‘Native languages in Nagaland are facing crisis of imminent extinction’

Dr Savio Meyase.

Dr Savio Meyase.

February 21 is Int’l Mother Language Day

Vishü Rita Krocha
Kohima | February 20

While languages have come and gone throughout the existence of human beings, and ‘language death’ is a natural phenomenon that takes centuries, Native languages in Nagaland are facing ‘linguicide,’ asserted  phonologist and phonetician, Dr Savio Meyase, who is also a Newton International Fellow (The British Academy) postdoctoral researcher, currently based at The University of York.

Linguicide, he explained, “is the non-natural death of a language, worded with the suffix ‘-cide’ as in words like homicide and regicide.” 

Unlike the slow and gradual death of a language through language shifts or eventual death of the language speaking communities over time, he said, “linguicide is a ‘sudden’ and untimely demise of the usage of a language.”

In an exclusive interview with The Morung Express on the eve of International Mother Language Day declared by UNESCO in 1999 and annually observed on February 21 since then, he expressed concern Nagaland is also witnessing linguicide phenomenon.

In less than a century, since the independence of India, he observed that, “languages of Nagaland have gone through dramatic changes partly in its manner of usage and more particularly in the amount of usage they get in everyday life.”

Emphasising that the native languages of Nagaland are facing a crisis of imminent extinction, he also recalled that while growing up, “people used to blame Nagamese for the then younger generation not using their mother tongue anymore.” 

In this regard, he felt that Nagamese was just a scapegoat while elucidating that “nowadays, the shift of preference has moved to English” and people are not complaining about Nagamese as much.

Manifold reasons 
Further stating that the reasons are manifold, Meyase said, “we live in a very multicultural and multilingual society with little to no mutual intelligibility.” The presence of a native dominant language, he pointed out, “would only shift the other languages towards it” while also citing that our official language is English.

“And perhaps most significantly, our medium of education is English, allowing for school administrators to even abuse children for even usage of the native tongue,” he put across while recalling his school days when “not speaking in English was enough reason to get a good beating from the teachers.” 

“My school had a dehumanising punishment where the principal made the students stand in front of his office with a placard that read ‘I was caught for speaking in vernacular’ hung around their neck for the whole school and visitors to see,” he recollected.

Towards this end, he observed that, “schools and the education system do the least to encourage the survival of our native tongues, and in fact they actively discourage their very existence.”

He further highlighted that, “there are public documentaries available of such practices and policies that led to the decline of the Irish Gaelic language in Ireland, where now English is the predominant language and only a comparative handful of people speak Irish with full proficiency.” 

“Active linguicide is currently occurring in Russian-occupied Ukraine where only Russian is allowed in schools, amongst other policies,” he highlighted.

‘We are witnesses of Linguicide in our own homeland’
Dr Meyase further underscored that all registered native languages of Nagaland are officially under the category of ‘endangered languages’ classified by the UNESCO. 

“Unfortunately that is only the best scenario, as UNESCO does not have the information regarding the nuances and differences in dialects and even would not have the record of all languages in Nagaland,” he added.

Reiterating his concern that “Linguicide is happening here and everywhere in the world for verified reasons, and we are witnesses of one in our own homeland”, he underlined that as per the estimate of the experts, more than 90% of currently endangered languages will cease to exist by the end of this century.

“This would be around half of the languages that are currently spoken in the world, and this is all too fast in the lifeline of a language,” he pointed out.

Stating that the languages of Nagaland are in a very precarious position, he further remarked that “English colonisation can be blamed, but even within a language speaking community, dialects are giving way for the more standard, more popular variety, and a bit of a culture dies with every bit of a language that is left behind the time until both language and the culture is left abandoned for good, and we just become bland citizens of the world and nothing more.”

With languages in Nagaland basically in a crisis, he underlined the need to focus on the preservation of these languages while also pointing out that, “If we have to revitalize language, we need to archive language in the system.”

However, he also exuded hope that a lot can be done in linguistics in the state while asserting that, “the crucial thing we need to be doing in Nagaland is just simply start documenting languages beginning with the very basic documentation.” He strongly felt that we can stop it from being extinct before we need to revitalize them again.

Mention may be made here that Dr Meyase finished his second PhD in linguistics from the University of Leipzig, where he studied the tonal representation of complex tone languages, specifically on his native language, Tenyidie.

He is currently working on a project titled, “Documentation of Complex Tone Systems in Endangered Tribal Languages of Nagaland, Northeast India.”