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!
Special thanks to Mayuresh Madhav Kelkar for sending this. I would start watching this excellent Dari Farsi documentary 1 minute 19 seconds in. There are many excellent ancient maps of central and south Asia.
I just want to watch this again and again, just to listen to the narrator’s voice. Majestic, wise, soft and sweet. For those so sure Afghanistan will fall; any nation with voices like this is perchance stronger than she appears. This may be where the homo sapien sapien modern civilization was born.
Five thousand years ago the greater Egyptian, Sumerian, Eastern (defined as pan Arya plus China) civilizations were very mathematically oriented. Many caucasians appear to believe that these ancient civilizations were racist. Possibly because of this many caucasians believe that math is racist.
Another possible reason many caucasians appear to believe that math is racist is because they fear it might unfairly advantages “brown” people (Asians, Arabs, Latinos) and “brown” cultures (eastern philosophy including Toaism and Confucianism, native american religion) at the expense of caucasians in the new global artificial intelligence, neuroscience, genetics economy.
Could part of the anger against math come from fear that mathematics, science, technology, seeking the truth through thought, seeking the truth without thought might be haram or blasphemous? (Obviously most Abrahamics do not believe this and this is not a critique of Abrahamism.)
I believe that mathematics is part of art; and that it derives from beyond normal gross thought. From what in Sanskrit is called Buddhi, Vijnayamaya Kosha, Ananda Maya Kosha, Sukshma Sharira, Kaarana Sharira, the subtle heavens.
Perhaps the anger against mathematics is part of a deeper anger against the subtle heavens? If so, one possible way to look at this is that to transcend the subtle heavens (including mathematics) it might be helpful to love them and love our way through them. Or to love and respect the racist (subtle heavens–including mathematics) until we transcend the various subtleties of thought and feeling.
A question post in the comments: how plausible is that much of South Asia today is dominated by languages that were introduced agro-pastoralists in the period between 2000 and 1500 BCE? (the proposition put forward in The formation of human populations in South and Central Asia). This is not a peculiar question. It seems that in the range of 10-20% of the ancestry in the Gangetic plain derives from people whose origins are in the Eurasian steppe (please see the table at the bottom of the post, which I derive from Narasimhan et al., for why I say 10-20%).
Is it plausible that agro-pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe gave their language, their mythos, to the Indian subcontinent, when most of the ancestry predates their arrival? If the figure is 10-20%, I would say it certainly is plausible and entirely within the realm of likely given the model (male-mediated expansion).
Some non-Indian examples.
The Ugric languages are widely dispersed in Eurasia. The reason being that the Hungarian language is a recent cultural artifact on the Pannonian plain. Genetically modern Hungarians have only trivial (1-5% most generously) affinities to Central Eurasia, being genetically similar to their German and Slavic neighbors. Ancient DNA has yielded that Hungarian nobles from the medieval period were more Asiatic in the background, with exotic Y chromosomes. One explanation for the discrepancy with moderns is that the flower of Hungarian nobility was decimated by the Mongol invasions, as well as the latter predations of the Turks. But, in any case the Magyar and their Turkic federates were never likely more than 10% of the population of the Pannonian plain.
(in contrast to the Magyars the Avars and Bulgars left no linguistic imprint, and were assimilated into their substrate; the Bulgars only leaving their ethnonym despite being Slavicized)
Before the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, the people of the British Isles either spoke a Brythonic dialect or Latin. Were the Anglo-Saxons a major demographic shift? Or did the switch to Old English, which is really a German dialect, happen through elite transmission? The best work today suggests that at most 25% of the ancestry of England proper is German, with perhaps a high fraction of 40% in East Anglia. The switch to a German identity in the centuries after the 5th-century withdrawal of Roman legions seems to involved both migration and assimilation into the barbarized identity.
In the late Roman period, the dominant language in the Balkans was Latin, with Greek and Illyrian minorities. In the 7th-century the Balkan limes collapse. Today Slavic languages are dominant (Romanian and Albanian being exceptions). Though a significant genetic impact occurred through the Slavic migrations, it looks to be less than 50% in the Balkans. The barbarian Slavic tribes assimilated Latin peasants into their culture.
The Turkic languages have expanded a great deal over the last 2,000 years. Today large swaths of Central Asia that were once Iranian speaking are now Turkic, while Anatolia, which was once Greek, Iranian, and Armenian, is now mostly Turkish in speech. In the eastern edge of Turkdom East Asian ancestry is predominant. But once one reaches Anatolia the fraction is the 5-20% range.
Arabic has famously spread outside of its Arabian-Syrian homeland since the rise of Islam. I think it is difficult to judge the genetic impact in the Fertile Crescent because these Aramaic and Assyrian speaking populations had long been interacting with north Arabian peoples. That being said, a comparison of religious minorities (e.g., Assyrian Christians) with their Muslim neighbors indicates that only a minority of the ancestry is due to migration since the rise of Islam, though in some areas it may be substantial (e.g., 30-40%).
Latin. Iberia and Gaul adopted Latin through cultural processes. The genetic impact seems marginal (the same is true is the Balkans, but there only Romanian remains of the Latin period; though Romanians show no greater affinity to Italians than their neighbors).
The Chadic languages are a curious branch of Afroasiatic languages in West Africa. Less than 5% of the ancestry of these people is West Eurasian.
Spanish and Portuguese in the New World. Substantial genetic impact. On the order of 50%. But far less in some areas than others.
The Australian Pama-Nyungan languages seem to have spread mostly via cultural diffusion or some sort, rather than genes.
About 30-40% of the ancestry in Iberia is steppe. But the people seem to have spoken Indo-European langauges (though some not!) before the Romans. In Italy 30-40% is also steppe, dating to the same period. Again, Indo-European languages. The fraction in Greece is lower for the antique period. Again, Indo-European languages.
In China, Japan, and Northern Europe, language shift seems to have been accompanied by preponderant demographic shifts (though not overwhelmingly or exclusive). The shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculture saw the same in Southeast Asia, though the shift between language families is often mostly cultural (e.g., Thailand is only minority Tai in ancestry).
The moral of the story is that it is possible that unlettered barbarians can impose their language and culture on a people more advanced, but fallen. Ask the Britons. Ask the Greeks of Anatolia, or the scions of the Pharaohs. Ask the Minoans and the Pelasgians. The men of Urartu who fell to the Hayk.
Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.
As many viewers will probably notice that many of my interest veer towards language politics (episode 49). Professor Majeed was very forthcoming and gave the background to how linguistic regionalism began to soon complement the intense communalism in pre-independence India.
Many Punditeers usually suggest that x & x language will die out (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil etc), which is hyperbolic.
Languages in India are very healthy
As Daniyal Shoaib said in Episode 49 even Bhojpuri, Mathili and Braj are very healthy. The point of linguistic states is that language survival is pretty much guaranteed but in a Hinglish milieu will there be sufficient language sophistication.
It remains to be seen how much of North India will reconfigure linguistically but the great victory of the Sikhs has been to ensure that Punjabi is a very vigorous and influential language in India, in a way that it is not in Pakistan (though having nearly 3x the speakers there if one includes Saraki & Hindko).
Saraki is probably going to be the biggest transformation of the Pakistani polity- I can’t imagine a separate Saraikistan agreeing to keep Urdu as the provincial language in the same way Punjab, KPK and Baluchistan (all of which are diverse states) have done.
The languages that are threatened are Sindhi in India (Sindhi in Pakistan is the most vigorous linguistic sub-nationalism in South Asia, on par with Tamil), Kashmiri (Urdu has supplanted it for generations) and other minority tongues that are stateless (maybe Tulu and so on). The Adivasis languages are under threat by other state languages as their populations being to mainstream to regional (as opposed to national culture).
Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.
Shoaib, Abhisek and Xerxes speak on the recent Tamil-Hindi controversy. Our podcast was limited to North India since Karthik (a South Indian) couldn’t make it. However it was still a fascinating discussion.
As as aside we just recorded the 50th BrownCast episode with Professor Majeed on Grierson’s LSI. We started on the 14th of October with Episode 1 (Episode 1 is actually Episode 2 since Razib & I recorded an episode that disappeared) but it’s nice to see how far we have come with the podcasts as a complement to the main blog.
My interests in the podcasts are veering towards the Lectures I attend (or “Live-Blogging” in my own particular lingo) and even though it’s not the most popular (as anyone with cursory knowledge of the blog knows that I can be quite the provocateur) it does lend some much needed intellectual heft to my own output.
As for Episode 49 with our Resident Linguists; it covered some very good ground. I also had personal sympathies for Shoaib as he was house-hunting in Delhi at time of the podcast and Renting while Muslim in India is as bad (or almost as bad) as Renting while Black in America.
Finally I hope everyone, irrespective of whether you have Netflix or not (I don’t watch TV but make exceptions), has watched the critically important “When they See Us.” A really seminal piece of work on Race in America by Ms. Du Vernay.
You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…). Would appreciate more positive reviews.
[ exploring various versions of how the world of concepts can itself be conceptualized ]
Have patience with me: Omar Ali has invited me to post here, an honor I greatly appreciate, and I am introducing myself.
I’m an outsider. I’m your guest, and I only just arrived.. To be precise, I’m a Brit, resident in the United States:
If I’m to write on BrownPundits, I need to you know how ignorant I am in many respects, before I shed some of what knowledge I do possess — and also to focus myself in the Brown direction, because this place is devoted to “a discussion of things brown” — and while I’ll no doubt wander far afield as I post, I want to acknowledge and honor the purpose of this blog as I introduce myself here.
My interest, my fascination, my obsession even, is with the weave of the world. And indeed, if my friends Omar Ali, Ali Minai, and Hasan Asif can be any indication, the Punditry of Brown extends intellectually across all of history, geography and genius, to encompass the world of ideas and the world world to which the ideas refer in their combined entirety..
And thus the weave of the thing. That’s how the Kathasaritsagara, or Ocean of the Streams of Story, comes in to my story. Somadeva Bhatta’s concept of the oceanic streams of story caught Salman Rushdie’s eye, and Rushdie reference to it —
He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.
— it’s a universal mapping of the sort that enchants the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, librarians both, encompassing the realm of human thought in narrative terms. And it’s one subcontinewntal form of the universal map, or model, or metaphor — the Net of Indra in the Avataṃsaka Sutra would be another.
Outside the subcontinent — but well within the compass of Brown Punditry– there are other such metaphors for the whole of the whole. Teilhard de Chardin’s oosphere is another, as is Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s >World Wide Web, in which complex weave of thoughts we now find ourselves.
But for my own purposes, the most interesting figure of the whole, the universe as we are able to think and name it, conceptually speaking, is the Glass Bead Game as described by Hermann Hesse in his Nobel-winning novel of that name
My own personal predilections run from cultural anthropology through comparative religion to depth psychology, and from violence to peace-making. But that’s a huge sprawl at best, and to bring all that into some kind of focus, to learn how to map that immense territory, and the vaster universe beyond it, I turn not just to strong>Hesse’s novel, but particularly to the Game which he describes in that book:
The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.
You’ll see how that description covers much the same ground as Rushdie’s description of the Kathasaritsagara, and Edward Tufte’s image of the Ocean of Story which I’ve placed at the top of this post could also be a depiction of Hesse’s great Game.
There are many voices in the Ocean, and many voices in the Game, and they are interwoven: they form which a musician would recognize as a polyphony — their concepts and narratives at times clashing as in musical counterpoint, at times resolving, at least temporarily, in a refreshing harmony.
And what better model of the world can we contemplate at this moment, that one in which a multitude of at times discordant voices wind their ways to concord?
Johann Sebastian Bach is the master of contrapuntal music, and, be it noted, a great composer for and improviser on the organ. And it is Bach whose music I listen to as I approach the business of modeling the world of ideas.
My mantram ca 1999/2000 was:<To hold the mind of Bach..
Where Bach devises and holds in mind melodies that collide and cohere, I want us to hold thoughts in mind — at times clashing thoughts — and learn to weave them into a coherent whole..
That’s my approach to making the Glass Bead Game which Hesse conceptualized, playable. And my playable variants on Hesse’s Game, the HipBone family of games, will be the topic of my next few posts — thanks to the kind inquiries of my BrownPundit friends, and Omar’s generous invitation to me to post here.
And perhaps, if you’re interested, we’ll play a few rounds of my games, or explore across the world of ideas and your and my interests, what I’ve come to think of as the HipBone style of thinking..
Charles Cameron is a poet and game designer, managing editor of the Zenpundit blog, and now an invited guest at BrownPundits. You can hear a discussion of the overlap between the Glass Bead Game and Artificial Intelligence featuring Omar Ali, Ali Minai and myself on this BrownPundits podcast — with an appreciative bow to Razib Khan.
I’m quite proud of this podcast since I was able to get some of the linguistic luminaries together. The topic was a broad overview of language in South Asia.
We were able to keep a very strong regional balance since TCW’s specialty is Dravidian. We touched on the role of Sanskrit and its prominence as a literary lingua franca until the late medieval period (until it was supplanted).
Incidentally, we didn’t talk all that much about Indian English instead we delved into the “dialects.” There seems to be a turning point in that the Subcontinent is consolidating linguistically among regional, national and religious lines with English emerging as the great neutral and prestige language.
We touched a fair bit on the specific languages of the Hindi belt but I guess for next time we will have to tackle those that are tangential to the Hindi language sphere like Punjabi, Bengali, and Marathi.
I love it when my point is so spectacularly proven. But I find it funny how intense these discussions take considering I prefaced the post with my own thoughts on NawRuz and Persian cultural imperialism.
Yes Islam is vulgar but so is Hindi. Just as obviously Muslim symbols wouldn’t find room in polite society neither would Hindi (hence why English is busy eviscerating it in the Desh).
I find it interesting that none of the Hinditvas condemn my constant insulting of Islam but become hysterical at my criticising of what is an ugly and artificial tongue. Just as I find Liberalstanis to be hypocritical in their silence over Islam’s deeply problematic nature; they have on the flip side these Hinditvas. QeA is probably the prototypical Liberalstani and Nehru the Hinditva; hence why the Subcontinent ended up as the disaster as it was. Both these tribes have been thoroughly colonised and participated willing in the destruction of the British Raj, a wholesale inheritance would have meant a South Asia able to be the light rather than laughter of regions.
The whole idea of the Hindi language was simply to cleanse Urdu of any Muslim association. The language policy has been a complete disaster (language played no part in 1971; I just did a debate on the topic).
It’s neither here or there; it doesn’t matter to me since my own life and choices have been able to traverse the deepening divide fairly easily (the upshot of being half-caste). However the sad bit is that India has lost it’s ur-homeland (Indthings is technically not wrong in claiming that the Vedas weren’t composed in modern day India) and AfPak is becoming a firm reality.
It’s the slow generations but these Hinditvas have driven Pakistan away into the arms of an unwilling Ummah. In that same Ummah Pakistanis will always be second or third class citizens because they’re a bit of a joke. They don’t carry much status in the Muslim world since they aren’t really proud of who they are.
To give an example the Muslim Sindhi people in trying to create a language pride day randomly chose a day in December as Sindhi Cultural Day. With a little thought the Sindhis could have instead started ressurecting the Cheti Chand tradition and actually reach out to Sindhi Hindus (especially their rich diaspora) as a way to strength Sindhi identity.
It’s a sad reality both India and Pakistan have lost out because they have squabbled like silly children, one side insisting on an absurd language and the other on an absurd religion.
I find it heart-warming that no-one agrees with me; it means that I’m actually on to something. The more I live the more I realise just how unique my own perspectives actually and being a child of the divide(s) means I’m never going to think like everybody else or make the same life choices..
The plot above shows the % Urdu speakers vs. % Muslim in states where Muslims are 4% or more of the population. The data is from Census 2011 (thanks for Vikram of the language data). There are some interesting trends. Assuming that the vast majority of Urdu speakers are Muslim, it seems that in India the core Urdu-identified region is in the Deccan and to the east of its traditional heartland, in Bihar. In South India, 30% of Muslims in Tamil Nadu may be Urdu-speaking. But in Kerala the fraction is almost zero, while in Gujarat and West Bengal less than 10% of the Muslims are Urdu-speaking.