Lexicographer G. Venkatasubbaiah — His was the last word

Lexicographer G. Venkatasubbaiah reading 50th year celebrations suppliment of 'The Hindu' Bengaluru edition at his house.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

People of Karnataka called G. Venkatasubbaiah (GV), who passed away on Monday at 107, a “walking dictionary” and it was no cliché. Even at an advanced age, the lexicographer remained the final arbiter on Kannada words, their etymology, usage, and grammar.

GV, suffering from age-related illnesses, was admitted to a private hospital a week ago. His last rites were conducted with State honours on Monday.

All through his long life, GV was the go-to person when in doubt on a word, or when a new word had to be coined to keep Kannada in pace with the changing world. Never did he fail to rise to the occasion.

Coming from a family of Sanskrit and Kannada scholars from Ganjam, Mandya district, GV developed a fascination for words, grammar and classical literature early in life. While studying Kannada in Mysuru in the 1930s, it was lexicographer and scholar A.R. Krishna Shastry who instilled in him a deep fascination for words.

“One day, he asked me what my interests were. I said research, literary history and translation, not lexicography,” he recalled in what was probably his last interview to Frontline in February earlier this year. Though lexicography will dominate his legacy, he was also a literary critic, an editor of literary collections, a translator, and even author of children’s literature. He also taught Kannada at various colleges and had a long career at Vijaya College in the city, where he retired as principal in 1973.

His life’s monumental work was the 9,000-page eight-volume Kannada-Kannada dictionary by the Kannada Sahitya Parishat compiled over five decades (1944-1994), started under the tutelage of Prof. Shastry. GV filled his shoes as chief editor of the project after his death and completed the work.

G. Venkatasubbaiah during his graduation

G. Venkatasubbaiah during his graduation  

GV went on to work on 14 Kannada dictionaries, including Klishta Padakosha, a dictionary of complex words. He also served as the vice-president of the Lexicographical Association of India for 17 years.

Literary critic Rajendra Chenni credits GV with taking lexicography and etymology of words from the confines of the scholarly to civil society. His decade-long column Igo Kannada, where he discussed the socio-linguistic etymology of words and idioms and phrases in Kannada in the daily Prajavani was one such effort. “He was aware of the need for an educated awareness of the concerns of the language and articulated it as part of civil society,” he said. In his presidential address at the sahitya sammelan in 2011 in Bengaluru, he was critical of the “coarse language” of the State’s political discourse and the media.

GV was a passionate advocate of the Kannada cause and argued for Kannada in education and administration and for preference to Kannadigas in jobs. He advocated for Kannada to be taught in all schools as a mandatory first language till class 10.

On one occasion, he called English a “murderous language”, and said while he was not opposed to teaching English in school, parents ought to teach Kannada first to their children. However, he was open to assimilation of words from other languages, including English into Kannada.

He said such words do not destroy Kannada and the language can absorb and digest such words and make them its own.

Unlike many prophets of doom, he remained optimistic about Kannada till the end. He observed that Kannada was the 26th most widely spoken language in the world.

“One should not jump to the conclusion that Kannada is dying because of the dismal state of the language in Bengaluru. The language is alive and kicking in the rural pockets of the State,” he said in the interview to Frontline.

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Printable version | May 19, 2021 4:22:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/his-was-the-last-word/article34362407.ece

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