Tracing the history of India through the changing landscape of languages

Extract of Wanderers, kings, merchants: the history of India through its languages, released by Penguin Viking in April 2021.

Everywhere we turn for answers on the non-Sanskrit characteristics of Indo-Aryan languages, we find ourselves in pre-Vedic India with the languages ​​that existed before Sanskrit and the early Prakrits, old languages ​​that refused to do their suitcases and leave. You can feel the presence of people who stay away from the Sanskrit world, and Vedic families where wives and young children spoke a different language than the strangers who were their men. And so here we are now, with a lineage of new mixed languages ​​that drew all their vocabulary from the Prakrits, but stuck firmly to an old mindset that had nothing to do with the Sanskrit family. How did these two trends merge to create 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 yet. We go back a long, long time to the first vernacular languages ​​that were spoken in the days of the oldest Prakrits. We watch what very ordinary people were talking about across the northern subcontinent, as they listened to the Ä€rya from afar in their chariots, getting used to a new normal, realizing that these people weren’t going to go. -t’en. There would have been many, many of those early local dialects, as many as in our hinterland today, where, to quote the old saying, “the air and the dialect change every day. kos (every two miles) ‘.

Peggy mohan
Wanderers, kings, merchants: the history of India through its languages
Viking penguin, 2021

When exactly did small, bear-like Tiramisu dialects appear, with coffee-colored paws inspired by ancient Prevedic languages ​​and creamy topcoats of words and endings wholly taken 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, if not centuries, tribes almost as divided among themselves as hostile to the local population. The second phase took place hundreds of years later, after the Kuru super-tribe settled the feuds between the Ä€rya tribes and established the beginnings of an empire, bringing together the Rig Vedic hymns that were scattered among different Brahmin families. and normalizing the retroflexion, this Indian ‘label’ [a new line of consonants in the sound system] that had crept into recitation over the centuries.

The first phase of settlement had, in addition to Sanskrit, local languages ​​and prakrits. To recap, prakrits were languages ​​close enough to Sanskrit in their grammars to have been approximations of Sanskrit itself, although spoken with a local accent, perhaps even including the colloquial Sanskrit that Vedic men would have spoken when. they were not composing and reciting rig Vedic hymns. The second phase, which began with the Kurus, saw the Vedic people spread across the north of the subcontinent, from the Kabul River to Bengal, and south into Maharashtra and Andhra. If there was a time when a chain of new mixed languages ​​could start, not only in a very small area, but across the northern part of the subcontinent and along the west coast, it would be during this second phase. .

What did these mixed dialects look like? Did they suddenly appear, replacing the earlier languages ​​that little people spoke, or did they take a long time and sink into them, new words from Prakrit replacing all the old words and word endings from the earlier languages ​​in a slower adaptation to the new status quo? Had there been the rush of a phase of pidgin, as in the Caribbean, or was the adjustment of new words to old grammars more in the nature of gradual substitution?

… Hindi and Marathi, and all other Indo-Aryan languages, appeared separately, under similar pressures, not as the great regional languages ​​they are today, but as so many small dialects all with very local relations with the prakrits from which they drew their new vocabulary. For centuries they have remained below sea level, keeping their place in an increasingly segregated society, their speakers unable to blend in with the elite world of kings and Brahmins, full of Prakrit and of Sanskrit, and bound by caste to remain in small clan groups that suited them. the little dialects they spoke. Things related to religion and literature, both Brahminical concerns, called for Sanskrit, which was more memorized and recited than written. This left the work of commerce and the courthouse to what evolved from unwritten village dialects to urban languages, useful for making inventory lists, doing accounts, and writing legal notes.

… Somewhere between the 10th and 12th centuries, the signs of these little languages ​​surfaced and began to make their way into the written record, this is how we can know them now. In the area around Delhi there was poetry in Braj and Awadhi, and there was soon a new unnamed variety around Delhi which became the language we know today. When you see written languages ​​emerging from the continuum of tiny dialects, you know the landscape was changing. The old alignments were crumbling. The days when Sanskrit and literary prakrits spoke for a distant elite and unwritten dialects were used by people far below was drawing to a close. An old and cumbersome order had begun to fragment into smaller, more compact regional entities that sought political autonomy. In this new era, languages ​​that would one day be called Hindi and Marathi began to emerge from the small dialects that surrounded them. (extract from pages 121-129)


The story that we follow in this book is therefore the bittersweet story of convergence, of the following language as a faithful mirror when the entry of supergroups linked to empire, literacy and the market bring people together. small communities in a larger and faster flow, full of people who will never meet face to face. Language is not an independent actor in this convergence. It makes no sense for us to dream of preserving small languages ​​without questioning the political and economic forces that bind us together in a mega-community, and to ask ourselves if this system which causes the mass extinction of our languages and our old ways of living is something we even want. Preservation, in any case, is an unfortunate word choice: you are preserving things that are already dead, not things that will 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 the simple and sophisticated things they do.

A closer look at the convergence in India shows that besides the first migration of Austro-Asian males, of which we know nothing beyond what genetic studies tell us, there were only two migrations whose impact Linguistics has spread beyond the elite to affect the rest of the population. It was the Vedic people, who brought Sanskrit, and the British, who brought English. The settlers of Central Asia were fortunate enough to stumble upon a Hindi that was already more or less in its final form by the twelfth century CE, although he is always happy to try new names.

On even closer examination, we learn that it was not the initial entry of these people that brought about the phase shift in Indian society. Both influxes started modestly, with a trickle of men settling on the far reaches of India: the northwest, in the case of the Vedic people, and the coastal port towns, in the case of the British, who came by sea. But these two sets of languages ​​were given a second lease of life, so to speak, when subsequent upheavals created new supergroups that “owned” those languages. The Second Sanskrit Age took place after the Kuru dynasty united the warring Rig Vedic tribes and continued to expand its influence across the northern subcontinent and south to Maharashtra and Andhra, se ending with the Namboodiri Brahmins who have tinted the language of Kerala. And the second English age was after independence, after the departure of the British who had brought the English to India.

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

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

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