Migration has shaped the arc of Indian history in myriad ways, from the day the Vedic Aryans first alighted from their chariots to the arrival of Namboothiri Brahmins in Kerala to the Persianised Turkic conquerors of the Middle Ages. For linguist Peggy Mohan, all this finds a strong echo in the evolution of the subcontinent’s languages. In her new book, Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Languages , she delves into the often surprising sounds and structures of what we conventionally call Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages, and relates these to the deep pasts of their speakers. Excerpts from an interview:
Can you briefly outline your central insight about how gendered migration patterns shape the development of languages?
My background is in the Caribbean, and the Caribbean is very much into hybridising of languages, because of the slavery situation where West African languages managed to take on the words from European languages in very predictable ways, which made me think that we have two parental strands. I’d been thinking of writing this book all this time and saying precisely that, until suddenly the genetic data started coming out — again talking of two parental strands of the men coming in from outside and the women being local. And you see a similar thing, so obviously, in Kerala, where the idea was that the women were local and the men came from abroad. We don’t know how many women the Namboothiris brought. I can’t imagine that they brought very many, because migrants generally don’t. And similarly with the Vedic people. We hear about the Y-DNA spreading, but never about the mtDNA, the matrilineal, mitochondrial DNA.
So, in this situation, the children spend their first few years learning their mother’s language and possibly — especially if they’re boys — moving on to their father’s language. And they influence each other that way, because technically by the first generation, Vedic children would have been native speakers of something older in that area, and then when they finally learnt Sanskrit, they may have learned it very well, but slowly over the centuries, things slipped in. Things that looked very much like how non-Brahmin Malayalis pronounce Sanskrit. If you listen to a Malayali pronouncing Sanskrit, especially women, you hear something that sounds like the Prakrits. And it makes me wonder, what were the Prakrits, if not something very close to Sanskrit except with a different accent?
One of the first examples of something slipping in would have been retroflexion. [Retroflex or murdhanya consonants, like the ‘n’ and ‘d’ in ‘Pandava’ are made with the tongue tip curled back.]
Retroflexion. It’s almost like a DNA tag that tells you a language is Indian. Except the Assamese will probably be a little upset about that because they don’t have it. Everyone has it. Everywhere in Pakistan. Can you believe it — Pathans speak with retroflexion? Balochis. Andamanese. Kerala, of course, along with Tamil.
Are you characterising this change brought about by children as creolisation?
No, not quite. When you have a situation of apartheid — and apartheid comes in different forms, it can be Black and White in the Caribbean, it can be caste-wise in India — you find people don’t have access to a language they need to learn or want to learn. And very often, they take very superficial features out of it, like words, and sometimes endings. Even now in tribal areas, they’ve been taking Sanskrit and Prakritised endings into their language, which they have no reason to do. That is more the creole situation.
How do you relate this to English?
What I like to call Indian English — it’s a Prakrit, not a creole. If you look at how the babus picked it up, it’s exactly the way elite men and women in the Vedic time picked up Sanskrit. They just threw in an accent and a few grammatical features, which were not actually wrong. Every time you say, “This is with me only,” it’s an avoidance of the word ‘have’ — which doesn’t exist in Indian languages — but it’s not wrong.
So we have a bunch of possibilities in India. You have the Prakrit situation, which is quite close to the target language, the language they’re trying to learn. You have the creole situation where all sorts of old things have remained, but just got a coat of paint from a new language. And then we have something in-between, like Malayalam and Urdu, where nouns came. And nouns are so visible that people get the impression that the language has changed, whereas it’s just got a new wardrobe.
Then of course there’s the Hinglish thing, which is very interesting because it gives us an impression of how this might have happened in the old days — how people might have started bringing things in gradually. Poor people, possibly speaking the same old languages that were related to the Harappan languages... there are so many features in North Indian languages that are clearly southern, or Dravidian, and they are not in Sanskrit. Phrases like hua and ho gaya . You have that in Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, all the tribal languages. You don’t have it in Sanskrit. And verbs having gender!
What language did the Namboothiris bring with them to Kerala?
They seem to be very similar to the Vedic people, and to the Central Asian Turks in that respect. They obviously must have brought a language that they spoke. A vernacular. But we have no idea — they have preserved no memory of it. Even the Jewish population of Kerala has not preserved its vernacular language. People throw away their vernacular languages. So a part of the history as to where these people came from has been lost. What has been kept is some wonderful Sanskrit. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that south of the Vindhyas was the best preservation of the Vedas, and if not for that, the North would not have the Rig Veda at all. You just have to look at the first word of the Rig Veda to know that whoever preserved it was a South Indian. Agnimile ... ‘l’ is not Sanskrit. But it’s there — it’s understood to be correct. So it means the authority was somebody living along the Konkan-Malabar coast.
The case of Nagamese is very interesting. So, a new Indo-Aryan language has emerged? It’s not a pidgin?
It’s not a pidgin. It has the same strange feature, like Malayalam, of no endings on verbs to mark person, but otherwise, it is absolutely a language of the area. I imagine it would have been like the Assamese spoken in the border areas with the Naga Hills.
You find that languages move in and claim territory. If the whole Naga community knows Nagamese as well as their old language, you’re finding a pushing eastward of existing zones. And if there isn’t apartheid, you can actually learn it.
You’ve borrowed the concept of punctuated equilibria from evolutionary biology.
It’s not only evolutionary biology. It’s basically that change is not a gradual incline. You have stability, then an event that shakes it up, and then a different level. So if you apply that, then you’re in a much better position to, say, listen to Amir Khusrau, and find that... it’s modern. He was writing in the 1200s but nobody will have problems understanding him. So, stability was there, and nothing has happened to shake Hindi in a fundamental way.
However, when you talk of the early days of all the North Indian languages, most probably they were not speaking anything linked to the Prakrits, because these were poor people. When they finally took on these words, they were not Indo-Aryan languages — they were something Dravidian with a plus, because there was something Dravidian that’s not there in the South either.
So, who are these Dravidians that we talk of in the North? Were they a separate group? If they were, then I’m afraid the only evidence of them is those of us who are still alive. We are the Dravidians, from the Harappan area. I think it’s an exciting thought. It’s way more exciting than being an Aryan. Who wants to be a guy on a chariot fighting wars? You can be Harappan. And we probably are, to some extent.
But the idea of punctuated equilibria has not only the idea of stability but also sudden birth and total death. A language can be dead if it doesn’t have children speaking it. Do you see what happened to Sanskrit when Kalidasa tried to write it? He slipped in some astonishing northwestern features which didn’t belong there, and they have continued in Hindi. So you have an idea that he’s not a native speaker, and so he is capable of altering the language because it doesn’t suit him.
You mention that women were likely barred from writing Vedic poetry. But weren’t there some Vedic poetesses?
[Philologist] Michael Witzel thinks no. It’s possible, but we do know that women were not allowed to speak Sanskrit after some time. Witzel says they were men speaking as women. It fits the pattern of women being different, speaking an earlier language.
In Vedic ceremonies, their role is extremely limited. It’s almost like the women were a separate ethnic group. And they had to be tolerated because there would be no children without them, but they were the people who, on another day, you were fighting on the battlefield.
So, what’s next?
I want to see why creoles are actually like that. I don’t buy the old theories about genetics. You have to look at history, together with migration patterns, navigation patterns, to see how languages are shaped.