Monday, November 10, 2008

A rescuing minority languages and cultures story

From the International Herald Tribune, India's aborigines study, rather than shed, their culture.

The story opens with a linguistic focus on one of the tasks being undertaken at the Adivasi Academy founded by Professor Ganesh Devy in 1996. Five Indian young people from Adivasi (aboriginal [sort of]) tribes are writing down their native languages.
One word at a time, they are making dictionaries of languages that they grew up with but that to the outside world scarcely exist. They are oral languages, whose sounds have perhaps never before appeared in ink.

"If we make this, those who come after us will profit from it," said Kantilal Mahala, 21, taking a brief respite from his work on the Kunkna language but speaking in Hindi. "In my village, people who move ahead speak only Gujarati. They feel ashamed of our language."

[M]ore than a decade ago, [...] former English literature professor [Ganesh Devy] quit that work with a burning question on his mind: Why do we wait for cultures to die to memorialize them?

There are certain inevitabilities to the arc of development: Villagers emigrate. Life's pace quickens. Languages sputter and die. Years later, a foundation raises money, curators are retained and visitors explore a museum wondering what life then was like.

But what, Devy wondered, if there were a pre-emption doctrine for cultural preservation? His Adivasi Academy [...] is based on such a doctrine.

In the academy's museum, adivasi culture is depicted as if it no longer existed. The exhibits feature kitchen implements, jars of adivasi foods, hand-tossed pottery, jugs for homemade liquor. If the idea were to explain adivasis to outsiders, New Delhi would be a better place. The goal is, instead, to impress upon adivasis that their culture is worthy of a museum, worthy of protection.

"If a community has a strong sense of identity and a sense of pride in that identity, it wants to survive and thrive," Devy said. "The new economy is important. The old culture is equally important. We should not throw the baby with the bath water."

Last year, India's government followed in his footsteps, chartering a National Tribal University in central India.

The Adivasi Academy's principal course is "tribal studies," which the dictionary-makers were pursuing. It also teaches sustainable agriculture, tribal linguistics and women's development, and it runs a supplementary school for young children. Its age range spans 6 to 30. Ninety percent of the faculty are adivasis, and students are generally taught in both Gujarati and Hindi, given the absence of books in their own languages.

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