Books

Language in motion: The story of India through its many tongues

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on October 13, 2021

In Wanderers, Kings, Merchants, linguistics teacher Peggy Mohan delves into the origins of the subcontinent’s languages and migration patterns that influenced them

The central message of this book is that languages are old, malleable, borrowable and vibrantly alive. It reminds me of a book I read nearly 30 years ago, called ‘Language Maid Plain’ by the late Anthony Burgess. The misspelling on the cover was deliberate, designed to draw attention.

Peggy Mohan, who has been a professor of linguistics at JNU, writes with understated passion, while more than adequately informing the reader about the different Indian languages and how they have evolved. The book has eight chapters, on Sanskrit, the Indo-Aryan languages, Urdu, Hindi and Turki — and something called Nagamese, which was the language used by the Assamese to communicate with the tribes, who lived in the region but had their own languages.

For some reason she has focused a lot on Malayalam, about which she says “the Kerala story is not exactly the same as in the old Vedic North-West, but it has enough similarities to bring a nod of recognition.” Her chapter on this is an eye-opener.

What happened, says Mohan, was that Brahmins from North India turned up “one fine day” and added Sanskrit to the local language. These were the Namboodiris, to whose linguistic interventions Ms Mohan has devoted an entire chapter.

Why? Because, she says, one day she saw some non-Malayalees watching Malayalam serials on TV. “They insisted that Sanskrit words in Malayalam allowed them to ‘follow’ the dialogue”. The mystery was solved for her when she realised that what the North Indians were watching were epics like the Mahabharat.

But back to Malayalam and the Namboodiris who, in the interest of keeping the land in the family, decreed that only the eldest son could marry a Brahmin, while the younger ones were free to have sambandham with other women. These were mostly the Nairs, who were also the ruling class. “In time,” says Mohan, “all the kings in Kerala had Namboodiri fathers.”

And that’s how the local language, Malayalam, imbibed the Sanskrit, which hundreds of years later assorted North Indians would latch on to while watching Malayalam serials.

The other mystery

In another fascinating chapter, Mohan asks how English has become more pervasive after the British left than when they were here. And she has a simple explanation: English is the language of power — to which she might have added that it is also the language to which no one objects.

But far more fundamentally, she reminds us how British politician, Macaulay, decided in the 1830s to replace Sanskrit and Persian, which were then the two languages of power, with English. The natives, he said, understand these two languages as little as English. So why not dispense with them? And that’s what he did.

She also points out that the English India now uses is its very own, a hot-potch of the local and the imported, which to me is like IMFL — Indian Made Foreign Liquor. English has, as the British would say, ‘gone native’ and become Hinglish, just as Scotch has.

In other words, then, language evolves just as it did in the West Indies where Mohan was born and spent her early years. She seems to understand this instinctively. Not for her the notions of chasteness in languages. They are what they are.

So where does all this leave us? In a fit of poetic fancy, she says “Languages are like the canaries that go with miners into dark paths that are full of danger. Like the canaries, they die first, long before the humans can sense that the air has begun to turn bad. When languages die, it is an omen…”

(TCA Srinivasa Raghavan is a senior journalist, columnist and author of several books, including a novel Goodbye to All That: A Delhi Story )

About the Book

Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages

By Peggy Mohan

Penguin Viking

341 pages; Rs 599

Check out the book on Amazon here

 

Published on October 13, 2021

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