'Wanderers, Kings. Merchants: The Story of India Through its Languages' book review: Our mother’s tongue

Well-researched, topical and engaging, the book begins by exploring the origin of Sanskrit.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

Peggy Mohan grew up in a multilingual household—her mother was Canadian and father, Trinidadian of Indian origin—where Creole English, regular English, Bhojpuri, Hindi and bits of French, were in common use. It is no wonder then that languages fascinated and intimidated her in equal measure. “I felt miserable when I couldn’t understand all the members of my family, and was so relieved to be part of their conversations when I gradually learned the languages. Ever since, I’m terrified of not being perfect at a language, yet I’m obsessed…,” she shares candidly.

This obsession motivated her to study languages, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent. This book began as a work on linguistics, but instead became an interesting anthropological project. Since the arrival of the ‘Aryans’—as they continue to be called—India has witnessed an influx of outsiders, who made it their home. They took local women as their own, spawning children to cement their status as new residents of the Indian subcontinent. The birth of children gave rise to hybrid languages to allow communication between natives and foreigners. Eventually, Sanskrit or the ancient language of the settlers emerged as an elitist one used to assert superiority, while most children spoke the languages of their mothers. These mother tongues, influenced by the languages of settlers, have percolated down the centuries and continue to be spoken today.

“I was interested in this subject for a long time, especially after I moved to India. When you see the spread of languages in the subcontinent, chunks of diversity grouped as regions become evident. It looks a lot like the European map of languages, where certain types of languages are similarly grouped per region. This got me thinking and a book that was meant to be on Sanskrit, became something bigger over the years,” she shares. Through her findings, Mohan asserts that Indians are descendants of native women and men of foreign origin, making us mixtures of many strains.

Well-researched, topical and engaging, the book begins by exploring the origin of Sanskrit. Mohan shows that the uniquely Indian practice of ‘retroflexion’, where the same letter is pronounced differently to signify different meanings (‘d of dant’ means tooth and ‘d of dant’ means to scold), goes back to a time before the first settlers arrived. This practice was adopted into Sanskrit from native languages only later. In a similar vein, she discusses how Sanskrit descended on Malayalam, and gave rise to the Indo-Aryan languages, then Hindi and Urdu; the relatively untouched nature of Northeastern languages; and the adoption of English as the official language after Independence, resulting in the slow abandon of regional languages.

The last of these is explained by distinguishing ‘bilingualism’ from ‘diglossia’—the former indicates one’s ability to understand and speak two languages, and the latter characterises the slow death of the weaker language with continued use of the dominant one. An in-depth study of the origins of Indian languages and their influence on our identity, Mohan’s book raises pertinent questions. This makes it, to use the words of writer Tony Joseph, ‘a necessary read’.

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The New Indian Express