Photo Credit: Telangana Tourism & Mohit R. Juturu

The Telugu World Column# 02

Thriving People, Dying Language

Much of what is written below is based on information given by Prof. Murali Ahobila Vajjula of Visakhapatnam.

Telugu is one of the 22 major recognized languages in India. It is the official language of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states and the second largest spoken language in India today as73 million people speak Telugu.  It is the second largest as over a dozen dialects like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magadhi, Chattisgarhi, Malwi, Avadhi have all been taken together as one and called Hindi ir Hindustani, India’s link language.

The difference between these dialects is much more than that between Telugu spoken in Telangana, coastal AP and Rayalaseema regions, so much that those knowing Hindi cannot even understand some of them.

Telugu is more than 2000 years old.  References to it date back to 1500 BC (see, Arudra 1968). Telugu has a glorious history of patronization by different rulers of this part of India. It has such a rich and evolved vocabulary and expressive idiom that a Kannada king Srikrishnadeva Raya, adopted it as court language of the Vijayanagara empire and said ‘Deshabhashalandu Telugu lessa’ (Telugu is the best among the languages of the country). He even wrote a classic in Telugu, Amuktamalyada.

The growth and development of the Telugu language and literature is due not only to this royal patronage but also the writings of great poets and writers. Thus, it is not surprising that a major and a highly evolved Indian classical music tradition called ‘Carnatic Music’ flourished using the Telugu language as its base.  Thyagaraju, who spoke and wrote in Telugu, is considered the Brahma of Carnatic music.  Its practitioners all sing in Telugu. He lived in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur, not in Andhra or Karnataka.

Although the British could not understand Telugu language or its idiom, they recognized the intrinsic musical tonality of spoken Telugu. They called it the ‘Italian of the East’ as words in it ended with vowels instead of consonants as in Italian, making it musical.  The UN report that Telugu is as an endangered language is, therefore, disturbing.

Why has Telugu become an endangered languageIt is a very important question because Telugu is spoken by millions and has two states today in India. In fact the very linguistic reorganization of India was due to the movement of the Telugu people for a separate state decades before India became free.

United Nation’s Endangered Languages Research Report says that “endangered languages are not necessarily languages with few speakers; in fact the size of a group hardly matters. The viability of a language is determined first and foremost by the general attitude of its speakers with respect to their traditional culture, of which their language is considered one of the most important exponents.”

The report points out that Suruaha, a small group of  of around 150 natives who live in complete isolation in the Amazonian jungle of Brazil, all – including the children– speak Suruaha, and only Suruaha.

Despite the small size of their population, their language and their traditional way of life are intact.  There is no fear of disappearance of Suruaha culture in near future. “In contrast, some larger groups are not passing on their native language to new generations” (Dutch Report, 2000, p.2).

“The UN conclusions are based on a statistical database (parents to children mother tongue knowledge ratio coupled to the population growth rate) collected over a period to predict the viability and survival of a language in the course of time,” says Prof. Murali.

Apparently, even though the Telugu speaking population is substantial (73 million) in India today, UN statistics obviously indicate that a smaller and smaller percentage of Telugu children are learning their mother tongue at the elementary level.  This alarming downward spiral of Telugu learning population indicates that the UN is right in predicting that Telugu may become an endangered language.

A separate Telugu state was sought because Telugu, the second largest spoken language in India, does not have adequate representation at the center though it has a distinct identity and rich cultural heritage. It was argued that an independent linguistic state was needed to protect its unique language and cultural identity and develop its natural resources.   Therefore, it is ironic that half a century after the formation of a separate linguistic state for the Telugu people, Telugu is on the ‘endangered’ list.

.Andhra Pradesh, where the ruling party was voted out of power recently, declared that it would have English as medium of instruction from primary level. This was supposed to deal a death blow to Telugu as many who studied in English medium ended up unable to write in Telugu. The state government alone cannot be blamed because this is a global phenomenon. Proficiency in English is needed in today’s global economy which is technology-driven. Technological competence alone enables us to compete in the global job market. Market trends dictate that children from developing and underdeveloped countries should start learning English at an early age. Telugu children are no exception.

Why they should ignore their mother tongue and endanger its survival, however, defies logic as children at a young age  are capable of learning several languages without much strain.

Politicians play with our lives for their own goals.


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