Is Sanskrit really a “Indo-European” language?
Thanks to Dr Kalyananraman-ji for alerting me to this. In this well-argued and researched essay titled, Colonial Constructs about Indian Languages, Shishir Thadani explains why there may be a lot more in common between “Indo-Aryan” and Dravidian” languages than what history texts tell us. Excerpts below:
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Most educated Indians know that most Indian languages are divided into two broad linguistic streams – i.e. the “Indo-European” and the “Dravidian”. Tied in with this linguistic classification is the theory that the North Indian languages came with “Aryan” settlers.
…To this day, influential historians (such as Romila Thapar) and others at the JNU (and several other leading Indian universities) continue to swear by this colonial era model. Critics of this colonial-era formulation are usually dismissed as “amateurs” or “national chauvinists” who are somehow unable to comprehend the supposedly well-established “science” of “modern” linguistics.
But is this classification truly “scientific” or a construct that derives more from purely political considerations as some recent critics have argued?
Hungarian Critics of the “Indo-European” Scheme
For instance, in Hungary, there is a growing body of scholars who are extremely uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the manner in which Hungarian was excluded from the Indo-European framework.
…As some modern linguists have argued, the inclusion or exclusion of a language in a particular family must be based on very precise and consistent criterion that should be backed up computerized statistical analysis. For instance, there are some Indian language scholars who have suggested that a computerized analysis of Sanskrit and Latin lexicons might yield a far more limited overlap than would be rationally implied by the “Indo-European” classification.
In fact, such analysis might reveal a greater overlap between North Indian and South Indian langauages as well as between Adivasi langauges and their neighboring Indic langauges that are presently placed under the “Indo-European” umbrella.
But to date, advocates of the Indo-European paradigm have strenuously resisted such calls for a fresh and unbiased scientific analysis of their classification methods. Nor have they been open to analyzing their conclusions in the context of geography, archaeology, anthropology, trade ties, cultural exchanges and regional political developments.
Few linguists ascribing to the Indo-European/Dravidian divide have bothered to investigate the extent of commonality between Sanskrit or Tamil or Munda and Hindi or Tibetan and Bengali. The possibilities of overlapping vocabularies or shared words between langauges that are currently placed in different linguistic streams has simply not interested many Western-influenced Indian linguists.
Problems with the “Indo-European” Construct
…Building primitive lexicons that show similar roots for certain common words can hardly be an adequate basis of linguistic classification. Especially if that classification is going to be further used to generate implications about sociological and cultural development. If the commonality between Indian and European langauages extends only to a small pastoral-era oral lexicon, the Indo-European theory of langauges could hardly be called in to justify the “Aryan Invasion” theory let alone infer that the Vedas were written by “Indo-European Aryan” migrants.
In fact, one of the unintended (or even intended) consequences of such linguistic speculation is that there has been a needless intellectual division between North Indians and South Indians, between Adivasis and “non-Adivasis” . Moreover, it has strengthened the now increasingly untenable view that there is no continuity between the Indo-Saraswati Harappan civilization and Vedic civilization, and that India’s languages (both in the oral and written forms) must have been brought to India by more “civilized” outsiders.
India and the Birth of Formal Linguistics
Although there is some disagreement on when Panini lived, few modern linguists would deny him and (his lesser-known) predecessors a place at the very forefront of the science of linguistics.
Amongs the earliest known formal Sanskrit lexicons is the Nighantu (a thesaurus-like lexicon) ascribed to Yaska (7th c BC) whose work attempted to systematize the various lexicons that had been developed to aid in the understanding and intrerpretation of the Vedic texts. These included lexicons of rare or difficult words classified into chapters containing similes, metonyms, and other categories of related words that were used to describe physical things and objects in nature. A separate chapter contained words that related to human physical/physiological and mental/emotional qualities and yet another chapter confined itself to words relating to abstract qualities and concepts. A separate book described homonyms that presented special difficulties in their interpretation or had ambiguous meanings. Yaska’s Nighantu was accompanied by his Nirukta (a treatise on entymology and word-parsing) in which rules for deriving words from roots and affixes are described. Yaska followed Sakatayana (an older grammarian) and described four types of words: nama (or nouns), akhyata (verbs), upsarga (prefixes) and nipata (particles such as prepositions). He defined verbs as those in which the process or action predominated and nouns as that in which an entity or a being or a thing predominated. He was also cognizant of how sometimes verbs taken on a noun-like form – such as “going for a walk” where the verb walk takes on a noun-like form.
Yaska also posited a semantic theory in which he argued that words had inherent meanings in contrast to Panini who argued that words had meanings only in their specific context. This debate appears to mirror the modern-day debate between semantic atomists and cognitive linguistics. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi (Eight Chapters) went deeper into linguistic morphology defining such terms as phonemes, morphemes and roots. He also described rules/algorithms for taking material from lexical lists (dhatupatha) and generating words from them in a structured and systematic manner. Panini’s influence on modern linguistics has been considerable (see notes below).
In this entire body of work stretching, from Sakatayana to Panini, there is virtually nothing to link Sanskrit to any European influence.
On the other hand, both Sanskrit and Tamil are syllabic languages and both treat consonants and vowels very similarly. Just as in Sanskrit where aksharas (speech particles or atoms) are divided into Svarams (vowels) and Vyanajanams (consonants), in Tamil vowels (Uyir Ezhuttu) are clearly distinguished from consonants Mey Ezhuttu.
Alphabets versus Syllables
And although linguists are divided as to which came first, both Sanskrit and Tamil are written in very similar ways. Unlike the European langauges that are written using alphabets (derived from Greek, and branching off from Latin or Cyrillic), all Indian languages are written using syllables made up of (simple or compound) consonant shapes that are modified by the symbols for vowels that connect the consonants. In Sanskrit (and languages derived from it) as well as in South Indian languages like Telugu and Kannada there is a precise and unambiguous correspondence between how words are pronounced and how they are written.
From the point of view of classifying languages based on the organizational principles that govern their written scripts no logic would permit the Sanskrit-derived North Indian langauges to be placed in the same language group as the European languages.
For instance, languages (such as Chinese or Japanese) that use pictograms, logograms and ideograms in their written form are a unique group of languages and are classified as “Semanto-phonetic”. To understand the development of such languages using morphological and entymological constructs as described by Sanskrit linguists such as Yaska or Panini would be absurd.
Yet, Western scholars seem to have no difficulty in clubbing Sanskrit with English and French even though the manner in which Sanskrit developed and was formalized was entirely unknown and alien to the Europeans. On the other hand, structurally speaking (notwithstanding some differences), Sanskrit and Tamil are like sisters, yet many Westerners persist with placing them in entirely different language families.
Pan-Indic Linguistic Features
Writing in Language in India (9, Jan, 2002), G. Sankaranarayanan observes how repeating words and forms is a significant feature that extends across the Indian subcontinent and includes not only the Sanskrit and Tamil derivatives but also Munda and languages from the Tibetan-Burmese group.
…Thus word repitition is an economic but meaningful way of expressing varied forms of frequency, plurality or multiplicity.
Note too that Indic languages permit the dropping of pronouns (which become implied). In the previous example both the subject (I/we) and object pronouns (him/her/them) may be dropped, but (got tired telling) would be impermissable in English.
Another form of repitition is the use of an echo word to suggest a broader category than the word echoed.
Sentence Word Order
It may also be noted that across India, both Sanskrit and Tamil derived languages use SOV (subject Object Verb) word order as a default. But several Indo-European langauges such as English, French, Portugese and Bulgarian use SVO word order.
However, in colloquial or theatrical speech, (or even in poetic/literary texts) Hindi (like Arabic) also permits VSO. Moreover, when repeated words are used all Indian langauges permit the omission of the subject and the word order becomes flexible – either OV or VO.
Word order also becomes flexible in the context of question and answer exchanges. Thus in Hindi “Gaye the Tum?” (Went did you?), “Tum Gaye The?” (You went did?) and “Tum Gaye?” (You went?) are all possible. Replies to where did you go could be equally varied from the standard SOV “Main Allahabad gaya tha” (I Allahabad went) to an OVS “Allahabad gaya tha main” (Allahabad went I) or simply OV “Allahabad gaya tha” (Allahabad went) or even VO “Gaya tha Allahabad” (Went Allahabad)
In this respect, Indian languages are similar to each other but not to less flexible “Indo-European” languages like English. On the other hand, Russian and Czech (like Hungarian) do not require a fixed or default word order.
In conclusion, it might be stated that the present scheme of bifurcating Indian langauges into the “Indo-European” and “Dravidian” scheme is unsatisfactory in many ways. Not only does it ignore vital commonalities between the langauges of Northern and Southern India, it has also precluded comprehensive comparitive studies between these Indic languages and other Indic langauges such as the Munda or those from the Tibetan-Burmese stream.
…Also obscured is the scientific analysis and rational organization that went into the formalization of Sanskrit (in both spoken and written forms) and other Indic languages that created a solid foundation for India’s largely self-propelled progress in philosophy, epistemology, law and governance, mathematics, art, theatre and music, mathematics, and the biological and physical sciences.
Consciously or unconsciously, the “Indo-European” scheme not only divided India from within but also set it apart from from its intellectually-linked Asian brethren and oceanic neighbors in Africa.
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In case you are tempted to dismiss the author as another misguided “nationalist”, Sh Thadani is an undergrad from the prestigious IIT in Delhi and a Post-Graduate degree in Computer Science from Yale where his area of specialization included Theoretical Computer Science, the Syntax and Semantics of Computer Langauges and Natural Language Processing. He was assisted in his reasearch by Giti Thadani, who is intimately familiar with several European langauges including German, French and Hungarian (as well as Sanskrit).
The article in full here.