Have you heard of the Portuguese speaking community in Maharashtra?

The story of Korlai Creole, a language that is a combination of Portuguese and Marathi.
Have you heard of the Portuguese speaking community in Maharashtra?

According to the 2018 census, India has over 19,500 languages or dialects as mother tongues. But the Indian Government recognises a language as official only if over 10,000 people speak it. This regulation has caused countless languages to be endangered and even extinct in the country. According to the renowned literary critic and activist, Ganesh Devy, India has around 600 languages that are endangered. But in the last 60 years, India has lost about 250 languages.

Korlai Creole is one such endangered language spoken in the tiny village of Korlai in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. The population of Korlai is just 2864, out of which less than 1000 people speak Korlai Creole.

Let us delve deep into the origins of Korlai Creole and understand why it is crucial to preserve endangered languages.

Birth of Korlai Creole

A creole is a language that has developed from a mixture of different languages and has become the primary language in a particular place. The Korlai creole was a mixture of Portuguese and Marathi. The locals referred to this language as ‘Christi’.

This blending of languages was caused when the Portuguese first arrived in Chaul, a port town near Korlai. In 1505, Portuguese Commander Don Lorenzo de Almeda (Dom Lourenco de Almeida), accompanied by 10 ships, attacked the Chaul port and inflicted huge losses on the locals. But it wasn’t until 1580, the Portuguese emerged as the major trading and political force.

St. Barbara’s Church in  Chaul which is now Revdanda.
St. Barbara’s Church in Chaul which is now Revdanda. Russian Information Centre

As the Portuguese grew dominant, the influence of their culture was seen on the locals. There was a sudden growth of Christianity in the region. A Catholic Church was built in Korlai which symbolises the Portuguese-Christan Legacy in Maharashtra. The Portuguese language also started infiltrating the local culture.

The then Portuguese Government created policies that pushed locals to convert to Christianity. Some people were forced but few individuals from the lower castes chose to convert in the hope of a better social status. Hence the Marathi-speaking population that converted to Christianity, were exposed to Portuguese which invariably led to the birth of Korlai Creole.

Another theory for the creation of Korlai Creole comes from Professor J. Clancy Clements’ research on Korlai. He talks about how the new language came into being abruptly and was forced on the locals. As the Portuguese dominated the social structure of the region, they created fortified settlements in India, leading to large scale domestic slavery.

The Portuguese soldiers started engaging in multi-partner relations with lower-caste Hindu women. These soldiers then settled in India and were married to Indian women. These marriages gave birth to a new generation of the Indo-Portuguese Catholic community. Hence, Creole emerged as a lingua franca between the Portuguese men and the native Marathi speakers in Korlai.

The Chruch which established Christianity in Korlai.
The Chruch which established Christianity in Korlai.Korlai Fort/Facebook

Future of Korlai Creole

Korlai Creole is an informal dialect like Malvani or Ahirani used in the Kokan region of Maharashtra. Unlike Malvani or Ahirani which is spoken by around 4,10,631 people; Korlai Creole is used by around 800 people which makes the preservation of the language difficult.

Dialects like Malvani or Ahirani are in close contact with their language of origin, Marathi and are impacted by the growth of the Marathi language and community. Similarly, efforts are being made for preserving these dialects. But for Korlai Creole, with its distance from its language of origin (Portuguese), it has been dominated by Marathi. No formal body or authority has made efforts to preserve the language by publishing, recording or creating any literary material.

Another concern for Korlai Creole is its disassociation with the future generation. Students are now studying English and Marathi which pushes them away from the language of their elders. They use languages like Marathi, Hindi for communicating outside their home. These reasons will lead to the extinction of Korlai Creole.

Why is language preservation important?

Language preservation is of utmost importance, especially in the Indian context. What had heavily distinguished India with everyone else is its distinct cultural diversity and an undying multiplication of pluralities; there are cultures new and old, with glorious history, that is still prospering and changing.

However, some cultures and communities are obviously smaller in comparison to others and their social status also acts as an inhibitor in establishing and maintaining a prominent cultural identity.

Languages contain literature and traditions that are not only reflective of struggles and histories of entire tribes and types of people but also have great literary importance. Maintaining and improving the presence of these languages would also mean reforming the tribal groups in a social sense.

Otherwise, if the languages go extinct then they will lead to the identity loss of a great number of people and more than that it would also make many such groups feel unwanted and neglected on the Indian land.

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