Surrounded by sounds Languages tell us who we are and where we may have come from.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…’ says Maria in The Sound of Music as she strums her guitar in the gorgeous outdoors of Austria in an attempt to teach her seven Von Trapp wards how to sing. In the case of Peggy Mohan’s book, Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through its Languages, let’s start at the very end, the last chapter, ‘Chapter 8: Confluence’.

No, this is not a gimmick, just a practical suggestion that makes the motive clear when put in context. But before that, a small digression: I love the idea of languages, the sound of different languages, and am not shy of trying my tongue at them. I believe that we Indians possess naturally twisted tongues that empower us to be multilingual with varying degrees of fluency. Although this may be a generalisation, we can claim that a ‘typical’ Indian tends towards unselfconsciousness, which makes it easier for her or him to take informal shots at unfamiliar languages. It works differently in a formal set-up such as school or workplace, but on the informal platform, there’s little to stop Indians from talking.


Okay, so why the last chapter first? Simply because it more or less plots the journey undertaken in the rest of the book and makes it easier to then follow the detailed route and take in some of the sights. Wanderers, Kings, Merchants (WKM) is not an easy read, and is perhaps not even for everybody. Despite my interest in the subject, for instance, it was a bit of a challenge. But once you get past (or skip!) the technical bits, the rest of what it says is bound to interest everybody. After all, who doesn’t want to know who they really are, where they came from, and which way they may be headed? At once philosophical and scholarly, the argument presented in the book is persuasive particularly because it is placed in a highly relevant historical context.

For instance, over the years there’s been so much discussion around Sanskrit. Old language, oldest language, root language, complete language, elitist language, caste-ist language, mother language, dead language, time-to-revive-it language… It probably has as many labels as it has adherents. There’s even a village in India where the language of communication is Sanskrit; this is Mattur (aka Mathur) in Karnataka. (I often think that living in Mattur would seem to a dunderhead like me as if I were a permanent actor in a perpetually running Kalidasa play!) The decision to adopt Sanskrit could not have arisen spontaneously; it must have been a deliberate choice.

Sounds make a language and Sanskrit is a prime example of this, with all its soft, hard, sibilant, aspirated, dental, alveolar and other syllables. According to one theory, human beings make around 500 different vowel and consonant sounds with the mouth. And these sounds lead to thousands of languages, each distinct, some existing only in oral form, and some with few or no speakers remaining. The internet throws up lists of languages that include those that are extinct and vulnerable.

Sounds make a language and Sanskrit is a prime example of this, with all its soft, hard, sibilant, aspirated, dental, alveolar and other syllables.

As Peggy Mohan points out, languages don’t die, it’s the people speaking them who do. More importantly, the languages and their variants tell us about who carried these languages and dispersed them, who absorbed them, who rejected them and whom they met and mingled with to create other languages, when and where and how. Wrapped up in all this is the moment — moments strung together in a seamless passage of time, leaving historical records in their wake. This is the path WKM explores, offering fresh and, for me, curious perspectives. For instance, it theorises that retroflexions — the hard and doubled-up tt/thh and dd/ddh for example — were actually Dravidian sounds that found their way into the Rig Veda. It points to the phenomenon that when invasions or conquests or even trade took place, the groups that came into new territories with the sounds of their own languages were largely male-dominated. At a time when campaigns and journeys tended to be long and often undertaken on foot, it was common for the men to settle with local women. The women gave their progeny their own, local languages and slowly, over time, these were the languages that began to gain currency. Where the settlers or conquerors were dominating, their language, too, dominated. English is a classic example of this.

The hegemony of the English language in India is a political work that has made great progress: most readers will find the second last chapter, ‘Indian English as an Invasive Species’ very illuminating. The author makes this telling observation about language as political strategy: ‘Independent India chose to keep and extend its large sector of elite private schools, which were English medium, instead of going the socialist route like most other countries — including the USA — which had neighbourhood schools, where rich and poor children sat in mixed classes studying at government expense in the local language.’ Over 70 years after independence, we continue to simultaneously politicise and struggle over our approach to education.

There are two words used in the book that are important in this context: ‘bilingualism’ and ‘diglossia’. Peggy Mohan explains bilingualism as being ‘about two languages you know having essentially the same functions, such that it is easy to translate from one to the other.’ The same stretches to as many languages as you know equally well. With diglossia, ‘what you find is a child first learning one language and speaking it at home, and then later on, maybe at school, transiting to another language which is used for less basic things. The end result is not two separate languages that exist in parallel, but a single competence, where ground-level things are done in the first language and things to do with school, or the modern sector, in another.’ In other words, the language used at home comes with a vocabulary that is different from the vocabulary of the language used at school, making translation mutually impossible. If the speaker was bilingual, on the other hand, s/he would have sufficient vocabulary and equal and/or the required facility in both languages; mutual translation would be possible.

‘A language is viable,’ Peggy Mohan writes, ‘when it is capable of expressing the sort of things a child that age needs to express. This does ultimately involve words and grammar, but it is not an assemblage of structures like a child learning a second language in the classroom would pick up. These is something organic and native-like about it.’ It took a while for this to sink in, but understanding this enables a better appreciation of the difficulties educationists and policy- makers face with regards to ‘making India literate’ or even ushering in social reforms. Chapter 7 brings the reader up close with the whole business of English in India: ‘English has stayed because elite Indians wanted to preserve the old idea of a ruling class that lived far above in the stratosphere. And it continues to spread because the dream of independence and self-rule has inspired the poor, who see in this language the surest way to rise above sea level and gain their share of the sunlight.’

Continuing to read the chapters right to left, we get glimpses into the way languages evolved under Magadhan and Nagamese influence, the link between Turkic, Persian and Urdu/Hindi, the birth of Indo-Aryan languages, what happened with Malayalam, and the behind-the-scenes story of Sanskrit. We see what happens to ‘pure’ languages, if indeed they were pure at all, how they blend with each other, creole and pidgin, and a whole lot more. In the process, more importantly, we see what events influenced or triggered these changes.

Tamil is believed to be the oldest surviving language and one of its more challenging sounds is ‘zh’ as in ‘Tamizh’ or ‘Kozhikode’. Some Tamil speakers themselves have it from their sound store and replaced it with ‘easier-to-enunciate’ equivalents. As a child, I remember being schooled by my father to say ‘vazhappazham’ hundreds of times in order get the ‘zh’ just right. And he wasn’t even Tamil speaking! Try it. Or ‘kozhakkattai’. See what you bite into!

The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.

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