Language Orders.

I don’t know if anyone else took advantage of the free download of Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India by Andrew Ollett, which I mentioned here, but I did, and I’ve gotten to a section that reminds me so much of the passage from Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek beginning “There has never been such a thing as an impermeable culture…” that I posted here that I had to share it as well:


One important starting point for my investigation is Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that “[a] unitary language is not something which is given (dan) but is always in essence posited (zadan).” We might think that we have answered the question “What is Prakrit?” with a series of descriptions: what are its grammatical features, what texts are written in it, who wrote those texts, and so on. For a language as little studied as Prakrit, much of this descriptive work remains to be done. But Bakhtin’s comment suggests that this is only the beginning. To ask “What is Prakrit?” is not just to ask what it is like, but to ask how, by whom, and for what purposes Prakrit was “posited” as a language over the course of its history.

Throughout this book I address these questions through the concept of a language order. This concept foregrounds the fact that languages interact with each other in such a way that it is impossible to characterize a language without reference to the other languages that fall within its cultural-historical horizons. It is, of course, possible to characterize a language in that way as a formal system, through the contrasts it articulates and its procedures of derivation. This was Ferdinand de Saussure’s goal in delimiting “internal linguistics” from the study of all language-external phenomena. Saussure’s success in defining the object of linguistics as a formal system, however, has meant that comparatively little attention has been paid to the ways in which languages are posited in relation to each other. The term “language order” refers to the way that languages are ordered within a culture, to the recurrent patterns and schemas and tropes by which they are defined and represented, the names under which they are known, and the values with which they are associated. A language order provides the linguistic parameters for all manners of cultural practices, from scratching one’s name on the wall of a cave to composing a text on poetics.

Important stuff to keep in mind, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. Incidentally, the title comes from Mirza Khan’s description of Prakrit (in Tuḥfat al-hind [Gift of India], 1676):

This language is mostly employed in the praise of kings, ministers, and chiefs, and belongs to the world, that is to say, the world that is below the ground; they call it Pātāl-bānī, and also Nāg-bānī, that is, the language of the lowest of the low, and of reptiles of mean origin, who live underground. This language is a mixture of Sahãskirt, mentioned above, and Bhākhā, to be mentioned next.

[o madḥ-i mulūk o wuzarāʿ o akābir beshtar badīn zabān goyand. o ān zabān-i ʿālam ast, yaʿni ʿālam-i ki zīr zamīn ast. o ān-rā pātāl-bānī goyand… o nāg-bānī nīz nāmand… yaʿnī zabān-i ahl-i asfal us-sāfilīn o mārān ki zamīnīyān o suflīyānand. o ān murakkab ast az sahãskirt, ki sābiq maẕkūr shud, o bhākhā, ki baʿd az īn maẕkūr shawad.]


  1. For a brief moment I was wondering why this “Prakrit” is so similar to Persian.

    Then realized that this IS Persian….

  2. I’ve noticed a very disturbing tendency in LH of late towards postmodernism. We are not at deconstructionism yet but we seem to be getting very close…

    the fact that languages interact with each other in such a way that it is impossible to characterize a language without reference to the other languages that fall within its cultural-historical horizons

    This seems to beg the question: What is a “language”? There do not seem to be clear boundaries. And, of course, it applies within languages as well, since every register and every style is defined with reference to other registers and styles, which then extends further afield to “other languages that fall within its cultural-historic horizons”.

  3. When you start learning Persian you quickly realize than ANY Arabic word can be also a Persian word too.

    I am told that Ottoman Turkish was even worse – any Arabic word and any Persian word could be also used as an Ottoman Turkish word.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Any Chinese character can be used in written Japanese.

    Any Latin or French word can be used as a German verb by adding -ieren.

  5. Yeah, to be clear, Mirza Khan was writing in Persian about the linguistic situation of India.

  6. The Garo language of North East India has perhaps the largest vocabulary in the world, for not only can any Bengali word be used in Garo, but any English word too, appropriately Garoized. Robbins Burling wrote in 1970:

    In 1955, when early proposals for launching artificial satellites were being discussed, I was asked by some Garos to explain how they would work. I did my best, but found myself using the word grebiti when trying to explain why the satellites would circle the earth and not fly off into space. I had never before heard the Garo word grebiti, but I believe I used it correctly […].

    [English] includes the entire contents of the unabridged dictionary. Of course, nobody knows all those words, but they are all there, ready to be used when needed. No one doubts that all those words are English, even if most of them are as unfamiliar to most speakers of English as is the word grebiti to a Garo. But when the word grebiti is needed in a Garo context, there is no more difficulty in using it than in using one of the less familiar items in the dictionary in an English context.

    In a perfectly real sense, then, the entire resources of the English dictionary are as available to a Garo speaker as they are to an English speaker. In one way, indeed, Garos have even richer resources than English speakers, since they can also draw upon the Bengali vocabulary and upon their more indigenous stock of terms as well. […] When a Garo learns enough to discuss automobile mechanics, Christian theology, or agronomy, he learns the new vocabulary of these topics in exactly the same way as does any English speaker when he first learns about a new subject.

  7. This is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking when I wrote this comment:

    The nice thing about learning Chinese is that I only have to learn Chinese. Which I already know because I speak Japanese.

    OK, it’s not that simple. At all.

  8. Back in the day I was taught that Sanskrit was followed by “the prakrits,” plural, one of which was Pali, sacred to Buddhism. I’m not familiar with Prakrit in the singular. Not that I can testify to any other prakrit, but I have enough grasp of reality to suspect there were several.

  9. The book (which is open-access) in EPUB, Mobi, and PDF formats.

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