Wanderers, Kings, Merchants; The Story of India through Its LanguagesPeggy Mohan
352 pages|₹ 599
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
MY JOURNEY INTO the story of Indian languages started with the hypothesis that many of our languages took their present shape because of encounters between groups of migrants, over the ages, and earlier local people. What I was expecting to find was a pattern of mixture familiar to me from Caribbean creoles, where newcomers left their mark on the vocabulary, the most visible layer of the new language, while the local population, or the ‘little people’, provided the grammar and sounds, the cement that held it all together.
My Sanskrit professor, Madhav Deshpande, had told us that he saw evidence that the earliest Sanskrit had been different from what was preserved in the Rig Veda, the oldest document we have on the language. What was missing from earliest Sanskrit, he said, was that line of consonants called rretroflexes, the ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ sounds that are the difference between words like Hindi dānt, ‘tooth’, and ḍāṇṭ, ‘scolding’. These ‘hoṭ poṭaṭo in the mouth’ sounds that we think of as an Indian accent are found all over South Asia (except in Assam and the Northeast, and two tribal languages in the heartland), but nowhere else on Earth. They are in all the languages of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Andamans and in most of Nepal. To say that Sanskrit originally did not have these sounds, but got them later, was to say that Sanskrit had at one time not been… Indian.
Sanskrit, however, was no stripped-down hybrid, but when new genetic evidence came to light the Caribbean two-stranded model of language mixture held. What we saw was a migration of men from the Steppes coming without women, men who had to find local wives or go extinct.
This at once led to mixed families where the children would have first learnt a local language from their mothers, with the boys moving on a few years later to learn their ‘father tongue’, Sanskrit. These boys’ first languages, being Indian, had all these ṭ, ḍ, ṇ and even ḷ sounds that you find in South Indian languages, and they must have brought them into the Prakrits that they made, and even into their spoken Sanskrit, while keeping them out of the sacred Rig Vedic hymns they were composing.
Hundreds of years went by, while the Rig Vedic hymns survived orally, with each Brahmin family remembering them a bit differently. Then, after a decisive battle about 700 years later, one Vedic tribe came to power and decided to stop all the infighting between the tribes and start the Kuru empire, which eventually spread out over all the north of the subcontinent and down the western coast. One crucial thing they did was send out scholars to collect the Rig Vedic hymns from the families to use in śrauta rituals, which were intended to strengthen the bond between the Vedic Brahmins and Kshatriya kings. These scholars’ spoken Sanskrit was already full of the new Indian sounds, so when they sat down together to puzzle out the often garbled hymns they heard, they added in the sounds that were a part of their spoken Sanskrit, and these then got standardised as part of Rig Vedic Sanskrit as we now know it.
What we saw was a migration of men from the Steppes coming without women, men who had to find local wives or go extinct. This at once led to mixed families where the children would have first learnt a local language from their mothers, with the boys moving on a few years later to learn their ‘father tongue’, Sanskrit
The men’s language gave the words and the intricate grammar we think of as Sanskrit, while the women’s old language was able to infiltrate the sound system and survive. The addition of retroflex sounds to Rig Vedic Sanskrit coincided with a second wave of Vedic influence, which spread the culture and language far and wide in South Asia.
We can get a recap of the story of Brahmins entering a land with an earlier population and language. The story of Kerala, and the entry of Namboodiri Brahmins with the Rig Veda to validate local kings in the 8th century CE, is a replay of the old Vedic story in living colour.
WITH THE MODERN North Indian languages, we again see a pattern of mixture between what the earlier people spoke and the language of migrant men, but this time it is a more complicated mixture than what we saw with Sanskrit and the Prakrits. We don’t know when these new languages emerged, because the only way we can know about languages spoken long ago is when we find them in written text, and this only began to happen around the 10th-12th centuries CE, but they were probably being spoken for a good while before that.
These newer languages were very different from Sanskrit and the Prakrits, which were not really hybrids. The new languages did not have cases (kāraks) like Sanskrit, but had post-positions, like Dravidian and Munda languages do (think of mein, a separate word after the noun, that means ‘in’ in Hindi). They also preserved grammatical features that were not in Sanskrit, the Prakrits or often anywhere else on Earth. These features look to be survivals of the grammatical mindset of the vanished Harappan people, in the areas to the west which were linked to Harappa, while east of Banaras they show the mindset of old Munda tribal languages and a major migration of Southeast Asians about 4,000 years ago.
What seems to have happened is that while Brahmins and kings spoke their Sanskrit and elite Prakrits, the ‘little people’ must have stayed a long time on the sidelines speaking their old languages. Then, as time went by, each of these small languages adopted new vocabulary from local Prakrits (not Sanskrit!) first to express nouns, then verbs, and then everything, even grammatical relationships that did not exist in Sanskrit or the Prakrits. A superficial coat of paint, as it were, on languages that were much, much older. That is how we have verbs with gender (khātā hūn vs. khātī hūn), or compound verbs ((huā vs. ho gayā), a distinction that cannot be expressed in Sanskrit), and past tenses where the verb agrees with the object, and not the subject (main khānā khātī hūn becoming main-ne khānā khāyā), with the verb masculine to agree with its object, though I, the eater, remain female). All of a sudden, resemblances to Sanskrit and Prakrit are purely superficial. The cement holding these modern North Indian languages together is something that goes back to the time of the Harappans!
ENGLISH, LIKE SANSKRIT, had two (or rather, three) stages in its spread through India. The initial entry was modest: small settlements on the coast, from where they traded with a land ruled by the Mughals. The next stage was when these petty traders grew to topple the Mughal Empire and themselves become the rulers of India. At this stage English became a useful language for Indians who worked for the British, but it was only a second language: the bābūs still got their primary education in the home language, and preferred to speak and read literature in local languages. The English they spoke was like a Prakrit: not too different from Standard British English except in having a strong local accent (and retroflexion!), and a few turns of phrase that revealed that these men still thought in the home language (think of bābū-speak expressions like this is required to be pur-chased: not technically wrong, but a bit strange). Similar bits of old grammar had also made their way into later Sanskrit and the Prakrits.
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The elite of independent India needed a language to define themselves, a language that the ‘little people’ would have a hard time picking up, since they barely got any access to it
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English really took off in India only after Independence. That was when English medium schools in India began to open primary sections, and elite children still learning their first language began to be exposed to English all day long. Something that had been happening from the time of Sanskrit, and in Mughal times with Persian being the elite literary language, was happening again. The elite of Independent India needed a language to define themselves, a language that the ‘little people’ would have a hard time picking up, since they barely got any access to it. The persistence of English in Independent India was no longer because of the British: the British were gone.
What happens when a powerful and alien elite language comes and takes its place at the top of the social order? It creates an apartheid situation, where most of the society does not have the ‘language skills’ to avail of the opportunities even ordinary people from the elite have. This is what we had for centuries. But what happens if the tempo begins to race, and other forces in the global economy demand connectedness? Then the alien elite language, like an invasive species of weed, begins to take over your land, take over people whose loyalty once was to a local language, and this is dangerous for the languages whose place it is taking.
English initially took over all the less trivial work once done by local languages and dialects: like the Vedic boys we discussed earlier, after an infancy with their mothers speaking a local language, elite children after the first few years would transit in school to a life in English. Not just science, but even mathematics was part of the world of English. We do not have two languages existing in parallel, or the bilingualism the bābūs had: this is a single ‘competence’ made up of two languages, one for trivial things, and the other to do with more important, modern, elite things. The elite language actually stultifies the local language, and begins to encroach further into the very sentences people think they are speaking in the local language. The word for this mixture of Hindi and English is ‘Hinglish’, and other parts of India have their own names for this linguistic chimera too.
While teaching in English medium is great for keeping the elite in seclusion from the rest of the society, it is actually the most inefficient way of passing on English to the others. There is a convenient myth that children can learn any language they are exposed to, but they do need to be exposed to it. That is why we do not, for example, end up learning Japanese in India! What we see instead is years wasted as little children remain mute in class, unable to follow the teacher, or, when the teacher is uncertain of her English, she avoids explaining the parts of the lesson she does not understand. A needlessly slow transition to English that also erases the child’s other language and saps his confidence. With poorer Indians in transit to English, we can be sure that the people who have been keeping our languages ‘safe’ are becoming just as pragmatic as the elite. We are in the early days of a mass extinction of linguistic life forms.
WHAT HAS BEEN interesting in looking at language mixture in India while writing Wanderers, Kings, Merchants is seeing how often similar things happen in completely different places and times. Persian words came into literary Urdu in essentially the same way as Sanskrit words came into Malayalam: only nouns, and brought by scholars and poets who were actually trying to get away from their elite languages to appeal to a wider audience.
Or the case of Nagamese, a new link language in Nagaland, being a ‘Prakrit’ of Assamese, in just the same way as Indian English during the British Raj started out as a ‘Prakrit’ of British English. Close, but with a different accent and a few different details.
All the different kinds and degrees of language mixture we look at here are not driven by language, but instead mirror political events that have shaped the subcontinent over the ages. Languages exist in an ecosystem. Things that affect their ecosystem, like migrations, will harm or encourage existing languages, and often give rise to hybrids, where the maternal and paternal strands in the mixture will show up as different layers, if we know how to read the signs.