By Anvita Abbi

Have we ever wondered why a majority of the languages of our country were never written down? In India, a sizeable population cannot read or write because their languages were never represented in any road map of education. Could this be why we have been unable to provide primary education to rural children in their mother tongues? Is this the reason for the rapid loss of marginalised languages?

India is characterised by its diversity and multiplicity of languages. As of today, there are 1,635 languages, belonging to seven different language families, spoken in the country. However, a large number of these are preserved and sustained in oral forms.

These 3,500-year old oral traditions have recently come under threat due to globalisation and industrialisation.

India is characterised by its diversity and multiplicity of languages.

India is characterised by its diversity and multiplicity of languages. | Photo Courtesy: behance.net

Thus, modern times demand a different outlook and revised language policy. These unwritten languages are repositories of indigenous knowledge systems and culture capital. But, a dissemination of this knowledge is needed so that one part of the country can learn about the other. I propose a multilingual education system that includes these oral languages. However, this is not possible without giving scripts to unwritten Indian languages.

A Multilingual Education System

The hegemony of a few languages has deprived many Indian communities of the right to express themselves in their native tongues because of the unavailability of written modes.

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was instituted to ensure that every Indian is literate and educated. Yet, the large dropout rates in rural areas have continued because students fail to understand the language and script of instruction used in classrooms. The hegemony of a few languages has deprived many Indian communities of the right to express themselves in their native tongues because of the unavailability of written modes. Our tribal communities and socio-economically deprived marginal communities have, thus, been muted in post-independent India.

Both state and central governments can take up necessary policy measures to change this. States need to implement the following steps, as quickly as possible:

  1. Developing appropriate scripts for languages of minority communities for imparting primary education in mother tongues.
  2. Taking special and concrete measures to ensure that individuals belonging to national minorities enjoy effective participation and representation in relevant institutions during the development and application of such policies.

Right to Freedom of Expression

Another consequence of unscripted languages is that they find no place in our judicial system. Assuring equal justice is possible if these communities are able to voice their concerns in their own language, which in turn requires literacy in their respective languages.

There is a need to script the unwritten languages.

There is a need to script the unwritten languages. | Photo Courtesy: alsa.net.au

In fact, the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in Article 350A of our Constitution, states the following:

“It shall be the endeavour of every State, and of every local authority within the State, to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother-tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups.”

This right forms the cornerstone of international human rights protection protocols. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights have enshrined it in Article 19.

Choosing the Appropriate Script

In this process, the most daunting task is likely to be to choosing the appropriate script.

The criteria should be:

  1. Is the population, at large, familiar with the concerned script?
  2. Does it represent the sound systems of the language concerned?

For instance, the State can begin by modifying the Devanagari script to suit the requirements of a large number of unwritten languages spoken in the Hindi belt (nine states and one union territory including the state of Maharashtra). Similarly, altering other state language scripts can suit the needs of individual languages. Romanization is also an alternative. The creation of a new and unique script is a rarity. We can achieve this with the support of linguists, educationists including school teachers, and native speakers of various languages.

The need of the hour is the setting up of a ‘National Commission for Indian Scripts’, which will be responsible for scripting unwritten languages.

This commission would create a Documentation Centre for the scripts developed and proposed for unwritten languages. By instituting such a Commission, we can pave the road for the promotion of social cohesion, equity and justice for all.


Dr. Anvita Abbi is a recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri award. She is an Hon. Director at the Centre for Oral and Tribal Literature in the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi and an Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She also holds the position of President of the Linguistic Society of India.

Featured Image Credits: Mark Rasmuson via Unsplash

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Posted by The Indian Economist