Scientists from the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) went to study the isolated Toto tribe, which currently has a population of 1,536, only to find out the Toto language is more endangered than the primitive tribe.
Study methodology and findings
As scientists studied the Toto language, called Yaa Waa, they recorded some songs, folklore and vocabulary. Only then did they realize that the Toto language has no script and is rapidly being influenced by Bengali and Nepali.
The Toto language is part of the Tibeto-Burman group of India’s many languages and without much research it had survived in the small community orally, according to research associate in Linguistics of AnSI, Kumar Mukhopadhyay, one of the top members of the research team.
They also found out that the members of the small community speak Toto when they communicate among themselves within their village but they will not use their own language when they leave their Totopara village located in Madarihaat in the district of Alipurduar. They would not even speak the Toto language among themselves if they are outside their village.
The threat to the language is real, according to the members of the community as well as the researchers, as the language is being overtaken by other languages, primarily by Bengali and Nepali, continuously.
In a sample survey done in 2003, it was found out that the literacy rate in the Toto community was about 33.64%. But even without its own script, members of the community have written poems and books in their own language, using the script of the Bengali language. One example is Dhaniram Toto, who has written two books in the Toto language. According to him, one of his books, entitled “Uttar Banga Lokpath,” is about his community’s folk tales, while his other book, “Lokeswar,” deals with the Toto’s folk culture. Mr. Toto wants to have a script developed for the Toto language. According to him there are other authors, such as Satyajit Toto who had to borrow scripts from other languages to be able to write in their own language.
Fighting for their language to survive
The Totos wish for their language to survive and the scientists conducted the study to keep a record of the language that might go extinct in a few decades. Most of the Totos work as porters and day laborers. They carry oranges from Bhutan to north Bengal’s local market. While Totopara is geographically isolated, the community members are putting emphasis on education now and even girls were able to graduate. However, the elders are lamenting the fact that there is no one to teach their children the Toto language.
Despite their dwindling numbers and their land holdings getting smaller, they are fighting to keep their language alive, in a country where indigenous languages are getting lost faster than in any place on earth. In 1961, it was estimated that about 1,600 languages were spoken in India. Today the number is down to 900, with the Census recognizing only 122 of these distinct languages.
In the case of Yaa Waa, an elderly man, Bhakta Toto, has written a manuscript that took him about 10 years to write. It contains 2,500 words in Yaa Waa that will be published as a dictionary, with pronunciations in English and word meanings in English and Bengali.