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Language in Ancient India

Scholars who study language policy in Europe and correlate it with the renaissance and the rise of nation-states expect South Asian language policy to have its roots in the same phenomena. Superficially, of course, this kind of development can be discerned. Yet there can be no ignoring the existence of classical languages such as Sanskrit and Tamil, allegiance to which has strong bonds in modern India, and which cannot be overlooked in the development of a language policy. The fact that Sanskrit was codified in Panini's grammar in non-metrical sútras in perhaps 500 BCE, and that Tolkappiyanar's grammar of Tamil dates from around the beginning of the CE, the fact that students still can learn Sanskrit and Tamil at the feet of pandits by the time-honored rote methods worked out millennia ago, attest to an unbroken linguistic and cultural tradition that still affects thoughts and feelings about language in South Asia today. Though modern linguistics as developed and practiced in the west since the early nineteenth century is inextricably linked both to the `discovery' of Sanskrit by Europeans in the late 18th century.8 and to the discovery along with it of the Indian grammatical tradition that itself enabled the transmission of this culture, modern linguists in the subcontinent have to fight a thousand battles to get modern Indian students of language to disengage themselves from Panini and Tolkappiyanar and look at the modern languages as independent from their classical precursors.

Perhaps the most salient feature of ancient Indian linguistic culture was the concern for the preservation of sacred texts and the purity of the language in which they were composed. This concern arose out of the willingness of the society not only to commit the resources (time, human resources, energy, material resources) for this transmission, but also to the development of a technique that would guarantee the purity and constancy of the texts. The decision or strategy devised was to commit the sacred texts to memory and to transmit the sacred texts orally, but in a highly controlled way that was rightly felt to be the only way to avoid the introduction of error into the texts. As anyone who has witnessed a demonstration of this technique can attest, the outcome seems to be fairly foolproof,9 better anyway than via literacy and handwritten transmission, where scribal error and individual additions and emendations can often be introduced.

The reliance on orality is motivated in part by the power of spoken words to invoke the intervention of the gods. In the Indic tradition, if the text has been learned in the proper way, and by the proper person10 then the power of the word, when spoken, is irrevocable--the gods must act, and will act. Writing the word on paper (stone, copper, whatever) is not a substitute for pronouncing it. The utterance of an invocation is thus automatically what modern speech-act theorists would call a performative speech act. In the saying of the word, something is also done, and cannot be undone. Indian literature is full of tales in which a word was misused, uttered capriciously or wrongly, with mischievous or even disastrous consequences. The term `magic' comes to mind here, and in some ways the power of words can be seen as magic; but this is not mere magic.

This oral tradition is in some sense the epitomy of orality, and not just a poor substitute for literacy. It differs from puristic traditions of other sorts (religions of `the book') where language is kept pure because it is holy, the word of God, the truth immutable11 . In traditions such as Islam, the Qu'ran is the word of God, and cannot be changed. But the word of God is kept in a book (the Qu'ran) so that mortals can consult it to see what God has said. The purpose of the Indic oral tradition is to enable mortals to speak to (the) God(s), not to know what God has spoken to mortals. And if one is going to speak to God effectively, one must do it in a way that has been preordained.

We are dealing here with two cultural ideas, one a concern for the purity of language, another for the mode of transmission or preservation for future generations. The mode of transmission, orality, involved memorization beginning at a young age, and the willingness to devote great amounts of the society's labor and resources to achieve the goal of maintenance and transmission of this textual tradition. Having set this in motion, it also became a cultural value to preserve the infrastructure needed to propel the system--a system of gurus, pandits, disciples, and in some cases monasticism; and of course the caste system with a special niche and privileges for the (hereditary) priesthood.

Cultural literacy in ancient India, though at first totally oral and focussed on the magical power of language, became wrapped up in the issue of transmission and survival of the culture. This has been summarized quite succinctly by Madhav Deshpande:

The Aryans generally looked at the mass of non-Aryans from a singular perspective.... Thus, all the non-Aryans seem to have been normally lumped together in the category of Dasas. ...The non-Aryan language could not have pleased the Aryan gods, and hence was held to be ritually inferior to the Aryan language...[and] ...nondivine language at the very least. ...
(Deshpande 1979:2-3).

As the Vedic Aryans gradually moved into the interior of India, they began adjusting themselves to the local scene. ...At the same time, the Aryan language of the early Vedic texts was fast becoming archaic, and new forms of Aryan language had begun to develop. This forced the Aryans to look at their own language more carefully, and herein lies the beginning of linguistic speculation in India.12 This stage is reflected in the later Samhitas and in the Brahmana literature, and Panini (about 500 B.C.) probably marks the end of this stage.

This concern led to the development of many technical sciences of which phonetics, etymology and grammar are particularly significant in this respect. Here we find an attempt to capture and define various aspects of the Aryan language as it had been orally preserved in the ancient texts, and also an attempt to describe the Aryan upper-class language as it was currently spoken.

However, we must not forget that this most normal title bhasa `language' in fact refers to the spoken dialect of the upper classes. ...We may safely assume that other forms of Indo-Aryan, and the non-Aryan languages, were viewed as ``substandard" languages, as those peoples themselves were placed in the lower slots of the social hierarchy. ...Thus, during this period, there seems to be a general idea emerging among the upper-class Aryans that the lower forms of Indo-Aryan as well as the non-Aryan languages were somehow substandard and inferior (Deshpande 1979:3-4).

The origin of the Mimamsa conception that language is eternal lies in the Brahmanical concern for preservation of the Vedas which the Mimamsakas shared with the Sanskrit grammarians. However, this conception of eternality of language is not a universal principle, but it applies only to Sanskrit. To be more specific, only the Sanskrit language is the eternal language, while all the apabhramsa `fallen, substandard' languages are noneternal (Deshpande 1979:18).

One could give many more examples of this, but it is clear that the groundwork was laid at an early stage for all kinds of infrastructure to preserve the language, and that attitudes about high and low language were extant from the earliest recorded history. What we must also assume was that although the Aryans saw themselves at the top with all other peoples and languages in an undifferentiated mass below them, those below them did not accept the notion of lack of differentiation, but in fact applied the same dichotomy to themselves and people/languages they felt were below them. That is, even Mlecchas like Tamils also imbibed these attitudes and hierarchized themselves in the same manner. Thus there were high Tamils, and there was good Tamil (centamir), and there were lower Tamils and `broken' Tamil (koduntamir), and we can see that this kind of attitude was prevalent all the way down; even the tribal peoples of the Nilgiri Hills of South India hierarchize themselves:

In the local caste system of the Nilgiris, the Todas rank highest. Small as the community is, numbering approximately 600 people, it has a most complex social structure. (Emeneau 1964:332.)

They are peculiar, even a self-consciously peculiar, people, as befits a segment at the top of a local caste system of the Hindu type. (ibid., p. 340).

My point here is not so much to document these aspects of Indic linguistic culture (which in any event is well-known to classical Indologists, at least) but to show that this linguistic culture, often thought of as only a thin veneer, or a characteristic of only a tiny minority in the society, is deeply suffused through Indian culture, so intrinsically rooted that even illiterates of the lowest castes share the same value system about language, its preservation, perpetuation, and its pivotal role in the transmission of the culture. Thus for the pre-literate (or only orally literate) Todas, we can discern three distinct varieties of speech: spoken Toda, sung Toda (not automatically comprehensible to someone knowing spoken Toda) and trance-language Toda (probably a pidginized kind of Malayalam, but as yet unresearched). The central position of Toda songs in Toda culture has been documented thoroughly by Emeneau (op. cit. 1964, 1974).

That is, whereas in some cultures the attitudes toward language held by educated elites may be scorned, despised, or simply ignored by less privileged members of the society, such that it would be easy to conceive of removing these elites and substitute some other policy or set of attitudes, in Indian culture such a notion is inconceivable. (This has deep repercussions for what came later, as I will show).13

To make a long story short, the evidence for the claim that Indian culture has devoted an inordinate amount of resources to linguistic culture, its preservation and transmission lies in the following:

The existence of a hereditary priesthood; guru/pandit/disciple system, dedicated to the preservation of texts.
Purity of text (language of the gods, word of god); desire to preserve purity of language; death to non-Brahmans who hear or learn the pure language;

Notion that language is eternal; there are no time limits on it; pure language does not change.

Existence of diglossia as a way to keep language pure and separate; freedom to use spoken language informally. Opens door for tolerance of multilingualism, since only H languages are pure; spoken language is outside the pale.

Extreme hierarchization of language; connection between language and religion.

The above are observations that can be made about linguistic culture in India, but they are not the whole story. They have implications that fundamentally affect the symbolism, the instrumentality, and the perpetuation of anything having to do with language.

next up previous contents
Next: Diglossia Up: Indian Linguistic Culture and Previous: Linguistic Culture and Language
Harold Schiffman