Delving into the origins of communication with 10 Indian Languages and How They Came To Be

Karthik Venkatesh discusses his latest book 10 Indian Languages and How They Came To Be with author Amandeep Sandhu as well as how writing systems and literature developed

Updated - June 26, 2024 11:20 am IST

Published - June 25, 2024 07:57 pm IST

Amandeep Sandhu (left) and Karthik Venkatesh discuss 10 Indian Languages

Amandeep Sandhu (left) and Karthik Venkatesh discuss 10 Indian Languages | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Tapestry is about cloth, especially cloth with pictures, and today we shall see how text is also a tapestry,” said author Amadeep Sandhu, adding how the intricacies of language were akin to loops, stitches and tangles.

Amandeep was in discussion with author Karthik Venkatesh about his latest book, 10 Indian Languages and How They Came To Be, at the ninth edition of City Scripts, held at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bengaluru. Presented as an offering for young adults, the book looks at the well-known languages in the country as well a few uncommon ones, tracing their origin, evolution and present status.

Amandeep began the discussion on how the book encourages readers to look at the assumption that a person from a particular region has a fixed linguistic identity, and he raised the issue of bilingual districts and how they were categorised. “Language changes over geography. Gulbarga Kannada is still Kannada even though its different from what is spoken in Hubli or Mysore. This fixing of linguistic identity is a product of printing,” said Karthik.

10 Indian Languages by Karthik Venkatesh

10 Indian Languages by Karthik Venkatesh | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Charting a scripted course

“Languages evolved as a spoken form, for communication between people. When printing came into the picture, formal education followed and so, you could only teach languages with scripts.”

If that were the case, Amandeep asked if languages with scripts had an edge over those without. According to Karthik, certain languages climbed higher up the hierarchy, while others were demoted in an automatic reordering of the world in the minds of the people.

“Krishna Deva Rayya was a Tulu from the Tuluva dynasty. He ruled from Hampi in Vijaynagara and the two languages there were Telugu and Kannada. Krishna Deva Rayya himself was a Telugu writer, but he also patronised Kannada,” he said, adding the role pf power was critical in cementing the place of a language within a community.

However, the reverse has also been true in some cases. “In Maharashtra, the Satavahana rulers who were originally from Andhra Pradesh, adopted the people’s language and over time, they became known as a Marathi dynasty,” said Amandeep.

Karthik Venkatesh

Karthik Venkatesh | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Till about 1850, Thanjavur had a Maratha King, so they still speak an older version of Marathi, which has some fundamental differences with what is spoken in Maharashtra. Today, Marathi is written in Devanagari, but till about 1950, it was written also in a script called Modi. The biggest collection of Modi manuscripts is not in Maharashtra but in Thanjavur, at the Saraswathi Mahal Library and is a reference point for scholars, researchers and the government, among others, said Karthik.

State of being

The status of some languages was also discussed at the session. For instance, Santhali has seven and a half million speakers as per the 2011 census, but it is not a state language. However, Konkani and Manipuri with a far smaller number of speakers are state languages. “Santhali does not have that status since its speakers are distributed across Orissa, Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, parts of Chhattisgarh and they are not the majority speakers in any of these places,” says Karthik.

“Though the Government of India has tried to right that wrong by including Santhali in the schedule of languages, its speakers face an uphill battle. For example, a Santhali residing in Odisha would need to know Odia for a state government job,” adds Amandeep.

Sometimes the stance of a few native speakers can break new ground, says Karthik, elaborating on the role of Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha who gave up writing in Hindi for political, social and cultural reasons, choosing to write in Rajasthani in which he achieved considerable success and fame.

A section of the audience at the discussion of 10 Indian Languages

A section of the audience at the discussion of 10 Indian Languages | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The authors discussed Kokborok which is spoken in India and Bangladesh and how it came back from the brink of oblivion, following a renaissance in the late 19th century. “New forms of literature emerged such as the novel, drama and poetry, and though it is taught at the college level, it is still written in two scripts — Bengali and Roman. A commendable feat when you consider it was threatened by both English and Bengali.”

Life and death

Linguists say a language dies when fewer than 10,000 speakers remain as it will not be transmitted to future generations. How bad is that in the greater scheme of things? “When you lose a language you lose history, knowledge and a way of seeing things. Eskimos have about 30 words for different kinds of snow, but no one word for ‘snow’. It is coded to teach them something about their everyday life. That unique world view is lost when a language dies,” says Amandeep.

“Similarly, Greater Andamanese spoken on Andaman and Nicobar Islands has only 50 speakers now. The last native speaker died 10 years ago and those who speak it today use it as a second or third language — it is on the verge of extinction,” rues Karthik.

The session also saw questions from the audience, one of which was on the impact of artificial intelligence on language to which Karthik said, “The territory of artificial intelligence is like the Wild West as seen in cowboy movies — unmapped, unchartered and unknown for the moment, with everyone doing whatever they want to do. Eventually, there will be some regulation, a fixing of boundaries on what artificial intelligence can do and cannot do.”

Amandeep Sandhu

Amandeep Sandhu | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Written in a simple to understand manner, 10 Indian Languages is peppered with nuggets of information as well as timelines and scripts, making it an engaging read. Headings such as ‘Hindi: A language with an attitude’ or ‘Brahui: A slice of South India in Pakistan’ also add to its charm.

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