Peggy Mohan traces the complex evolution of languages and their social contexts in Indian history
By Sanjeev Chopra
There are so many ways in which the story of India, or indeed of any country, can be written. It can be documented as a chronicle of kings and emperors, it can be portrayed as the making and unmaking of boundaries, or as a narrative of religious domination and persecution. Other historians may focus on trade – both inland and maritime, as well as on waves of migration, contestation and assimilation. Typically, history books centre around dynasties, wars of succession and generals who emerged victorious in battle, and the narrative is built on contemporary and latter-day hagiographies. All these point to certain aspects of truth, but not the entire truth of how a nation and its people imagine themselves, or about their everyday expressions which reflect the lived reality in greater measure than any list of rulers and their successors!
From the 19th century, linguistic nationalism came to the fore, and many an epic battle was fought for determination of boundaries based on the language which a people spoke – and thus language became a significant marker of identity. Many lives were lost before the linguistic reorganization of states took place in our country, and where this right was denied (as in Pakistan) the nation itself broke apart.
From the 19th century, linguistic nationalism came to the fore and many an epic battle was fought for determination of boundaries based on language which a people spoke.
The book under consideration, Peggy Mohan’s Wanderers, Kings and Merchants: The Story of India Through its Languages, raises an even more fundamental issue: how do languages of daily discourse, as well as the languages of power and ritual, evolve; how do they interact with each other, and how have they shaped and defined India as we know her today. Starting with her own example of learning English Creole in her neighbourhood in Trinidad & Tobago, formal Hindi in school with whiffs of Bhojpuri from her grandmother, and her mother’s Canadian-accented English at home, she saw both similarities and distinctions between the languages that surround all those who grow in a multi-lingual environment. Every language has some aspect that is unique – for example, in Trinidad Bhojpuri, the basic numeric count is not up to base 10 but up to base 20. Thus, up to 20, the numbers are more or less like Hindi, but at 20 they are flipped back to the start, and like 20 in English, there is 21; but at 40, it is ‘two twenties and one’ (dui-bis-a-ek), and so on. Mohan was left wondering whether this was an original concept, or due to the influence of the ‘aboriginal’ on Bhojpuri!
While it is true that, across the world, languages and dialects within the same language change every few miles, the process is gradual. Thus, one sees that even within Punjabi spoken in the now truncated Punjab, there are three distinct variants – Majhi, which is spoken in Amritsar and the districts bordering Pakistan, Doabi, spoken in Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Kapurthala, and Malwai, which is spoken in Patiala and the cis-Sutlej areas. However, newer languages were different. They ‘did not only sprout in continuity like new branches from the same tree from where they started’ (as in the example given above) but were like different trees that happened to be neighbours stretching their branches, touching each other, and sharing (the common) structure.
Mohan illustrates this ‘lateral mixing’ of languages coming together within the same niche with the European explorer ships trying to find a maritime route to India. Christopher Columbus ‘found’ the West Indies where the land was stripped of both its native population and vegetation, and a verdant biosphere was turned into ‘factory farms’ growing row upon row of sugarcane, a plant brought in from India. The so-called great triangle between Europe, the Caribbean and Africa, was a three-step journey – Europe to Africa to capture slaves, the crossing from Africa to the Caribbean where the chained slaves were sold to the plantation owners, while the third leg held the white crystalline sugar which provided empty calories for the new industrial labour force.
Every language has some aspect that is unique – for example, in Trinidad Bhojpuri the basic numeric count is not up to base 10 but up to base 20.
However, the ‘master’ needed to communicate his orders and the first slave languages were pidgins – unstable codes made on the spot by adults to get their points of view across functionally. However, children, who have an innate ability to pick up a first language and create coherence out of all the sounds they hear, transformed the pidgin into ‘creoles’ which could do everything that a natural language could – express emotions of love, hate, anger, assertion, pleading, and whatever else: in prose as well as poetry.
This understanding of how ‘creoles’ evolve is Mohan’s way of understanding the origin of new languages: these are not made by random mixing or calm consensus but in a pattern marked by two separate layers – the vocabulary, on the one hand, and the grammatical structure, on the other. This was best illustrated by Marathi, now a fully evolved language spoken by 83 million people, officially classified as an Indo Aryan language, but one that was ‘born out of Aryan Dravidian contact’. Unlike philologists who focused on individual words – and discovered ‘likeness of pronunciations’, Mohan’s focus is on the ‘inner skeleton’ of language – the intrinsic sound system and grammar which is the maternal side of the story, the mother tongue, as against the vocabulary which is the paternal side. She argues that man and woman also spoke differently as their ‘lived worlds’ were distinct. And even in Abhigyanam Shakuntalam, Dushyant spoke in Sanskrit but Shakuntala would reply in Prakrit. They understood each other well but they used their own individual languages to convey their finest emotions to each other. Incidentally, her name in Prakrit is Saundala!
Mohan then talks of the hidden story of Sanskrit, and follows up on a seminal paper by her mentor, Prof Deshpande, who argued that the retroflexed consonants in Sanskrit (as in most other Indian languages, with the exception of Assamese and languages in the Northeast and Ladakh) had their origin in Dravidian languages. This was an inversion of the prevalent theory of Indo Aryan languages with Sanskrit at the helm. From the mid-19th century, William Jones had given a special aura to Sanskrit, and Max Mueller went on to argue that Aryan was derived from ‘Arya’, lending credence to the theory that the Aryan influx was indeed a case of ‘men’ taking control of local resources – especially land, cattle wealth and women – and claiming their progeny as the direct descendants of the paternal line. Thus, Ved Vyasa’s mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all non-Brahman (and by implication non-Aryan) but he was regarded as a Brahman! This, then, is the origin of ‘diglossia’ which is different from bi-linguism, which is the ability to speak, understand and translate two languages. Diglossia, however, refers to a context in which the ‘mother tongue of the child’ is distinct from the formal language taught in school – and over time a single competence emerges in which ‘basic things like vegetable shopping, car repair, et cetera’ are done in the mother tongue, but interface with the state and professional networks is done in the ‘learnt’ language. This fits in with Romila Thapar’s view that the Vedic influx was not an invasion, but a stream of ‘male migrations’ for generations – perhaps centuries.
Mohan then proceeds to discuss how the Namboodiri Brahmans changed Malayalam. She avers that Sanskrit ‘arrived’ in the region in the eighth century CE when the local kings offered them tax-exempt land grants (Janmi) in lieu of their performing the srauta (fire ritual). The Namboodiri Brahmans were patrilineal and followed the law of primogeniture, and therefore the younger sons were encouraged to form sambandams (marital arrangements) with Nair women who were matrilineal. Thus, the Namboodiri men lived as Brahmans in their own homes but their children grew up in the Nair households, thereby giving Malayalam the unique Sanskrit flavour! But Malayalam continues to be a Dravidian language.
No discussion on Indian languages would be complete without a reference to Amir Khusro, who is credited with having created Hindavi – also called Urdu and Rekhta – as the language of communication among the very different and distinct linguistic forms prevalent in his times. Khusro’s father was Amir Saifuddin Mahmud, from Central Asia, and his mother, Daulatnaz Bibi, was from a Muslim Rajput family, with her father being one of the highest-ranking officials of Balban with the title, Nawab Imadul Mulk. Khusro learnt Turki (Uzbek), Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and also picked up the various dialects spoken in the Delhi region: Awadhi, Braj, Bhojpuri and Khari Boli or Dehalvi. This was Hindavi, later called Urdu or Rekhta, and quite distinct from Persian, the formal language of the court elite. This, then, was a moment of transition and transformation for, in the normal course, languages do not change much except for addition in vocabulary – and English is a fine example of adding words and expressions from all languages, such that the corpus of words has grown from a few thousand in the times of Shakespeare to nearly 1.5 million at last count. English is the predator prey, encroaching into Hindi to create Hinglish – a new format which is accepted by Bollywood, the media and even the political class. Most speeches of the Prime Minister are now peppered with English words. In fact, it is now almost impossible to find Hindi words for mobile, computer, control, driver, speed, petrol, diesel, ration – to name a few.
One must pause here and understand the difference between language and script – the spoken word and the written text. The multiple divisions of Punjab have not been based on language (across all of Punjab Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs speak in much the same way but the script was elevated to a ‘high’, almost divine, status: as in Gurmukhi (the language of the Guru), Devanagari (the language of the gods) and Shahmukhi (the language of the ruler). But the one order which sowed the seeds of India’s partition was what Alok Rai calls the MacDonnell moment, when the Lieutenant Governor of the North West Provinces and Oudh (NWP &O), Antony MacDonnell, issued the fateful order on April 18, 1900, allowing permitted but not exclusive use of Devanagari in the courts of the province. This ‘was the deceptively thin edge of the wedge that was ultimately to result in the Partition of the country’.
Mastering English became an end in itself, and what started as a code to identify the elite snowballed into something else set to replace our older languages and culture as it trickled down to forge a new homogeneity.
In the Northeast of India, Nagamese has emerged as the link language for the 16 tribal communities which inhabit the Naga Hills: the Angami, Ao, Chakesang, Chang, Dimasa, Khiammuingan, Konyak, Kuki, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Rengma, Sangtam, Sumi, Yimchunger and Zeme Liangmai (or Zeilang) with the name of each tribe being the name of its language. Nagamese was basically Naga Assamese – the language used by the hill tribes to trade with the Assamese, which in turn was linked to the Prakrit of Kamarupa, which had split from the Magadh Prakrit around the seventh century. As far as Assamese is concerned, it was a tonal language of the Ahoms, which was more proximate to the language spoken in Shan state of Burma (now Myanmar).
Last, but not least, we have the issue of Indian English, Hinglish, as well as English without MTI (mother tongue interference). Indian English is what Macaulay left for us – which was purely functional, meant for government offices and commercial establishments. Hinglish is gaining ground in everyday common discourse but the real issue today is of the generation of English-speaking children of the middle and upper middle classes who ‘think’ and write in English, and use their Hindi only with their drivers and ayahs while, in some cases, even the chauffeurs are now able to converse in English. Mohan also tries to analyse how and why English has captured the public space and become the medium of discourse for the elite. Ironically, the proliferation of English began after Independence as no Indian language could emerge as a substitute, mainly because of the fear of Hindi hegemony in the South. Equally important was the fact that it became the language of the elite – of the bureaucracy, diplomats, generals, corporate honchos, the language of research and the judiciary – and soon young children from this class were getting their primary education in English. Mastering English became an end in itself, and what started as a code to identify the elite snowballed into something else set to replace our older languages and culture as it trickled down to forge a new homogeneity. Only time will tell what this augurs for this land which has always celebrated diversity of language and expression. Full marks to Peggy Mohan for her erudition, scholarship and the wonderful way in which she has made us aware of how our spoken and written world continue to shape us and our thoughts!
(The author is a historian, public policy analyst and Festival Director at the Valley of Words, Dehradun. Until recently, he was Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.)