On Language wars and the rise of the Vernacular in history


Language wars are a constant feature of Indian public life. Most recently there was much discussion on Language on Indian twitter triggered by the National Education Policy (NEP 2020). But amidst the language squabbles, we tend to reflect less on the root cause of all the language schisms –  The rise of the Vernacular. A relatively recent phenomenon in Indian history.

Back in 1000 CE, Sanskrit reigned supreme as the primary literary tongue of India. There was some Prakrit literature and considerable literature in some of the older Southern languages – Tamil and Kannada in particular.  But for the most part Vernaculars had a position secondary to Sanskrit.

The language of prestige and literary expression was undoubtedly Sanskrit, though it was hardly the mother tongue for a large percentage of Indians. Vernaculars reigned at home, and in common speech. Yet in an age of limited literacy, they never competed with Sanskrit for “prestige”. This was very much the case not just in India, but in much of the western world as well. In Europe, as late as 15th century, 70% of the printed literature was in Latin!

Now Latin was far from being the mother tongue of Europeans at the time, yet it was the preferred mode for intellectual expression. Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote chiefly in Latin. So did Descartes. So did Isaac Newton, few decades later. Newton may have been a good Englishman. He lived a good half a century after the age of Shakespeare in the 17th century Yet even at that very late date, the language he preferred to write his “Principia Mathematica” in was Latin. Not English. Ofcourse his other work “Opticks” was in English, but even that book had a Latin translation. And I presume his readers in mainland Europe preferred the Latin version. Not English.

Let’s come back to India. As already discussed, the reign of Sanskrit and the secondary status of vernacular was not an Indian anomaly. It was consistent with the state of affairs in Europe. The great Indian philosopher Adi Shankara, who purportedly lived in 8th century in Southern India, wrote his work not in whatever was the language spoken around him, but in Sanskrit. All his works without exception were authored in Sanskrit.

Some three centuries later, another great Vedantin Shri Ramanuja, lived in the Tamil country, a land that is in our times perceived to be hostile to high culture and Sanskrit. Yet Shri Ramanuja wrote all of his work in Sanskrit. There is not a single work of his in Tamil that survives.

This is not to suggest that literature in the vernacular was non existent in 1000 CE. It very much existed. Perhaps a little more so down south which had already seen the flowering of Bhakti literature in the Tamil country long before that date. In Karnataka, during the Rashtrakuta period, we did see the composition of some Kannada works. A prominent example being the emperor Amoghavarsha’s Kavirajamarga. But nevertheless the dominant language for literary expression was very much Sanskrit.

If we check the works of mathematicians and men of intellect throughout the first millennium, be it Varahamihira in the North west, or the two Bhaskaras, or for that matter Aryabhata, they were essentially in Sanskrit. Not in the Prakrit tongues

Even as late as 12th century, the great mathematician Bhaskara II who lived somewhere in what is Northern Karnataka today, wrote his work Siddhanta Shiromani, in Sanskrit. Not in Kannada or Maharashtrian Prakrit.

Several technical Sanskrit texts authored in the ancient times have survived the vagaries of time much better than much more recent vernacular technical texts in the middle ages. A classic example is Aryabhata’s Aryabhatiya (circa 4th century) and Jyeshtadeva’s Yuktibhasha (circa 17th century) . The former is authored in Sanskrit, and the latter in Malayalam. It is not a surprise that the former is a pan-Indian classic, while the latter is little known and somewhat inaccessible until very recent decades.

Nevertheless Prakrit tongues did feature in some Sanskrit plays, especially as the language used by women, and by common folk. Even Kalidasa uses Prakrit on occasion in his plays. But there was no sense of insecurity about the Prakrit tongues. Sanskrit’s status was not grudged.

It is only well into the second millennium that the Prakrits start asserting themselves as literary media, in North India. One early figure is Vibudha Shridhara, an Agrawal writer in whose Apabhramsha work has the earliest historical reference to Delhi

हरियाणए देसे असंखगाम, गामियण जणि अणवरथ काम|परचक्क विहट्टणु सिरिसंघट्टणु, जो सुरव इणा परिगणियं|रिउ रुहिरावट्टणु बिउलु पवट्टणु, ढिल्ली नामेण जि भणियं|


“There are countless villages in Haryana country. The villagers there work hard. They don’t accept domination of others, and are experts in making the blood of their enemies flow. Indra himself praises this country. The capital of this country is Dhilli”

One observes here that unlike Sanskrit which has an unchanging quality, the Prakrit here only bears a very tenuous link to the Prakrits today. Because Prakrits were constantly evolving. They were meant to be context-sensitive and change with time. In sharp contrast to Sanskrit – a “high prestige”, relatively context-free, low-entropy language.

Even as late as 16th century, Sanskrit enjoyed a huge edge over vernaculars. Both in North and South India. The works of the supposedly populist Gaudiya Sampradaya in 16th century Bengal , were primarily in Sanskrit – be it Jiva Goswami or Rupe Goswami.  Not in Bengali.

In the Vijayanagara Empire down south, Telugu literature no doubt flourished. Yet several important theological works of that age (e.g. the works of Madhva philosophers like Vyasatirtha, and Vadiraja) are in Sanskrit. They didn’t write in Telugu or Kannada.

The point I am trying to make is that right up to 17th century, the language of intellectual expression was the classical tongue (be it Sanskrit in India or Latin in Europe). So it is not as though the ascendance of Vernacular is a 1000 year story.  But rather a 200-300 year one

And this had political implications too. In an age before the rise of the vernacular, the Empire was the primary form of political organization. Regional nationalisms were very much at bay. The Holy Roman Empire reigned supreme over much of mainland Europe.

With the rise of the vernacular, there emerged regional nationalisms. What suffered was the notion of a united Christendom. Something that was very much within the realm of reality even as late as 1500 CE.

Even in our times, the biggest threat to the idea of a single civilizationally united India is very much the politics around the Vernacular languages, and the regional nationalisms they engender.

But this is in some respect a price we have paid for modernity. The rise of the vernacular is inextricably linked to the urge to be accessible, to be popular, to be democratic. Tulsidas created a revolution when he authored the Ramayana in the vernacular. Something that had not been attempted on that scale till then in Northern India. And it very much stemmed from this urge to reach out.

The 19th century in India will go down as the century that is somewhat analogues to the 17th/18th century in Europe. It witnessed the decline of the classical language (Sanskrit), and the big big boom in vernacular literature.

The vernacular boom especially in late 19th / early 20th century, spanned across regions. It was the age of UV Swaminatha Aiyar, the age of Bharatenduh, the age of Premchand. The common theme was to create “prestige” dialects among the many prakrits that existed. In Tamil Nadu, it was perhaps the Central Tamil dialect of the Tanjore region. In the North, it was the language spoken in and around Delhi – the Khariboli dialect.

So now the vernaculars sought “status”, “respectability”. They sought to be bounded by grammars (though Vernacular grammars do predate 19th century in many cases). They sought to attain “prestige”. Unlike in the past when they were content playing second fiddle to Sanskrit.

Has this been a good thing?

I am not sure. What have we gained by the Vernacular revolution? A difficult politically incorrect question that ought to be asked.

The intellectual life in this country is now conducted for the most part in the English language, which has supplanted Sanskrit as the language of the elite. So the function played by the Vernacular in the main is to fan regional passions.

Sanskrit remains. We call it English now.

This is not to say I grudge the many fine works of literature that have been authored in the various vernacular languages over the past 200 years – Bharatenduh, Premchand, Kuvempu, Kalki. One can go on.

But has it been worth it? To be honest, I don’t think so. The costs have outweighed the benefits. One argument is – Hey…vernaculars enable better instruction to kids. “In their Mother tongue”.

Oh yes, the Mother tongue angle, which is impressed upon us so very often. But much of this instruction is terrible The people who run this country are the ones who learnt their trade in Sanskrit (i.e. English). Vernaculars exist to cater to regional vanity.

To my mind, Sanskrit (i.e English) will continue to dominate the intellectual life of this country, exactly as it has for 2000+ years Vernaculars cannot compete with it. But yes, they can definitely help break the Indian nation. That’s one thing the vernaculars can succeed at.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish


39 Replies to “On Language wars and the rise of the Vernacular in history”

  1. // relatively context-free, low-entropy language //
    Apologies but this a meaningless statement. (Shannon) entropy is a measure of information in a signal based on its content not the manner of its encoding. Sanskrit is merely a way to encode information, and this comment could just as well have been written in English and would have the same ballpark entropy score as the English comment.

    Sanskrit has a largely context-free generative grammar in a pseudo-language (sūtra-s) of its own and people often confound that meta-language in which the grammar is expressed with Sanskrit itself.

    That said I agree with the thrust of this post. Also I am all for revival of Sanskrit education in India – jayatu saMskRtam, jayatu kavi-kulam!

    1. I didn’t mean “entropy” in the same sense as it does in Shannon entropy.

      I merely meant to say Sanskrit is a language that has changed very little in the common era, in comparison to the Prakrits.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. The lack of drift makes sense for a language devoid of monoglots for the last 1000 years, if not longer.

        1. Except that the low[er] drift held true for the first millenium and the period before that as well, even when there were order of magnitude higher speakers (500BC-1000AD). For instance, Ardamagadhi Prakrit was a dead language by post 500AD [but had been prevalent at the time of the Buddha]

  2. I am a bit unsure of what to make of the changes around the Vijayanagara time and thenceforth. In Amukta-mAlyada, Krishna Deva Raya (supposedly from a Tulu caste?) explicitly makes a claim to the effect that Telugu is the best ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amuktamalyada#Krishnadevaraya's_Amuktamalyada ). There is also that story of Tenali Ramakrishna on that “Andhra-bhAShA-mayam…” thing with the moral that Sanskrit chauvinism is a thing and needs to be shut down – it seems a bit contrived to me, so it feels like some lobby was working/pushing against Sanskrit.

    Then consider the 15th century Thiruppugazh – e.g., http://kaumaram.com/thiru/nnt0616_u.html#english – see the lines “ambuvi thanakkuL vaLar senthamizh” and it explicitly praises Tamizh as flourishing in the world (this feels bizarre to me – someone is praising Muruga, why bring in the greatness of Tamizh into it, that too so much before any Dravidian movement took root?). So it looks like a part of some trend that took around around that time of around 14-15th centuries. A carnatic musician friend would always tell me that generally kRtis in Sanskrit are meant to be simply adjectives strung together while songs in Telugu would have an emotional content. So perhaps in certain spheres, Sanskrit was completely supplanted around the Vijayanagara times.

    Thus, it may be that the AzhvAr-movement came to the “next level” during this time, but intellectual take-over in the most estoeric or scientific realms had to wait until a later period as you point out.

        1. @froginthewell
          Just few examples as you ask
          1. tirumazisai AzvAr 7th century – small town of Tirumazisai still exists about 30 miles from Chennai
          ‘விதையாக நற்றமிழை வித்தி என் உள்ளத்தை நீ விளைத்தாய்’
          This azhvar sings to the god in Kanchipuram ” You planted the seed of Good Tamil in my heart for my spiritual growth”

          2. Andal – popular female AzvAr
          Tiruppavai No 30
          கோதை சொன்ன சங்கத் தமிழ்மாலை முப்பதும் தப்பாமே
          “read the garland of 30 Tamil verses of Andal without fail”

          3. செந்திறத்த தமிழோசை வடசொல்லாகி
          “You have caused Tamil verses and Sanskrit (vedas) ”

          There are dozens , may be hundreds of references of Tamil consciousness especially with religion i.e. Hinduism

          1. Your knowledge of Tamil literature is so impressive. I’ve heard that there’s pro-Tamil stuff in Devaram by Sambandar as well.

          2. Thank you Vanbakkam sir, much appreciated. My assertion stands corrected. Also thanks Hoju for the thevaram example.

  3. It was pretty obvious to me, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be obvious to anyone else, that the author didn’t mean “entropy” in the sense of Shannon entropy.

    (Another comment went into moderation as usual!).

  4. Very interesting text. It is not about Latin language, but the public version about this language should be critically assessed. Do we know origins of Sanskrit? It is strange that anytime someone ask this question, it is usually pushed under the carpet. Do we know where (and when) similarities with European languages came from and where are the greatest? Indian scholars must find these answers without daily political influences. If there is not a better way, for the beginning can be made a brainstorming inventory of all possible options, including this that was brought by aliens. After that, eliminate one by one option until we find the answer.

  5. Good post by Srikanth. I agree with .of what he says – vernacular ‘revolution’ mostly feeds local vanities rather than serve in any higher registers . Halfway between kitchen language and full fledged sub-national language. The purpose of dethroning Sanskrit has been to enthrone English.
    As someone fom Tamilnadu with intense interest in the fortunes of Tamil I have based my conclusions. The Tamil ‘revival’ movement and veru soon Pure Tamil movement took hold, there was and is a great urge to eschew Sanskrit loan words in writing and speech and give Tamil it’s proper place i.e. running all that matters in tamilnadu in TN, the success has been a mixed bag, perhaps 25% after 100 years of intense trying. Replacing Sanskrit derived words in writing is the easy fix to some extent . In other aspects it is a failure. It is such a failure that that parents and children are abandoning Tamil as the medium of instruction in droves even in elementary education and the state govt itself has Englsih medium schools converted from tamil medium . Such a state of affairs was unknown even 50 years back. Cult of Mother Tamil goes hand in hand with abandoning it for education/work.
    I echo the conclusion “But has it been worth it? To be honest, I don’t think so”
    Mother tongue itself is a social/cultural construct which has a traction in the last few centuries. Mother tongue was aminor component in a person’s identity till few centuries back, now in some parts of the world it has come to define group identities It can lead to MT fascism especially combined with Pure Language movement. Among Tamil Pure circles, Etymology is a collective therapy where every word has to be derived from ‘pure’ Tamil roots. It ranges from comic to sinister. Etymology assumes great mysttical powers and method and gets rid of rational etymological methods ordinarily known

  6. “Oh yes, the Mother tongue angle, which is impressed upon us so very often. But much of this instruction is terrible The people who run this country are the ones who learnt their trade in Sanskrit (i.e. English). Vernaculars exist to cater to regional vanity.”

    This isn’t just an ‘angle’ that you can just hand-waive away with a couple of sentences. It’s a phenomenon well studied in pedagogy that early instruction in the child’s mother tongue is beneficial in teaching the child. Knowing your mother tongue is also important to be able to learn other languages. This is why so many people in India who claim to be trilingual+ in reality don’t know any of the languages they claim to know well at all.

    If the instruction is terrible, the goal should be to improve the instruction not abandon it. I’m sure the English instruction is of generally poor quality too, so should we abandon that, too?

    “To my mind, Sanskrit (i.e English) will continue to dominate the intellectual life of this country, exactly as it has for 2000+ years Vernaculars cannot compete with it. But yes, they can definitely help break the Indian nation. That’s one thing the vernaculars can succeed at.”

    If linguistic diversity breaks up the country, then it is because we haven’t created the kind of governance system and policies that can accommodate the diversity. There are other linguistically diverse countries that do just fine.

    You could say the same thing about religious diversity — it literally tore apart the country. So does that mean non-Hindus need to become Hindu in order to safeguard this oh-so-brittle idea of India or does it mean we need to think a little more broad-mindedly about what it means to be Indian?

    I’m all for English being the main link language and I’m glad it’s making strides in that direction. But why can’t we be like the EU? Most communications between member states takes place in English. Most kids will learn their mother tongue and English and become fluent in both. A kid in Germany learns German and English. A kid in France learns French and English. Just apply that to India.

    1. If linguistic diversity breaks up the country, then it is because we haven’t created the kind of governance system and policies that can accommodate the diversity…

      You could say the same thing about religious diversity… So does that mean non-Hindus need to become Hindu in order to safeguard this oh-so-brittle idea of India or does it mean we need to think a little more broad-mindedly about what it means to be Indian?

      If seculars thought a little more broad-mindedly about what it means to be Indian, Indian legal apparatus might not be systematically discriminating against Hindus like this. And when you want to ignore that and your phrasing clearly blames only the Hindu side, do you really think you are helping or adding to the polarization, wherefore this moral highground?

      1. Continuing thoughts on my response on Hoju’s comment, in particular:

        There are other linguistically diverse countries that do just fine.

        Whether or not diversity is sustainable depends on various factors including whether geopolitical forces are at work exploiting it to create trouble. Extraneous forces will not try to use diversity to foment trouble just for the sake of doing so, but rather when incentives exist for other Governments to do so. The fundamental rule is that humans respond to incentives. Sometimes I feel that notions like liberalism, libertarianism, free speech, democracy etc. have benefited from being exploited for geostrategic purposes. Iraq war was not waged for the sake of democracy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a nontrivial, perhaps even crucial, chunk of the support it received came from belief in the universality of “liberal values”.

        But even this doesn’t mean that diversity will be destructive – there is also the factor of state capacity; if the nation’s state capacity is good enough, it will be able to withstand the destruction that may be wrought by diversity or free speech.

        Thus, we should not look at these values as intrinsic goods, but in conjunction with geopolitics and governance infrastructure. In the case of India, we find that even the most ardent supporters of liberalism and libertarianism do not really mind the constitutional discrimination against Hindus in India. The most any of them says is “I agree with you”. But talk is cheap, and doesn’t help.

        So if Hoju’s question, “So does that mean non-Hindus need to become Hindu in order to safeguard this oh-so-brittle idea of India“, is actually put to me, I will not be so sure what my answer is; I don’t believe that we can simply will state-capacity into existence by giving eloquent Obama-type speeches and lighting candles.

  7. \ In Tamil Nadu, it was perhaps the Central Tamil dialect of the Tanjore region.\
    Standard speech has still not evolved in Tamil world. There is massive difference between written and spoken Tamil i.e diglossia , which is a drag on the developement of language. Pure Tamil only increases diglossia .

    1. Hi Sereno

      Your grandpa was an excellent craftsman of traditional Tamil poem with it’s rules of prosody, meters, and phonics. This is what literati used to write till Modern Poetry took over. Even now there are many versifiers in traditional meters. In fact, some themes especially the last verse in page 8 directly trace their roots to sangam Tamil. Their ragas and talas are set to Carnatic music. These verses are ditto from Bhakti poetry. On a side note , Chritsian Tamil is an interesting phenomenon. It usually eschews pure Tamil and incorporates many Sanskritised words which people know. Your document is peppered with such sansritised Tamil

      1. It usually eschews pure Tamil and incorporates many Sanskritised words which people know. Your document is peppered with such sansritised Tamil

        My grandfather would be appalled to know he was using Sanskritised Tamil. They were very much into Tamil and Hindu culture, even though first gen converts. (His father was the first to convert to Christianity)

        By my generation, most could barely read Tamil and connection to Hinduism was gone.

        My grandmothers brother (also married to grandfathers sister*) wrote books comparing Hinduism and Christianity. Must be decent as still used for Comparative Religion credits. Too heavy and above my head.

        Intro of below shows their adulation of Tamil Culture Apparently my grandfather, unlike his brother-in-law, was no scholar was more of party animal drinking, playing tennis and hanging out in clubs. Later in life changed and started writing.

        Psalms of a Saiva Saint, Being Selections From The Writings Of Tayumana Swamy T Isaac Tambyah

        Foregleams of God A Comparative Study of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity

        1. \My grandfather would be appalled to know he was using Sanskritised Tamil.\
          Nothing surprising. People use language non reflexively which they have learned in many ways .
          The book itself is called “kIrtana gIta samgraham” , something on which Pure Tamil enthusiasts would die. They may call it “pann isai thirattu” or something like that. Your granddad lived in a house “anugrahapathi” (Lord of Blessings in sanskrit). Pure Tamilists may call it ‘aruL thalaivan’ . Sanskrit gives lot of compact words with roots in religion and philosophy which is difficult to unpack and reconstitute and rewrap in other languages. OTOH grammar is Tamil, poetical canons is traditional Tamil . So, he had nothing to worry about

          Talking of languages, a dialect itself may diverge largely from other dialects for a long time without people realising it is another language. Malayalam had diverged from Tamil even as far as 10th century. Still many Malayalis thought their language was Tamil for few more centuries. So, the first road to independence for a language is to get a name for itself. Once you get a name and a political regime to support you , then your language becomes established as a separate langauge. That is why it is said , a language is a dialect with an army and navy.

          1. lived in a house “anugrahapathi” (Lord of Blessings in sanskrit).

            VijayVan Thank you very much. No one has been able to tell me the meaning of “anugraha” or anukkra like we spell it in English.

            Makes so much sense, Anugraha is a Sinhalese word too meaning welcome, hosting. Pathi obviously leader.

            My middle name (as is my uncles) is Anukkranayagam. I guess Leader/Head of Blessings.

            One more question what does “Irumarapuntuyya” mean. It was title of one of my ancestors.

            Thanks, learnt a lot.

  8. Just like European vernaculars supplanted Latin in knowledge/culture fields, there is no reason something similar can’t happen in India. I agree it is uphill battle but we bhumi putras owe it to our posterity to give it our best shot.

  9. On a sort of related note one of my buddies who is of Sri Lankan Tamil descent was telling me that Indian Tamils use a lot of English loan words.

    Not sure if thats true. But if this is the case then I would be curious as to why that difference exists ?

    1. @Sumit
      There is some truth in what he said.
      The reason is Dravidian movement and pure Tamil movement skipped Srilankan Tamils due to geography . Drav movement shamed traditional Tamil culture in India as too brahminical and sanskrittic. The result was loss of traditional language , i.e. Tamil itself as a cool language among literarti and English became cool. Even parents went into heights of delight if their children called them ‘mummy, daddy’, instead of usual Tamil words amma, appa. All this did not happen in Srilanka

  10. I find the reasoning that “there is an elite language so everyone should receive instruction in elite language” to be extremely silly. No one is denying that English is the lingua franca of scientific and intellectual communication. Everyone should learn to read/write/communicate in English. The simple question is the following: why should every kid in every nook and corner of India needs to be taught all subjects exclusively in English?

    Competent instructors teaching Math/Phys/Chem/Bio or any other topic at the school level conduct most of their teaching in local language. By imposing English as language of instruction in all subjects, we are just robbing people of answering questions in their own language. A typical case of “teaching” in India is the teacher comes to the class and recites some mantras (in English); students copy it verbatim, they repeat the same mantras during exams (again in English). The graders are also only skilled at recognizing the mantras and awarding marks. Tons of ink spilled over English with literally zero understanding of any subject knowledge.

    Just talk to an average student. They just don’t understand anything about what they are being taught. My jaw literally dropped when I talk to regular students (students who score 50-60% in exams) about their understanding. They just can’t read and understand English. Their parents don’t have the capability or time or both to comprehend concepts in English and teach it to kids.

    The project to teach all subjects to all students in India exclusively in English is basically insane. Things won’t become spectacular when we move to local languages. At least the students (or their parents) have a better chance in understanding concepts because they can at least read. I guess the only justification is that NRIs giving lectures and finger wagging in English looks posh?

    1. “why should every kid in every nook and corner of India needs to be taught all subjects exclusively in English?”

      @Chittadhara, i can feel your anguish at continuing dominance of english in india. unfortunately this is such a complex question that there are no good answers.

      in the years immediately following independence there was a natural tendency to limit the usage of english and develop the vernaculars. some states like w bengal went as far as to completely ban english. the downside was that students from these states started slipping in all-india level administrative jobs and higher management roles in industry, which still required competence in english. higher learning also suffered as most books and research journals in higher education is available only in englsh.

      so the powers that be grudgingly allowed english back in, but now it caused a class division between government run schools where the medium of instruction was still in vernaculars, and private schools which produced the english educated future elites.

      now, the pendulum has swung to other extreme. in sheer frustration ( i see no other logical explanation), some states are converting all government schools to english medium schools. so from the lofty ideal of eradicating the stifling dominance of english, we have reached a point of complete capitulation to english.

      it is a sorry state of affairs, but really there are no good options.

  11. Language wars in India is so large century. Its a Boogey-man revived whenever BJP comes to power, since increasingly there are few tactics which can work against the govt. So lets revive our older Brahmastra. The BJP has wizened up and allowed the most lax language policy ever. So lax that some of BJP opponents are like lets not have that lax. BJP on the other hand is like if u wanna die on this mythical Vernacular vs English vs Hindi hill then be my guest.

    A good example is all Dravidian politicians children learning Hindi, while railing against it in their states. But if the folks in the state dont get that they are being taken for a ride, then y should others care.

    1. A good example is all Dravidian politicians children learning Hindi, while railing against it in their states. But if the folks in the state dont get that they are being taken for a ride, then y should others care.

      You can say the same for Sri Lankan Tamil politicians too, advocating separate state and asking constituents to reject Sinhalese. However, most live in Colombo went to schools in Colombo and earn their living in the south.
      The current firebrand CV Wigneswaran wants India to intervene and at very least create a federal sate. However, his two sons are married to Sinhalese.

  12. China had exactly the same problem. The solution was to choose one vernacular and make it the national standard – all of the advantages of Sanskrit/Classical Chinese, while getting rid of most of the downsides.

    But the fact that parts of India have resisted Hindi so fiercely is a sign of the fundamental weakness of India vs. China. China is a civilization-sized nation state for the Han, and ultimately regional language differences aren’t that big of a deal. Cantonese may like their language, but they’re Chinese before they’re Cantonese. India seems more like a true civilization state, comparable to how the West might look if they united in the aftermath of an alien invasion. On the one hand that lack of deeper asabiya makes a totalitarian government less likely. But it also makes the country weaker.

    1. As I have said b4 more homogenization, more strength. More diversity, less strength.

      Pakistan now vis-v Pakistan pre 71

    2. some nuance here: the chinese elite were always united by a standard language, classical Chinese [‘mandarin’]. the elevation of Beijing mandarin is just an extension of that.

      second, there is no difference in written Chinese. so if a mandarin dialect speaker meets a cantaonese speaker, they can still write notes to each other. a lot of regional language nationalisms are based on distinct literature. but there’s no distinct literature in the dialect languages since written Chinese is the same

      basically the ‘lift’ of pushing Putonghua is way easier

      1. Were Hindu elites not united by Sanskrit?

        “second, there is no difference in written Chinese”
        Logograms obscure a lot of the differences, but Chinese dialects can still enough in grammar and vocabulary to affect intelligibility in writing. There’s an entire Wikipedia in Cantonese. It’s all written in hanzi, but ask a Mandarin speaker to read it, and I imagine their reaction will be quite similar to a Hindi speaker trying to read Marathi.

        There was in fact some popular literature in local Chinese dialects, which in an alternate universe could have developed into different regional standards. But that never happened, probably because of the distinctive nature of the Chinese elite as compared to those in Europe or India. And when it came time to elevate some vernacular, Chinese people were more interested in unifying and reforming the country than in making sure that regional dialects with no prestigious literary history got their place in the sun too.

        1. I think even to some degree homogenization even with multiple languages registry and all could have been achieved had Indian elite not had this relentless fetishization of all thing “diverse”. In a way they just undermined the real glue (Hinduism) which kept large parts of the country united because it was just so “tacky and medieval” . Though privately they knew y India was united, and it was not really the constitution.

          Now u are stuck b/w worst of both worlds, incomplete homogenization and cannot-be-defeated regional impulses.

  13. Just to add to this, Standard Arabic rules all across the arab lands, but spoken dialects vary a lot and (I am told) can even be mutually incomprehensible. Having the same standard literary Arabic has not overcome other divisions though, they are still many different countries…

  14. it’s a bold and thought provoking article. in these days when concepts like diversity and choice are considered unquestionably beneficial to human progress, it is remarkable to see someone make a case for less choice and more homogenization with good effect.

    on the face of it, making sanskrit *the* higher literary language of india has some merit. it will create a single indian thoughtspace instead of multiple fragmented ones, and resulting greater exchange of ideas can be revolutionizing for indian literature. also, sanskrit will have broad acceptability across the length and breadth of india. from my personal experience sanskirt should be well received even in southern states. in fact languages like kannada or malayalam can sometimes be more sanskritized than hindi, which has a tendency to dip into persian/arabic vocabulary. the usual suspect is tamilnadu, which will inevitably push back against the adoption of sanskrit. but it is a one off case and can be handled separately.

    the flip side is that this idea still doesn’t bridge the gap between global intellectual landscape, which is still traversed by english, and india. so the upwardly mobile indians will still hanker after english to be counted as “global citizens”, and lack of english skills will still severely curtail the economic opportunities of one and all, however great their command over sanskrit might be. if our inevitable destiny is to turn into english speaking brown people, why even bother?

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