FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY

Canberra, 25 November 2012
Part 2
The Evolution of Indian Languages
In contemporary India, language has become both the thread that binds the nation together and also the catalyst for regional, ethnic and racial animosities. This is because the languages of the sub-continent are vividly different but yet have a common starting point and have over thousands of years influenced each other’s development. Language is crucial to successfully conduct any activity and therefore, it has evolved over the years to meet the requirement of commercial, cultural and societal changes and exchanges. A careful analysis of the evolution of a language will reflect the essential changes that have taken place in the progression of a people and is therefore indicative of broader historical changes. Language also defined people. For example, in India the terms Aryan and Dravidian are erroneously used to denote racial distinctions, whereas they actually refer to groups of people who were either Aryan-speaking or Dravidian-speaking. Race is a biological concept while Aryan and Dravidian denote social and cultural separateness, essentially based on language distinctions.
Indian languages belong to three main families—the Munda languages, Dravidian family and the Aryan group. This was established by Sir George Grierson in his monumental work, ‘Linguistic Survey of India’. [Sir George Grierson was born in Glenaneary, County Dublin in Ireland,  and educated at St Bees School, Cumberland and Trinity College, Dublin. Grierson qualified for the Indian Civil Service in 1871 and also won prizes for Sanskrit and Hindustani in Trinity during his two probationary years spent in Dublin. He reached India in 1873 and was posted to Bankipore in Bihar. He eventually became Magistrate and Collector at Patna and later, Opium Agent for Bihar. In 1898 he was appointed Superintendent of the newly formed Linguistic Survey of India and moved to England “for convenience of consulting European libraries and scholars”. The survey results had arrived by the time Grierson retired from the Indian Civil Service in 1903, and he spent the following thirty years editing the enormous amount of material gathered. The result was the 11 volume set, Linguistic Survey of India.]  
The Survey listed 225 distinct languages within the three families. Although the number was scientifically correct, many of them were spoken only by few people while others were so closely related to each other that they were understood by different groups of people purporting to speak different languages. Of the three families identified, the Munda languages were distinctly different, not related to the other two, and had a very limited following. Since it did not directly influence the development of most Indian languages, the family is not being discussed further. [The 12 or so Munda languages are spoken in scattered pockets of north-eastern and central India—Santali being the most important, having the largest number of speakers and being the only Munda language that is endowed with a script. The Munda languages are known to have existed prior to the southward movement of people from the Indus valley into the Gangetic plains and Peninsular India. The Munda languages are considered by some to be related to the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia that form part of a larger grouping called the Austro-Asiatic family. One Mon-Khmer language, Khasi, is spoken within India, in the present state of Assam.]
The Dravidian family of languages are spoken from the borders of Odisha in the East coast of India all the way south to the tip at Kanyakumari and inland below an imaginary east-west line across the Peninsula drawn from Goa. Of the languages in this family, Tamil is the senior most, having developed the first literary efforts and having evolved in isolation without being influenced by the ‘northern’ languages for many centuries in the early historical period. The other languages in the family are Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. The lineage of the Dravidian family is easy to trace as the language of the original inhabitants of the sub-continent.
The Dravidian family of languages consists approximately of 73 languages, used mainly in South India, and northern and eastern Sri Lanka. They also influenced some of the languages of eastern and central India. The origins, their evolution and the reason for separation from the other sanskritised languages are unclear, a situation exacerbated by the lack of in-depth research into the subject. However, in 1856 Bishop Robert Caldwell published his academic book Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages, which established it as one of the major language groups of the world. [Bishop Robert Caldwell (1814–1891) was an Evangelist missionary and linguist, who served as Assistant Bishop of Tirunelveli (in today’s state of Tamil Nadu) from 1877. He was the first to use the term Dravidian to separate languages prevalent in South India from other, more Sanskrit-affiliated languages of northern India. Apart from the main South Indian languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayala, Tulu, and Brahui in Afghanistan are identified as belonging to the Dravidian language  family. Prior to Caldwell’s research and publications, scholars had considered Tamil and other South Indian languages to be rooted in Sanskrit and affiliated to the Indo-Aryal language family. However, there is still disagreement regarding his hypothesis.] The term Dravidian is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Dravida’, seen in the forms of ‘Dramila’ and ‘Dramida’ that is closely linked to the word ‘Tamilan’, denoting a person who speaks the Tamil language.
The origins of the Aryan group of languages are more difficult to pinpoint. However, philologists are of the opinion that the early invaders of India spoke a group of dialects that belonged to the Aryan family. The Aryan group of languages consists of Greek, Latin and ancient Persian and subsequently Teutonic and Slavic languages—it is an eclectic mix. From this group, two branches spread outwards from the Middle East. The Western branch consisted of the sophisticated languages of Persia and Media. From Persia originated the ancient literary language of Pahlavi or Avestic from which modern Persian evolved with a liberal dose of Arabic influence. Avestic is the sacred language of the Zoroastrians, the ‘Parsi’ community of Western India. From Medic the frontier languages of Pushtu and Baluchi evolved over the years.
The Eastern branch came across to the Indian sub-continent carrying a number of dialects, one of which achieved far greater status than the others by gaining sacred prestige and a definable literary form by becoming the language in which the metrical hymns of the Rig Veda, considered the first of the Vedas, were chanted and subsequently written down. This language came to be known as Sanskrit, which in modern times has been elevated by Percival Spear to being ‘the standard form of expression of the Indian genius.’ The Sanskrit used to propagate the Vedas—a large collection of hymns, incantations and religious-philosophical discussions that form the earliest religious texts of India and are the foundation of the Hindu religion—is normally referred to as Vedic Sanskrit. The composition of the Upanishads, the last part of the large body of Vedic literature, around 500 BC is accepted as the end of the Vedic period. After this, Sanskrit in both its written and spoken form gradually evolved into a language purely of religion and learning. Further, because of its scared religious nature, it progressively became the exclusive area of expertise of the Brahmins, the priestly class and the self-proclaimed keepers of all knowledge. Subsequently its common usage stagnated, and over a period of time Sanskrit evolved into what is usually referred to as a ‘Classical language’. Classical Sanskrit is defined by the oldest surviving treatise on grammar called Panini Astadhyayi (Panini’s Eight-Chapter Grammar) that dates to around 500 BC and defines rather than describes the language. It is interesting that in its earliest form, the term Sanskrit did not denote a specific language, but was a particularly refined way of speaking, thereby marking the person who had knowledge of Sanskrit as one who had educational attainment and belonged to a higher social class.       
However, the period also saw the development of dialects known as Prakrits—that refers to a broad family of ancient Indic dialects—which related much more easily to the common man. [There is an on-going  debate regarding their evolution, with one group of academics combining all Indo-Aryan languages under the umbrella of Prakrits and another emphasising the independent development of these languages, with some separated from Sanskrit itself.] Irrespective of their evolution, one such Prakrit, called Pali, was used by Gautama the Buddha to spread his message of universal brotherhood. Buddha used Pali, rather than the more religiously acceptable Sanskrit with the explicit aim of making religious discourses more readily accessible to the common man without having an intermediary Brahmin to interpret the sacred texts. Pali demonstrates influence from several other Prakrits as well as limited Sanskritisation. Ironically, over a period of time the very fact of it propagating a new religious doctrine elevated Pali to the position of the sacred language of the Buddhist community and became a fixed and rigid literary language—after all religious texts were written in it. A number of new dialects that were developing around this time lacked literary form and grammarian logic and therefore were very susceptible to external influences. The less robust ones even broke down and vanished under the onslaught of fresh dialects and languages brought in through immigrants and invaders alike. By about 1000 AD a new language—the progenitor of Hindi—developed in the Gangetic plains where people had settled on a semi-permanent basis thereby creating a fixed population. This was a result of necessity and natural evolution rather than a preconceived development.
The dialects that developed at this time in history formed the base for a number of more sophisticated dialects of similar nature. These newer dialects were also influenced by the words that came from invaders like the Huns (present day Gujjars in the north west of India) as well as from local Dravidian dialects. A variety of Indian Sanskritic languages developed because of the almost continuous movement of people and the arrival of fresh groups of people. Hindi developed from the Prakrit that was prevalent in the area between Jumna and Bihar and the same Prakrit under different influences produced the Rajasthani, Gujerati and Punjabi languages. The Sindhi, Kashmiri and Marathi languages evolved from different Prakrits and also under different influences. A common thread in all these languages is that they originally developed as spoken dialects and their evolution to full-fledged language status was influenced by three factors. First, the dialects started to be used by roaming bards who composed ballads that told the stories of valour and courage of the ruling class, which were passed on by word of mouth and embellished in the process. This gave them a commonly used framework. Second, a literary form started to develop with the use of these dialects to express religious sentiments. This was spurred on by the need for the lay person to have an intimate relationship with his or her God as a ritual for daily spiritual sustenance without Brahmin interlocutors and the use of high-flown and less understood Sanskrit. Third, the advent of easier methods of prose writing made the process of script development and the expansion of these dialects into distinct languages achievable at a faster pace.
During this period of linguistic volatility, Sanskrit continued to gain in status as the language of religious literature and therefore exerted considerable influence on the development of all new languages. Over a period, by the time of the Muslim invasions and conquests in the sub-continent, Sanskrit was recognised as the language of knowledge and learning with Persian being considered the language of official business and courts as well as the language of choice in polite and noble circles. From about the 13th Century AD, Persian gave rise to a hybrid language called Urdu, which was the last modern language to be developed in India. Urdu was essentially a language of the camp and a combination of Persian and Hindi. The evolution of the Indian languages therefore has been a convoluted and at times lethargic process, perhaps like any other group of languages. Invasions, migrations and the general movement and mingling of disparate groups of people of different ethnicities, races and anthropological types tend to primarily influence the language—the tool for communication—before any other aspect of human relations. Cultural and societal influences are much harder to achieve in this kind of intermingling, especially in early historical times when new arrivals would have been almost always looked at with suspicion. 
Looking at the common root of the Indian languages and the cross-influence that has been more the norm than the exception, it would be correct to assume that modern India should ideally be a harmonious combination of language and race in a seamless blend with geography that unites the nation as one. However, this is not the case and the very same factors of race and language that should unite and assimilate, instead tend to divide and separate the people of India, emphasising not the commonality of their origins but the differences that have crept in over a period of time because of external influences.          
 
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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