garhwal along with some other hill districts were included in it. Its districts are, viz., Almora, Bageshwar, Chamoli, Champawat, Dehradun, Haridwar, Nainital, Pauri Garhwal, Pithauragarh, Rudraprayag, Tehri Garhwal, Uddham Singh Nagar and Uttarkashi. There are two major IA languages known as Kumauni spoken in the districts of Almora, Nainital, and Pithaurgarh and Garhwali in the districts of Dehradun, Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Tehri Garhwal, and in Pauri Garhwal. Apart from this, there are some other IA dialects like Bangani, Jaunsari, and a few others.

The TB languages are spoken in the districts of Pithauragarh, Chamoli and Uttarkashi along the Tibetan and Nepal borders. The TB languages include, Byangsi, Chaudangsi, Darma, Rongpo, Jad and Raji, and now almost extinct language Rangkas. All the TB languages of Uttarakhand are locally known under the cover term Rang or Bhutia except Raji (Regal). Grierson (1909) called Raji as Jangali as they were forest dwellers till recently. The Government of India named them as Raji and settled them in different villages in Champawat district. Among all the TB languages of Uttarakhand, Raji is most endangered with a population of less than two thousand. Among all of them Byangsi, is now being written in Devanāgarī script. Most TB speakers are multilingual as they learn their mother tongue at home and Kumauni or Garhwali just in their neighbourhood and Hindi and English at schools. Nepali is also spoken in Pithauragarh at the India-Nepal borders where there is a free movement of people for work and trade. A TB speaker in Dharchula town commands four to five languages, e.g., Byangsi, Kumauni, Hindi, Nepali and English if he is educated. The linguistic situation is similar to Himachal as there is no language that can be adopted as the state language. However, most IA languages have large populations and have greater chances of survival. Garhwali speakers seem to be more dominant but Kumauni speakers don’t learn it and resort to Hindi with Garhwali speakers.

Finally, I may say that Hindi and English are on the increase in most written and electronic   media discourse in both the states of Himachal and Uttarakhand. Therefore, the use of Hindi and English is increasing day by day and the native languages are reduced to home and hearth. The Tibeto-Burman languages in both the states are the most endangered one due to their small numbers. Secondly, they are in contact with other dominant languages that are in use for education and all other purposes outside homes. Thirdly with the spread of education they are migrating fast to major towns for jobs and business. The speakers of IA languages are also interfered by Hindi and English in most domains of language use. However, their number is large enough to survive for a longer period. But they need to be cultivated for written discourse otherwise over a considerable period of time they will be endangered. The dominant languages are the languages of empowerment and opportunities. Therefore, people don’t think of developing their native languages. The speakers of IA languages don’t associate their identity with languages and switching to the use of Hindi does not affect the social life as whole. Basically, there is no language conflict between the native indigenous languages and the languages used for official purposes, i.e., Hindi in both the states. Multilingualism is practised as a matter of daily life of the people in a non-conflicting. The existence of multilingualism maintains equilibrium as native languages are maintained at home and for outside home, Hindi and English are learnt and used.

This article is authored by Dr Suhnu Ram Sharma who has been a Professor and the Head of the linguistic department at the Deccan College, Pune. He has previously managed the Linguistic Society of India as the Secretary. He has also worked as a Linguistics Research Associate of the Anthropological Survey of India.


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Dr. Shilpa S. Vernekar
Dr. Shilpa S. Vernekar
21 days ago

Very interesting article.
I wasn’t aware that Hindi is the state language in Himachal, or that Sanskrit is still being spoken.

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