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Tracing India's History Through the Changing Landscape of Languages

An excerpt from 'Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages'.

Excerpted from Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages, released by Penguin Viking in April 2021.

Everywhere we turn for answers about un-Sanskritic features in Indo-Aryan languages we find ourselves back in pre-Vedic India with the languages that were there before Sanskrit and the first Prakrits—old tongues that refused to pack up and go away. We can sense the presence of people who held themselves apart from the world of Sanskrit, and of the Vedic families where the wives and young children spoke a different language from the outlanders who were their menfolk. And so here we are now, with a line of new mixed languages that drew all their vocabulary from the Prakrits, but held on tight to an old mindset that had nothing at all to do with the Sanskrit family. How did these two streams merge to make mixed languages that are so reminiscent of Caribbean creoles?

…What would it take to qualify Hindi or Marathi as creoles? Well, modern Hindi and Marathi don’t really come into the picture as yet. We are going back a long, long time, to the early vernacular languages that were spoken in the days of the oldest Prakrits. We are looking at what very ordinary people all the way across the north of the subcontinent were speaking, as they listened at a distance to the Ārya flitting by in their chariots, getting used to a new normal, realizing that these people were not going to go away. There would have been many, many of these early local dialects, as many as in our hinterland today, where, to quote the old adage, ‘the air and dialect change every kos (every two miles)’.

Peggy Mohan
Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages
Penguin Viking, 2021

When exactly did little dialects emerge looking like Tiramisu bears, with coffee-coloured paws inspired by old preVedic languages and cream-coloured topcoats of words and word endings totally drawn from Prakrit? In Chapter 2, we found that there were two distinct phases of Vedic settlement in the subcontinent. The first was the initial influx of small groups of Vedic men over a period of generations, or even centuries, tribes that were almost as divided among themselves as they were hostile to the local population. The second phase was hundreds of years later, after the Kuru super-tribe sorted out the squabbling between the Ārya tribes and set up the beginnings of an empire, collecting the Rig Vedic hymns that were dispersed among different Brahmin families and standardizing retroflexion, that Indian ‘tag’ [a new line of consonants in the sound system] that had crept into recitation over the centuries.

The first phase of settlement had, besides Sanskrit, local languages and Prakrits. To recap, Prakrits were languages that were close enough to Sanskrit in their grammars to have been approximations of Sanskrit itself, though spoken with a local accent, maybe even including the colloquial Sanskrit that the Vedic men would have been speaking when they were not composing and reciting Rig Vedic hymns. The second phase, which began with the Kurus, saw the Vedic people spreading over the north of the subcontinent, all the way from the Kabul River to Bengal, and down south into Maharashtra and Andhra. If there was ever a time when a chain of new mixed languages could get started, not just in one tiny area, but across the entire north of the subcontinent and down the west coast, it would have to be during this second phase.

What did these mixed dialects look like? Did they come up suddenly, replacing the earlier languages the little people had been speaking, or did they take time and sink in, new words from Prakrit replacing all the old words and word endings of the earlier languages in a slower accommodation to the new status quo? Had there been the scramble of a pidgin phase, as in the Caribbean, or was the fitting of new words to old grammars more in the nature of a gradual substitution?

…Hindi and Marathi, and all the other Indo-Aryan languages, came up separately, under similar pressures, not as the large regional languages they are today, but as many little dialects all with very local relationships to the Prakrits from which they drew their new vocabulary. For centuries they remained below sea level, keeping their place in an increasingly segregated society, their speakers unable to blend into the elite world of kings and Brahmins, full of Prakrit and Sanskrit, and bound by caste to stay put in small clan groups that suited the little dialects they spoke. Things to do with religion and literature, both Brahminical concerns, called for Sanskrit, which was more memorized and recited than written. That left the work linked to commerce and the law courts to what were evolving from the unwritten dialects of villages into languages of the towns, useful for making stock lists, doing accounts and writing legal notes.

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…Somewhere between the tenth and twelfth centuries, signs of these little languages broke the surface and began to find their way into the written record, which is how we are able to know about them now. In the area around Delhi there was poetry in Braj and Awadhi, and there was soon a new and unnamed variety around Delhi which grew into the language we know today. When you see written languages emerging out of the continuum of tiny dialects, you know that the landscape was changing. Old alignments were crumbling. The time when Sanskrit and literary Prakrits spoke for a far-flung elite, and unwritten dialects were used by people far below, was coming to an end. An unwieldy old order had begun to fragment into smaller, more compact regional entities that sought political autonomy. In this new age, languages that would one day be called Hindi and Marathi began to emerge out of the little dialects around them. (extracted from pages 121-129)

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The story we are following in this book is thus the bittersweet story of convergence, of language following as a faithful mirror when the entry of super-groups linked to empire, literacy and the market draw small communities together into a wider and faster flow, full of people who will never meet face to face. Language is not an independent player in this convergence. It makes no sense for us to dream of preserving the little languages without raising questions about the political and economic forces that are connecting us into one mega-community, and asking ourselves whether this system that causes the mass extinction of our languages and our old ways of life is something we even want. Preservation, in any case, is an unfortunate choice of word: you preserve things that are already dead, not things that are going to grow and evolve in new directions without your help. A language that is kept in a box and never used will die for lack of the oxygen it needs: little children who speak it natively, and a community of native speakers who will use it for both the simple and the sophisticated things that they do.

A closer look at the convergence in India shows that besides the earliest migration of Austroasiatic men, about which we know nothing beyond what genetic studies tell us, there were only two migrations whose linguistic impact extended beyond the elite to affect the rest of the population. These were the Vedic people, who brought Sanskrit, and the British, who brought English. The Central Asian settlers were fortunate to happen upon a Hindi that was already more or less in final form by the twelfth century CE, though it was always happy to try on new nouns.

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An even closer look tells us that it was not the initial entry of these people that brought the phase change in Indian society. Both influxes started out modestly, with a trickle of men who settled on the edge of India: the North-west, in the case of the Vedic people, and the port cities of the coast, in the case of the British, who came by sea. But both these sets of languages got a second wind, as it were, when later upheavals created new super-groups who ‘owned’ these languages. The second Sanskrit age was after the Kuru dynasty united the warring Rig Vedic tribes and went on to expand its sway across the north of the subcontinent and down south to Maharashtra and Andhra, ending with the Namboodiri Brahmins who tinted the language of Kerala. And the second English age was after Independence, after the British who had brought English to India were gone.

In their second avatar, Sanskrit and English were only the faces of new dispensations that needed convergence. The spread of Sanskrit and English was just a way of showing at a glance how much territory these new political formations covered. (extracted from pages 273-274)

Peggy Mohan is a linguist and writer who lives in Delhi.