Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 5 : 3 Maarch 2005

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai

Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.


In India, many cultures and faiths, ways of life, dress and food habits, traditions and rituals, are united. Different Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, a variety of sects, and varying tribal religious beliefs are like petals of one flower. This diversity extends over to the languages as well. The four major language families - the Indo-Aryan, the Dravidian, the Tibeto-Burman and the Austro-Asiatic - promote multi-lingual, multi-cultural diversity and respect, all these co-exist in cultural harmony.

The Indian political, economic and socio-cultural contexts occur under conditions of a multi-structural whole. Its economy centers around agriculture wherein feudal, pre-capitalist and capitalist structures co-exist. Its political system is the manifestation of the local panchayat system with a combination of international political systems. Its socio-cultural make-up is the combination of Great Traditions with Little Traditions. Its Industry is a spectrum, ranging from Information Technology to small-scale industries. Its legal system ranges from the local panchayat system and tribal customary laws to the district, state, high and supreme courts. Its people are composite groups, a combination of caste and class, of 'jatis' and 'non-jatis'.

In such a setting where collective sharing of cultures contradicts collective rights and group identities, a discussion on cultures in transition is bound to encounter complexities.


The aim of this paper is to focus on aspects of change within the perspective of culture taking place among the tribal communities in the Indian context. Implicit in the presentation is changing cultural patterns resulting from the advancing tenets of globalization.

Culture in any society is dynamic, influenced by bi-directional contact through language, education and religious practice. Language encompasses a group's cultural practices, which are complex and varying across social groups. Therefore, this paper will focus on language related change occurring in units of activity in selected tribal communities in India.


India's tribal population had for ages lived in isolation and had not participated in main-stream socio-economic development. Even among the tribal communities, inter-communication was restricted. In Nagaland, for example, due to inter-village and inter-clan feuds, although the tribes live in proximity, they are yet isolated from one another. The feud is still carried over to the present time, where none of the tribal languages is accepted for wider communication, even the lingua franca - Nagamese lost out to English being accepted as the state official language.


Culture is, assuredly, a perplexing phenomenon - ubiquitous in presence, complex in detail, and as such overwhelming and incomprehensible in its totality and in its intricacy. Any attempts to grasp it all in analysis will, therefore, be frustrated from the beginning to end. (Wuthnow et al, 1987, p.71)

Jenks (1993) discussing the concept of culture presents it as a four-fold typology.

"1. Culture as a cerebral, or certainly a cognitive category: Culture becomes intelligible as a general state of mind. It carries with it the idea of perfection, a goal or an aspiration of individual human achievement or emancipation. ...
2. Culture as a more embodied and collective category: Culture invokes a state of intellectual and/or moral development in society.
3. Culture as a descriptive and concrete category: Culture viewed as the collective body of arts and intellectual work within any one society.
4. Culture as a social category; culture regarded as the whole way of life of a people: This is the pluralist and potentially democratic sense of the concept that has come to be the zone of concern within sociology and anthropology and latterly, within a more localized sense, cultural studies." (Jenks, 1993, p 11-12)

Culture as defined in point 4 above is what is relevant in present-day cultural practices. Culture is a collective way of life of a people. As Pannikar 1991 points out,

the dichotomy that there is a difference between culture and nature is not tenable in today's world. The very nature of man is a cultural one. Man is a cultural animal. Therefore, the fundamental of cultural activity is dynamic change. Social groups either live in geographic and cultural isolation or because of population explosion, natural calamities and the 'push-pull' factors between the rural and urban, cross cultural flows between different cultural events in different contexts are bound to happen.

The complexity of socio-cultural change in the Indian context is enormous. Social groups are integrated in diverse socio-linguistic setting in India.


Emeneau (1996) has identified several features of "tribalism" where there is much more stress, as compared with the social units of Hinduism, on kinship as the over-riding factor in the unit's organization; reliance, in some cases on swidden ('slash-and-burn') agricultural economy; lack of asceticism so prominent in Hinduism; with a consequent fondness for the pleasures of the senses . In food, alcoholic drinks, sex, song or dance (i.e., at funerals, ritual occasions, etc.). Further Hindu communities belong to 'jatis' identifiable through their values.

The 'tribals' are outside the Sanskritic system of written codes of Hinduism, and they are not 'jatis'. But jati and tribe are, however, not in opposition to one another but are a cultural continuum, i.e., either a pure tribal, or a pure jati, under pressure from the Sanskritic tradition takes on jati characteristics.

Based on areal factors, for example, tribes living in hilly isolated areas are 'non-jatis'. "The Badagas who were a jati people when they came to the Niligiris in the 15th century and then adopted tribal characteristics are non-jatis. There are the aboriginal tribes "especially in Orissa who use cloth woven for them by Hindu weavers from yarn they spin. When the Saora yarn is ready it is taken to a Pano neighbour for weaving". (ibid)


As of 1991 Census, 8.8% of the total population of India is tribal. 93.80% are rural based and 6.20% are urbanized. Of the 623 tribal communities, 123 (19.47%) are monolingual. Tribal bilingualsim is rural whereas non-tribal bilingualism is urban. The shift to non-tribal mother tongues has increased from 51% (1971) to 58% (1981).

Tribals in India originate from five language families, i.e. Andamanese, Austro-Asiatic, Dravidian, and Tibeto-Burman. It is also important to point out that those tribals who belong to different language families live in distinct geographic settings. For example, in South Orissa there are languages that originate from the Central Dravidian family, Austro-Asiatic (Munda) family and the Indo-Aryan. In the Jharkhand area, languages are from the Indo-Aryan, North Dravidian and Austro-Asiatic.


Tribals in India live in the following five territories.

  1. The Himalayan belt: (Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, hills of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh)
  2. Central India: Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, and Madhya Pradesh. 55% of the total tribal population of India lives in this belt.
  3. Western India: Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
  4. The Dravidian region: Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
  5. Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands.


The grammar of a language is essentially a culturally significant unit of behavior. Within the cognitive world of a group, its terminological system is encoded and decoded. When shift in language takes place, reference to the standard symbolic system of the culture shifts. Kinship terms, both address and reference, is an example, so also are personal names (Frake, 1980).

If we consider words for birds, the Brazilian Indian tribe has no word for 'parrot' but only 'kinds of parrots'. The concept 'to cross' /dattu/ in Kannada has several contextual meanings in Jenu Kuruba, i.e., 'to cross', 'to climb up', 'to climb down', 'jump', etc. Among the several small tribes, the 'concepts' for 'color' and 'numerals' are limited to their eco-system. Similarly, concepts for land, animals, plants, soil, wind, weather, social relations and supernaturals are different.


Language and ethnic identity are significant cultural parameters in the life-style of its speakers. Mahapatra (1980), discussing ethnic identity and language, shows that, in most cases, ethnicity is the primary focus of group identity and that language and identity are co-extensive, or one is derivative of the other.

There are tribal groups in India like the Malto speaking Paharia of the Santal Parganas who are specifically defined as belonging to a particular ethnic group. "The Paharia identifies himself as "en malen", "I am the language speaking man", and rejects others as "ah gohel", "he is a different language speaking outsider".

In other words, every individual is bound and attached by birth to kin relationships, religion, language and social practices, as belonging to a collectivity and is thus influenced by social norms and social values.


Extensive research conducted among these groups indicates that "distinct and seemingly strange grammars of various tribal languages are little windows through which we can see a distinct and different mode of perceiving and conceiving the world by these speech communities" (Abbi, 1996). Influenced by contact situations these groups have evolved ways and means to adopt and adapt to on-going change.

Tribal diversity seen as complex has resulted in processes of convergence, with the major languages and vice-versa. Pilot-Raichoor's 1996 study of the verb stem of Badaga of the Niligiris, shows that contrary to the theory of dominant language power, the language is influenced by neighbouring tribal languages and not that of Kannada, the dominant language.

Mohanty (1996) discusses aspects of contact and convergence of phonological aspects, i.e., the loss of /o/ in Kui, Sora, and Oriya.

Israel (1996) shows morphological changes in the case of Kui with Oriya as a result of language contact.

Annamalai (1996) discussing the linguistic diversity of India cites the example of Jenu Kuruba, a dialect of Kannada, and Irula and Badaga in the Niligiris and points out that in a dialect-language-continuum it is difficult to distinguish boundaries between tribal and non-tribal languages.

Singh (1996) shows how traditional occupations, such as, hunting and gathering have been reduced by 44%. Terrace and settled cultivations have increased thereby suggesting that they are settling down as peasants.

Khubchandani (1996) points out that tribes of the central belt of India over-powered by the major regional languages use their mother tongue only at home, whereas among the tribes from the Tibeto-Burman languages from the north-east, due to political movements for autonomous political power over the region, language shift is arrested.

As Frake (1980) points out, "any verbal response which conforms to the phonology and grammar of a language is necessarily a culturally significant unit of behaviour which ultimately is applicable to the 'semantic' analysis of any culturally meaningful behaviour'. Therefore, language shift necessarily entails culture change.


The causes could be complex. In multi-lingual, and pluri-cultural societies in India, small linguistic groups show inferior complex towards their language and culture. Some are unwilling to reveal the name of their language. Haimendorf (1982) observes that in Orissa, many prayers and magical formulae are also spoken in Oriya by the Bonda tribe, as the Bondas think it proper that deities and spirits be addressed in a 'superior language'. Khubchandani (1996) characterizes the features of differential social pressures that cause groups to maintain or shift their ancestral languages. They are:

  1. Strong tendency to maintain tribal language identity.
  2. Co-existence of tribal and non-tribal languages.
  3. Overwhelming tendency to shift ancestral tribal mother tongue in favour of non-tribal language.
  4. Least resistance by tribal languages in favour of dominant language(s).

If we delve further into the reasons for such trends, we can posit political and economic stimulants that reactivate identity assertion among some tribes who have access to such forces. For example, in reference to point 1 above, Khubchandani cites the tribal groups in the north-east which are culturally and linguistically heterogeneous, with members who are literate and vocal about their linguistic and cultural rights, and yet they have achieved their demands. For point 4 above, the states in the south, UP, Gujarat, Daman and Diu are cited, where tribal communities are illiterate, and their voice is still in the wilderness and thus show a tendency to merge with the dominant groups.

Therefore, the proposition that under compulsions of joining the mainstream small cultures submit to pressures of assimilation needs to be re-examined. It is access to the resources that are available that seems to determine the course of assimilation. Some groups have access to unlimited resources and others have access to only limited resources. The illiterate and economically backward tribes have no resources to assert their linguistic and cultural consciousness and therefore are subdued to change.


The political situation in 1947 led to the partition of India. Sindhi Hindus fled from the Sind. The Sindhi situation was very much unlike the situation of people who fled from the West Punjab and East Bengal. The latter had a geographic entity to return to and live in, and the Sindhis were scattered across India. They spoke Sindhi at home but had to adopt the local languages. This process has led to total geographic and cultural displacement leading to language loss among the Sindhis. As Daswani remarks,

Whereas the Bengali and Punjabi culture and language continue to thrive uninterruptedly in Indian Bengal and Punjab, there is no geographic Sind where the Sindhi language and culture can find succor and sustenance. Consequently, a thousand year history of language development and literary activity came to a virtual stop, since the speakers of Sindhi were scattered all over India, perceived everywhere as 'outsiders' as distinct from the sons of the soil. Many specific Sindhi variants of the sub-Hindu culture have been taken over by local Hindu variants (Daswani, 2000).

The present linguistic scenario is that Sindhis are illiterate in Sindhi and their culture Hinduised.

The Parsis in India survive as a religious and cultural group but have lost their region and language. The Tibetans who recently migrated from the Tibetan linguistic area to non-Tibetan areas in India practice a distinct religious and cultural identity. Trends in the tribal languages and cultures present a similar situation when compared to the non-tribal languages.


The level of literacy in the census reports of 1971 and 1991 is compared in order to make generalizations of change occurring among the tribal communities.

All India: The rate of literacy has decreased from 11.30% to 8.08%. It could mean that those literate individuals and groups have changed their socio-linguistic identity.

In order to bring in a common semblance in interpretation, the four major trends that Khubchandani mentions has been taken for analysis

1. Tribal communities in the following states retain their ancestral mother tongues. The rate of literacy is as follows:

1971 1991
Manipur 28.71 34.41
Meghalaya 26.45 85.53
Andaman & Nicobar Islands 17.85 9.54

The rate of literacy has tremendously increased in (a) and (b). But it has lowered in (c). It has helped trigger re-assertion of their identity. In Manipur, Aggarwal points out how the Meitei speakers are fighting their cause to re-use the Meitei script in place of the Bengali script. In Meghalaya, the schooling through the Khasi language is possible at the University level.

II. A high percent of tribals return mother tongue in the following states. The rate of literacy is as follows:

Nagaland 24.01 87.70
Mizoram - 94.75
Tripura 15.03 30.95
Arunachal 5.20 66.66
Assam 26.03 12.83
Dadra & Nagar Haveli 8.90 78.99

Except in Assam where the rate of literacy has lowered, which can be attributed to tribal group unrest in the state, it has increased in the rest of the states. These linguistic groups are against the dominance of Assamese.

In Sikkim, Bihar and West Bengal between 25-40 percent claim a non-tribal mother tongue. The rate of literacy is as follows:

Sikkim - 22.36
Bihar 11.64 7.66
West Bengal 8.92 5.60

In Sikkim it can be attributed to the reassertion of tribal identity. In Bihar and West Bengal, the rate has decreased, which can mean that they have adopted the state language.

III. States in the central belt and Himachal Pradesh, between 40-75% claim a non-tribal mother tongue as socio-poltical forces subdue retention of the ancestral language. The rate of literacy is as follows:

Orissa 9.46 22.21
Madhya Pradesh 7.62 23.27
Maharashtra 11.74 9.27
Rajasthan 6.47 12.44
Himachal Pradesh 15.89 4.22

The scene clearly indicates trends in language shift.

IV. The groups in the south, west-coast and UP show least resistance to shift to the dominant languages.

Andhra Pradesh 5.34 6.31
Tamil Nadu 9.02 1.03
Kerala 25.72 1.10
Uttar Pradesh 15.59 0.21

The scene in Kerala and Uttar Pradesh is significant and indicates shift emerging.


The basic philosophy of technology is to influence cultural change. The breakthrough that television medium has brought about is that it relays Indian and non-Indian cultural philosophies as indicators of globalization. To relay similar programs to reach the interior hilly tracts of tribal communities in the name of development is to consciously instill social discontent and inferiority of their culture. It will act as model images to imitate which can lead to identity crisis and change.

The television in India is a source to globalizing the major Indian languages. Societal pressure for services through major languages may have a homogenizing effect on the non-standard dialects and sociolects. Urbanization and regional development has caused a stir in the nature of language change.

Ishtiaq (1999) through spatial explanations, linguistic and social descriptions, provides social, economic and political dimensions of changing linguistic identities resulting in language shift among the tribal population in India that is leading to assimilation into the majority culture. The Korkus of the Khandwa Tehsil have made a complete shift to Nimadi, a regional dialect of Hindi with no intention to revive their traditional languages. "The people consider themselves superior to those Korkus who have retained their traditional linguistic identity and live in the Hersud Tehsil".

Researchers on the tribal languages indicate trends of shift from their home language to the dominant language. While the process of shift in language is occurring due to migration from the rural to the urban, and language contact of the rural on the borders of the urban, the role of television is expected to play a significant role in sociolinguistic change.


The UNESCO has, over the years, argued that respect for the culture and identity of people is an important element in any viable approach to people centred development. We experience a rapidly changing world-view caught in the throes of unmatched globalization where individual group identity is emerging as a result of self-awareness and pride in their culture, which is a source to empowerment. The cultural rootedness of people in their respective societies, heritage and living culture will promote economic development. Therefore, a smooth transition from the local to the regional, national, and international, carries with it ways to conserve and amplify expressions of values and heritage (Dine 1999).

World bodies such as the United Nations and the UNESCO are keen that all languages of the world are properly managed. And as follow-up of this objective, World Languages Reports are being written to describe linguistic diversity by studying its evolution, its current states, explain problems that affect different regions of the world and find solutions to linguistic communities in danger of extinction, keeping in view the fact that conflicts that occur in the world are always linked to questions of cultural and linguistic identity (Felix Marti, 2000).

The ratified Declarations of the Indigenous Peoples' Organisations states that "the culture of Indigenous Peoples is part of mankind's cultural patrimony and the customs and usages of the Indigenous Peoples must be respected by nation states". But the problem in the Indian context is that small and isolated ancestral languages and cultures, whose number is less than 10,000 gets eliminated in official assessments like the Census Reports. Or as Thoudam (2000) shows,

socio-economic conditions, educational backwardness and difficult communication and transport facilities in the hilly tracts of Manipur inhibit analyzing the languages of Manipur, let alone developing these languages for use in education, administration, or mass communication.

His apprehension is that after a few decades some of these languages might vanish. In case of a few languages, there is the crisis of identity. For example, because of political reasons and fear of being driven out, the speakers of Taraon in Manipur claim they speak Tangkhul because they live in a Tangkhul dominated area. In other words, languages with less number of speakers are bound to disappear. Therefore, there are gross contradictions between objectives to be achieved and methods of achieving.


Abbi, Anvita. 1996. Languages of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples of India. The Ethnic space. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, New Delhi.

Daswani, C.J. 2000. Language Decay: Lessons from Indian Sindhi. Paper presented at the International Conference on the Linguistic Heritage of India and Asia.

Emeneau, M.B. 1996. Linguistics and Indian Tribal Languages. In Abbi (Edited)

Felix Marti. 2000. World Languages Report. LINGUAPAX. Bilbao.

Frake, Charles. O. 1980. Language and Cultural Description. Stanford University Press. California.

Furer-Haimendorf. C. V. 1977. Tribal Problems in India. Tribe, Caste and Religion in India. In Romesh Thapar. Edited. Macmillan. New Delhi.

Ishtiaq, M. Language shifts among the scheduled tribes in India: A geographical study. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers. Delhi.

Jenks, C. 1993. Culture. London: Routledge.

Mahapatra, B.P. 1980. Ethnicity, Identity and Language. Indian Linguistics. 42. June.

Thoudam, P.C. 2000. Tibeto-Burman Languages of Northeast India - Problems and Prospects (with reference to Manipur). Presented at the International Conference on the Linguistic Heritage of India and Asia. CIIL, Mysore.

Wuthnow, R. et al. 1987. Cultural Analysis. The work of Peter L.. Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault and Jurgen Habermas. London. Routlege & Kegan Paul. Quoted in Lennart Svensson (ed.) Meeting Rivers. Lund Studies in Education 5. Lund University Press.



Jennifer M. Bayer, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India

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