How To Be Funny In Sanskrit.

Suhas Mahesh has begun what looks like a very interesting column for Swarajya, How To Be Funny In Sanskrit:

[…] But Sanskrit is only one facet of the language tradition of India. There are her daughters and foster daughters too: the vernaculars, who are fulgent with best qualities of the mother. The fiercely independent Tamil is a giant in her own right. Together, they form a wonderful language ecosystem— a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around a mother-language from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration. […]

This weekly jaunt, starting today, will be my own word-offering— A guided tour through some of the choicest verses from bhāratīya-kāvya-paramparā. While on the road, we shall also divagate a bit into the territories of etymology and historical linguistics, and perhaps make brief halts to pay homage at the altars of two sister tongues, ancient Greek and Latin.

Thanks, Dinesh!

Comments

  1. “The only meaningful offering to the deity of languages, is the offering of usage.”

    That’s fantastic! It should appear in a pop-up whenever anyone anywhere tries to post a comment complaining about some etymologically unsound use of “literally” or the like.

  2. Vocabulary words for today – evanescent, fulgent, divagate.

    I always found English written by well educated Indians hard to read. And the better their English the harder it gets…

  3. The Sanskrit adaptation of Layla in the comments was worth its four and a half-minutes.

  4. Bathrobe says:

    a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around a mother-language from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration.

    Hmmm. Is Sanskrit the “mother-language” of India? Linguistically it’s not the “mother” of Tamil, although culturally I guess it might be — depending how you interpret the concept of an ‘ecosystem’.

    At any rate, it’s good to see that someone is focusing on a tradition that has several times the extant literature of Latin and Greek combined. You don’t have to be a Hindu nationalist to lament the consignment of that tradition to the limbo of history.

    Incidentally, I’m part way through Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought, a very interesting exploration of ancient links between ancient Greek and Indian thought. So far he seems more familiar with the Greek end than the Indian, but an interesting read nonetheless.

  5. Tamil being “in orbit around” Sanskrit is a Sanskrit-centric way of putting it.

    Is Sanskrit the “mother-language” of India?

    Nah, it’s Gondi. j/k, but the self-assertion of Gondi, Telengana etc is interesting to observe.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    I assume given the historical/cultural dynamics that the Dravidian languages all of plenty of loanwords of Sanskrit origin, and that there are fewer loanwords in the other direction. Whether the Dravidian languages have derived “grammar” from Sanskrit is I guess not implausible in a long-running contact situation but I don’t know to what extent it’s actually true. As to “inspiration,” . . . well I assume much of the high literary tradition in the Dravidian languages comes from authors who had direct or indirect knowledge of the Sanskrit literary tradition and there was inevitiably an impact, although the impact could take any number of forms, ranging from a language A writer deliberately trying to copy language B’s literary norms because of the associated prestige to a language A writer deliberately trying to reject those norms as a gesture of cultural autonomy.

  7. Tamil being “in orbit around” Sanskrit is a Sanskrit-centric way of putting it.

    Well, sure, but that’s pretty much inevitable in India (unless one is a Tamil nationalist or the like).

  8. fisheyed says:

    Well, sure, but that’s pretty much inevitable in India (unless one is a Tamil nationalist or the like).

    It is one thing to be Sanskrit-centric in the sense of focused on Sanskrit texts, it is another thing to be Sanskrit-centric in the sense of positing that Sanskrit is the central sun around which other languages orbit. I don’t think it’s a very good metaphor for the relationship between Hindi and Sanskrit, much less Gondi or Santhali.

    @JW Brewer, assume a virtue if you have it not.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    fisheyed, thanks for the link, but note that some of the anti-Sanskrit polemic quoted (Sanskrit as the no-longer-attractive “aged mother” v. Telugu as the more desirable “ravishing daughter”) itself metaphorically assumes the sort of relationship whereby the Dravidian vernacular is derivative/dependent as a historical matter even if it is now ready to leave home and strike off on its own. Mother:daughter::sun:planet is a pretty obvious analogy.

  10. fisheyed says:

    “Note that”. LOL. Vallabharaya is riposting to an existing trope. Of course the notion of Sanskrit as the center, mother, whatever has been around for a long time and for that matter continued post-Caldwell (see MSS Pandian). That really says nothing about whether it is an accurate thing to say in 2015, when we have a bit more in the way of linguistic knowledge.

    I guess no one wants to talk about Gondi.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    It’s not something I would say myself, but no one is offering to give me a column on the relevant website. (And the fellow who has the column is apparently an undergraduate majoring in physics, so we probably shouldn’t expect too much Sprachwissenschaft scholarly precision from him.) Now that I take a look, according to Professor Wikipedia: “Dravidian languages show extensive lexical (vocabulary) borrowing, but only a few traits of structural (either phonological or grammatical) borrowing from Indo-Aryan, whereas Indo-Aryan shows more structural than lexical borrowings from the Dravidian languages.” “Shows” is probably a bit strong for that last point, but the thesis seems to be that the ways in which the Indic branch of Indo-Iranian diverges from the Iranian branch are often consistent with the effects one might expect from a Dravidian substrate influence, which is certainly plausible.

    I am afraid I have nothing enlightening to say about the Gondi cause – I don’t even know enough to have insight as to the competitive dynamics among the “Big Four” Dravidian languages with long-standing literary traditions, although I guess they all emerged in literary form early enough (but also long enough after the hypothesized fragmentation of Proto-Dravidian) that even nationalists can’t plausibly claim that “mine is the original and the others merely debased variants.” Although I guess nationalists have been known to make implausible claims.

  12. You can certainly find people to deny it, but the general opinion is that Malayalam split from Tamil relatively recently, about a millennium ago. It is, one might say, the English of the Dravidian family: its morphology has been greatly reduced, and its high-register vocabulary and even some of the low register have been massively Sanskritized. Unlike Tamil, it is not particularly diglossic.

  13. fisheyed says:

    I guess they all emerged in literary form early enough

    No, not really. Malayalam emerged much more recently from Namboodiri influence on west coast Tamil.

    Telugu and Kannada branched from proto-Dravidian, but the earliest extant literary texts are from later periods than the earliest extant Tamil literary texts.

    Man, the threads on Mongolian and First Nations Canadian languages are so full of empirical detail, but it comes to Dravidian languages and its example-less assertions and random guessing. If it weren’t the cocktail hour, I would be protesting!!

  14. Man, the threads on Mongolian and First Nations Canadian languages are so full of empirical detail,

    Well, that’s because people who know about those languages share their expertise in the threads (usually without sneering at those who don’t know as much, I might add).

  15. Bathrobe says:

    I’m not interested in taking sides in this argument, but I did find myself raising my eyebrows at that paragraph.

    If we applied it without change to Western Europe, this is how it would sound:

    But Latin and Greek are only one facet of the language tradition of Western Europe. There are their daughters and foster daughters too: the Romance and Hellenic vernaculars, who are fulgent with best qualities of the mother. The fiercely independent German is a giant in her own right. Together, they form a wonderful language ecosystem— a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around two mother-languages from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration.

    Or East Asia:

    But Classical Chinese is only one facet of the language tradition of East Asia. There are their daughters and foster daughters too: the Sinitic vernaculars, who are fulgent with best qualities of the mother. The fiercely independent Japanese is a giant in her own right. Together, they form a wonderful language ecosystem— a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around the mother-language from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration.

    Both may be true in a catchall sort of way (although the details may be a bit off), but do people really feel comfortable having their ‘eco-systems’ described this way? I suspect it’s only because we’re looking at India from a distance through a telescope that we would accept that kind of ‘mother-daughter / sun-planet’ analogy without any qualms.

    Incidentally, I mentioned McEvilley because his thesis pokes holes in our adulation of Greece and Rome as the font of all that is great in Western civilisation, by showing how indebted the Greeks were to earlier traditions with possible deep links to India.

  16. J. W. Brewer says:

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing about facts as opposed to rhetorical characterizations. A thousand years can both be “early enough” and “relatively recent[]” depending on perspective. But on rereading I do see that that part of my prior post was rather pointless insofar as it assumed arguendo the existence of linguistic nationalists who would limit themselves to plausible claims, and that’s probably an empty set.

  17. J. W. Brewer says:

    Indeed, some Tamil chauvinists are currently engaged in litigation in an attempt to get judicial rulings that their language is “classical” but its rival Dravidian languages are not: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/PIL-in-Madras-HC-opposes-classical-language-status-for-Malayalam-Odia/articleshow/46454207.cms I liked Tamil chauvinists better when they were rioting against Hindi hegemony.

  18. As J. W. Brewer said above, the guy who’s doing the column is an undergraduate majoring in physics, so maybe we can cut him a little slack? The perfect is the enemy of the good, and it’s good that people are getting a decent perspective on language, even if it’s not phrased in exactly the proper fashion.

  19. Bathrobe says:

    @JWBrewer

    Well, they have a point… sort of. I rather wonder about the Indian attempt to codify categories like “Classical languages” and its motivations. “Classical” is a word with a great deal of cachet. It calls up ‘high civilisations’ and ‘rich ancient literatures’. If you were to start sorting modern languages in any part of the world into arbitrary categories like “Classical” and “not Classical”, I suspect you would have a similar scramble. (“What? Danish Classical but not Norwegian? WTF”).

    I also don’t think that “rhetorical characterisations” are totally harmless. They create hierarchies and make value judgements about “superiority” and “possession” in languages and cultures (“Ours is better than yours”, “Yours belong to us”, etc.), which are all too often tied to political issues. A lot of scholarly ink is and has been spilt in demolishing old “rhetorical characterisations” and creating new ones — new ways of perceiving the world. As a small example, William Labov’s work is interesting not only for its linguistics, but also for its fresh ways of looking at non-prestigious varieties of English (unfortunately without making much difference to what most people think). Linguists have also been trying for a long time to knock the rhetoric of “correctness” on the head but with little success.

    Of course the background in this case is Indian politics and nationalism, which appears to be a can of worms, but as outsiders we should be able to discuss it dispassionately. fisheye was correct in identifying the rhetoric as “Sanskrit-centric”. I don’t think there is any other way to put it and to argue with what he says is pointless.

    @Hat

    Of course I’m happy to cut the guy some slack. I totally agree with his enthusiasm for the different varieties of language in India and I more than agree with his enthusiasm for Sanskrit. As I said, I was raising an eyebrow, not dissing the guy completely! But I do agree with fisheyed that we really should question whether “the notion of Sanskrit as the center, mother … is an accurate thing to say in 2015”. It’s a valid question and I think it’s worth asking.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    The article on Gondi is quite interesting. It’s about an attempt to forge a standard language and ethnic identity for a scattered ethnicity (2.7 million speakers).

    Dispersed across Indian states and further alienated from each other by the different varieties of Gondi language that have been influenced by locally dominant tongues, the Gonds today are a fractured lot. However, long marginalised as minorities, a proud majority in central India is finally pulling its act together.

  21. Bathrobe says:

    Oh, I forgot. They claim that Gondi is a ‘classical’ one in the same league as Sanskrit. To quote: Research has gone in to posit Gondi as the “mother of Dravidian languages” and to suggest the Harappan script, whose illegibility has long stumped scholars, is actually decipherable using a Gondi one. If only John Emerson were here!

  22. Rodger C says:

    Research has gone in to posit Gondi as the “mother of Dravidian languages”

    Well, of course, wasn’t it spoken in Gondwanaland?

  23. It’s a valid question and I think it’s worth asking.

    Oh, sure. I just felt that fisheyed’s reactions were a tad harsh.

  24. JWB,
    ” As to “inspiration,” . . . well I assume much of the high literary tradition in the Dravidian languages comes from authors who had direct or indirect knowledge of the Sanskrit literary tradition”

    I saw somewhere that the Tamil version of the Ramayana has Ravana as the hero and Rama as the villain. That’s “inspiration”, of a sort.

    Bathrobe,

    “….a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around two mother-languages from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration. ”

    Yeah, that’s a no go for me too. That trope of European languages descending from the purity of Latin and Greek is……well, maybe on a mythic level it has some power, and clearly there has been major influence from both, but really, actually it is about as pathetic as the Romanovs claiming descent from Julius Caesar.

  25. Tangentially related – traditionally, at German universities, you needed the Latinum (proof of having studied Latin succesfully for a certain number of years) to be admitted for studies, especially for the humanites, but also for medicine. This requirement has been removed for more and more faculties, and I don’t know how much it even is a requirement today any more, but when I went to university 30 years ago, the requirement was still there (I didn’t mind then, as I had had seven years of Latin at school). Now, the interesting thing was, as a foreign student you could fulfill that requirement also by proving that you had studied the equivalent Classical Language of your culture (Sanscrit, Classical Chinese, Classical Arabic, Classical Greek). So the reasoning wasn’t even “Latin will help you to understand scientific terminiolgy” or something like that, it was just “studying the classical language of your culture makes you the kind of culturally superior person we want at our universities”.
    Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for studying foreign languages and knowing about the classical literature of human cultures, but I fail to see how that kind of thing is necessary for becoming a good surgeon? And putting some languages on a list of Classical Languages that count, while you’re out of look if your studied French, or Akkadian, or Farsi (just to take languages with a rich tradition of written literature) is really arbitrary.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    In France it used to be thought necessary for a doctor to have studied Greek, because so many organs have a Greek name. I don’t think this has been a requirement for quite a while, since you don’t need to be able to read a Greek text to learn elements of vocabulary.

  27. I once had a professor who taught English etymology and was a scholar of ancient Greek. He would occasionally point out erroneous scientific names (at least in Greek). I asked him if he was ever consulted by scientists at the university when naming some discovery. He said, sadly no.

  28. Well, the main thing is that English will never be a Classical Language of India. (Or of England either.)

  29. J. W. Brewer says:

    Yet there are many parts of the world where showing off your erudition by gratuitously using little bits of English (probably including bits that would be puzzling or comical to a native speaker because unidiomatic or ungrammatical) has the same sort of I-am-a-superior-sort-of-person signalling function as the use of little bits of Latin/Greek (probably including bits ditto) traditionally had in our own culture. I suppose that fact that these days having L2 competence in English generally also has practical/utilitarian/cash-value advantages in addition to those social-signalling advantages is what debars it from being “classical”?

    My school district is apparently catching up late to the current fad and (subject to funding) adding Mandarin to the existing line-up of foreign languages offered (currently Spanish/French/Italian/Latin). I’d be happier if they were adding Tamil.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    showing off your erudition by gratuitously using little bits of English

    TV Tropes.

  31. fisheyed says:

    I saw somewhere that the Tamil version of the Ramayana has Ravana as the hero and Rama as the villain. That’s “inspiration”, of a sort.

    Presumably “the” Tamil version of the Ramayana is Kamban Ramayanam, which does not have Rama as the villain. Kamban’s epic is the one that has the most importance in literary history.

    There are minor versions with Ravana as a flawed hero, in EV Ramaswamy’s Rama is the villain. There are texts lauding Ravana in Sinhalese as well.

  32. fisheyed says:

    I rather wonder about the Indian attempt to codify categories like “Classical languages” and its motivations.

    There is federal funding for research, mss preservation etc that comes with classical status, which is part of why people are so motivated to acquire status.

    The article on Gondi is quite interesting.

    While the census lists about 27 lakh speakers of Gondi (unofficial estimates put it higher at 40 lakh) there are no news broadcasts on Akashvani in Gondi. Although, there are news bulletins in Sanskrit, which has 14,000 speakers according to the census.

  33. While the census lists about 27 lakh speakers of Gondi (unofficial estimates put it higher at 40 lakh) there are no news broadcasts on Akashvani in Gondi. Although, there are news bulletins in Sanskrit, which has 14,000 speakers according to the census.

    Man, that’s ridiculous.

  34. fisheyed says:

    I didn’t even notice that the column was in Swarajya, which is a Hindutva site.

    It gives the Sanskrit as mother trope another layer of meaning, though actually my harshness, such as it was, was not provoked by the undergrad blogger.

    I think as the demographics of the educated, politically organized change, Sanskrit-centricity will also be modified, as the Gond self-assertion and Telengana self-assertion show. George Hart on assumptions of Sanskrit influence on Dravidian high culture.

  35. Bathrobe says:

    Hartman seems to be suggesting a fairly complex relationship. Note that he says Dravidian authors were trying to break away from Sanskrit influence. Consciously breaking away from a hitherto dominant tradition is common everywhere. Romantic nationalism in Europe rebelled against Classicism in Europe by appealing not only to the Romantic imagination but also to native traditions as embodied in ‘folklore’ etc. Japan’s attempts to differentiate itself from Chinese culture appealed to purely Japanese elements like Shintoism and Japanese aesthetic concepts (like mono no aware). Etc.

    Perhaps as a result of these gargantuan efforts to bring later cultures out from under the dominance of Classical culture, we now accept the validity of many of these ‘new’ narratives (at least relatively new at the time they were proposed). But it seems that the dominant Classical culture set the standard, while the later ‘declarations of independence’ (as it were) were pushing back against the Classical culture. While they contributed a lot to the mix, they were arguably insufficient to create a full-blown Classical culture of their own.

    This is pretty broad-brush stuff and I wouldn’t like to set up a grand theory of civilisation based on it, but there seem to be interesting parallels.

  36. George Hart on assumptions of Sanskrit influence on Dravidian high culture.

    Thanks, that looks interesting.

  37. Bathrobe says:

    Oops, yes, that should have been Hart.

  38. fisheyed says:

    Note that he says Dravidian authors were trying to break away from Sanskrit influence.

    No, that’s not right. He says that people credit Tamil with an independant literature (ie. Sangam literature), but not Telugu and Kannada, but Telugu and Kannada have non-Sanskrit-influenced literatures that drew on the same oral tradition Sangam literature drew from.

    George Hart does not say that Sanskrit culture set the standard for Sangam literature, he has written on this at length. On the contrary, Sangam literature is from the transitional period where Sanskrit is just coming in. (There is some suggestion that Sangam literature set the standard for Prakrit poems in the Sattasai, I think Palaniappan has written on this.)

  39. fisheyed says:

    gargantuan efforts to bring later cultures out from under the dominance of Classical culture

    Actually, thinking about your comment on nationalism, I’m not sure if the vacanas had any sense of Kannadiga self-assertion. There are medieval bhakthi Tamil poets like Gnanasambandar who definitely do assert Tamilness, but it’s against Jains, not against Sanskrit (couldn’t be, considering G’s religious beliefs). It is complicated, in short.

  40. Man, it’s nice to hear from people who know so much about things I know so little about.

  41. bootstar says:

    “If only John Emerson were here!” — where’s John?

  42. fisheyed says:

    in EV Ramaswamy’s Rama is the villain.

    To correct myself, EVR inspired-via-his-commentaries/encouraged but did not write Keemayana, which is what I was thinkng of. Anyway, I wanted to distinguish between versions in which Ravana is the protagonist, and versions in which Rama is the villain, the latter were very controversial, as Paula Richman writes

  43. And AK Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” included as the second essay in Richman’s book, has itself become controversial.

Trackbacks

Speak Your Mind

*