For all its linguistic diversity, close to 600 languages in India have been teetering on the brink of extinction for the past few decades. West Bengal’s Tundu language – considered totally extinct – throws light on this dismal picture in the disappearance of tongues.

Once spoken by less than 100 men and women in Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal, the Tundu language is the latest of 220 Indian languages that have disappeared over the past 50 years. And a further 150 languages are expected to suffer the same fate over the next half a century.

Stark revelations were made during field research into endangered languages by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) some years ago.

Jalpaiguri district, situated nearly 450km from Kolkata, capital of the eastern state of West Bengal, has a rich cultural diversity, given that it is home to many indigenous communities.

Linguists say rapid industrialization is a key reason that forced the Tundu community to resort to “language migration”. In other words, it was compelled to speak another language of greater political significance.

Dipak Kumar Roy, professor of Bengali at the Raiganj University, has been extensively involved in field surveys of critically vulnerable tribes and their languages; he last spotted the Tundu tribe in the year 2000.

‘400 Indian languages face extinction’

They say that when a language faces extinction, it takes away with it an entire community and some unique ways of looking at the world. When Bua Sr from the Andaman Islands, died in 2010 she also took to her grave one of the ten Great Andamanese languages – Bo.

According to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), a language is considered extinct when nobody speaks or remembers the medium. Bo was spoken by barely six members of a 5,000-year-old tribe in the Andaman Islands.

Speaking about vanishing tongues, renowned literary critic and activist Ganesh Narayan Devy said: “The four-year-old PLSI survey had involved a team of 3,500 people, including scholars, activists and members of minority communities, who visited remote locations of the country in order to record data.

“Official estimate states that more than half of the world’s languages, roughly 7,000 tongues, are likely to disappear by the end of this century. This means that one language would vanish every two weeks from the face of the earth. In the year 2011, we had recorded 780 languages in India, whereas government statistics had numbered 1,652 tongues in 1961. Nearly 400 Indian languages are steadily shrinking due to lack of government sponsorship.”

The linguist added that dying languages in India only have around 2,000 to 10,000 speakers and the slope from endangered to extinct then becomes very steep. Especially vulnerable are the speakers of minority communities where children do not receive education or are taught only in one of the 22 officially recognized languages.

“People offer their advice when any language dies. But there are few collective efforts to stop this rot,” Devy said. “The government’s latest census indicates that more than 42 languages or dialects in the country are heading towards extinction with fewer than 10,000 people speaking them.”

He said that the process of extinction for Tundu started decades ago and attributed it to a host of factors – fewer speakers, lack of education facilities in native languages, migration in search of better livelihoods and an absence of historical documentation. Death of a language, he said, was a “cultural tragedy and a loss of wisdom, folklore, stories, games, and music.”

Tundu among oldest Dravidian languages

Roy, who had led PLSI’s team of experts, recounted the migration route of Tundus: “They came from South India some 200 years ago and were speakers of the country’s oldest Dravidian language group. This tribe settled down in Tundu forest area of Ramsai, near the Mainaguri area of Jalpaiguri district in search of better opportunities. While the population was once estimated to be at 30,000 to 40,000, it dwindled rapidly over the years.”

“Tundu is likely to have died even before Bo met its end. I had raised an alarm about its critical status nearly 16 years ago when I first spotted a few octogenarian speakers. The younger members of the tribe conversed only in Bengali,” Roy said. He noted that epidemics and the absence of adequate livelihoods were two of the reasons behind the nomadic tribe “migrating” to other languages.

PLSI’s West Bengal unit co-ordinator, Indranil Acharya, said: “Tundu was listed among 10 critically endangered languages in eastern India. But lack of logistical support from authorities hampered our efforts to conserve it. It is sad, because India is 10 times richer in terms of languages than the rest of the world.”

He named three other tongues that are spoken by less than 100 members of indigenous communities – Asur, Jalda, and Kaya. Only three families of the Kaya tribe, who also belong to the Dravidian group, inhabit Malbazar sub-division of Jalpaiguri today.