The Indian Languages Question

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Indian languages can be called Indian for two reasons. One, they are now being spoken and written by Indians substantially, and studied both seriously and somewhat desultorily by Indians among others. Two, till about four to five centuries ago, all of them had vocabularies substantially old-Indian in character. Their recent enrichment and modification with middle-eastern and near western vocabularies is well documented and understood. In dictionaries of the major languages of India, it is easy to point out which words have been acquired ‘recently', namely in the past few centuries. When we refer to languages, even spoken-only ones, we refer to a certain level of evolution of the mind, which likes to name things, actions and attributes. The more the number of such regional ideas which need descriptive expressions, the richer the language gets. If sophistications such as metered chants or verses and oratorical expressions on the one hand and special words denoting various kinds of skilled activities both for profit and for pleasure on the other develop in a language and the content is essentially regional as well, you know that the language has indeed developed in the region.

From mute signs to spoken language, it takes a lot of community living stabilized by some kinds of togetherness rules, which make the group feel as one and thus start to speak with one voice as it were. The spoken proto-languages, from which modern Indian languages have developed, could not have come from anywhere abroad, since we do not have any expressions of non Indian scenes reflected by them. The assemblies of people among whom these protolanguages appeared had, however, arrived in this fertile land of promise from all over the planet tens of thousand years ago, through mountain passes and the seas, quarreled tentatively several times and got together in geographically definable regions, before really becoming vocal. Even after they did, only the ones that could settle down in the more favoured regions such as river drenched plains and rain fed mountain slopes, would have stayed together long enough to diversify in activities and enrich their respective languages. Two kinds of nomads would also have become vocal, sometimes helping to enrich different languages by frequent interaction. These would be knowledge-seekers who liked to divide their life between studies in groups as well as  solitary meditations in faraway regions  and social interaction back in their communities for sharing revealed knowledge such as the rishis and siddhas of old, as well as itinerant traders of produce. Followers of the former kind of travelers could become pilgrims and start traveling like the rishis themselves in pilgrimages and expeditions, as soon as some centres all over the country could be identified for such focal interest, say the shores of Ganga and Kaveri, mountain tops and seashore spots and repositories of rare herbs and similar plant products. Even rudimentary skills in building would enable settled life for the majority, who would then enjoy playing host to the itinerants and interacting with them.

Of the two kinds of unfriendly regions that would also have been found by the ancient wanderers, the few arid ones would not have invited occupation. Forests lush with edible plant food as well as game for hunting would have persuaded some groups to stay back in them. Hunters would soon get used to particular kinds of game and would develop brief dialects with expressive but sparse vocabulary. They would generally be mistrustful of outsiders including the harmless rishi-types and would harass them just as they would discourage any others. Over the years some traders would get access to them so as to trade forest-produce in civilized areas and thus help in enriching hunter-tribe dialects.

While the intervals between mute signs and developed oral language have to be very large indeed, the itch to record spoken language and thus develop the written script would have closely followed the period of availability of tools to record spoken ideas of any significance. Till such time karnaparampara with memorization skills being the hallmark of scholarship would of course have reigned supreme.

It is easy to see that when a limited number of Indian protolanguages were ready for the development of writing, a common underlying basis of akshara (the indestructible) defined the written unit, the letter. A limited amount of writing could be sculpted on stone. The left hand held the equivalent of a chisel on the friendly stone surface and the right hand held the hammer equivalent. Thus it was convenient to start from the left end of the stone surface and move rightwards. Ideas flowed in horizontal left to right lines, unlike scripts in ‘middle eastern' regions which did not have to graduate from stone to palm leaf or papyrus and cloth. The number of languages available in India then would have been few, but their experience continued to be valid for all the Indian languages which developed subsequently. Vedic language was inscribed initially on palm leaves all over the country in a form of Brahmi, which slowly evolved into several forms including a grantha script. The Devanagari was a late invention, for use among the elite.

In all Indian languages, the group of basic aksharas consisted of several letter-members, vowel, consonant and vowel-consonant, apart from combined aksharas, unlike the aliph-be or alpha-beta groups which had learnt to use combinations of letters in their limited-lettered alphabets to produce a great variety of sounds. Regional variations of a possible Brahmi script with innovations developed, but always with a dozen or more aksharas to indicate vowel sounds and more than two dozen to indicate consonantal sounds, with individual representation for aspirated guttural sounds and individual representation too for the vowel-consonant permutations. When the modern form of Tamil (about two thousand years old) was evolved, however, the authors of the exercise gave up the need for specific signs for aspiration and softening, avoided compound letters, reduced the number of consonants and decided to live with the difficulty in discriminatory pronunciation.  Malayalam which developed later, restored the aspiratory variations and combined letters.

It is unlikely that such a common and unique thread in developing the written script of over a dozen languages would have resulted, if any of India's major spoken protolanguages had been an import. Or, if the settled Indian population did not believe in wandering all over the country in search of knowledge and wealth, fairly unhindered, except by wild animals and diseases, highwaymen and hunter-robbers.

Thus fairly old literature in Sanskrit talks of Chola and Chera land, the Kaveri, Vindhya and Sahya, Kanchi and Rameshwara. Fairly old Tamil literature talks of the Ganga, Kashi, Ujjain the Himalayas and Kailasa yatra, of Rama, Krishna and the Buddha. Jainism and Buddhism were available to the south very soon after their birth. Foreign imports through the northern passes and the southern seas got distributed throughout the land. Vedic rituals were practiced throughout the country. Tribal arts and products were known throughout the country. All this is evident from mention in the older literature and through oral traditions.

 Appendix 1.

I will go off at a tangent here and reproduce a part of a recent correspondence between me and Mr. MKV Narayan, whose excellent book on what he called the Flipside of Hinduism, is being revised and republished shortly with a more comprehensive coverage than on the flipside alone.

Dear Desikan,

A. I am happy that the line I have taken in the book can be defended though it may not be convincing to many academics.

Many give the meaning for Sanskrit as language derived from Samskriti (language of the cultured) as against Prakrit derived from Prakriti (language of the commoners). Under these meanings, it can follow that Prakrit is the corrupted form of Sanskrit, not a source of Sanskrit. . This gives room for the theory for introduction of high class language from outside which degenerated to Prakrits under the influence of other local tongues.

On the other hand, your derivation of 'well created' (or refined) samskritam,as against 'made long ago' (earlier Indic languages) praakritams, probably from the word "praachin", gives room for the theory of indigenous evolution of Sanskrit.

I cannot defend still many things like the content of Sankrit literature from Vedas to Puranas. The contents such as

  • Emphasis on Horse based rituals
  • Fire worship against ancestor/mother worship prevalent in ancient India
  • Lethal conflicts widely justified between Devas and Dasyus
  • Dasyus are neither identified with Sanskrit nor with Prakrits, they are mritavak (with no language) to the Vedics
  • Absence of urbanization in Vedas (Urban puras are considered worthy of destruction)
  • Absence of elephant based episodes in Vedas (It only comes in later puranas)
  • Importance given to long grass (Darbha) a native of savannah and steppes rather than short grass (Arugu), a native of tropical forests used for Vinayaka

do not help the indigenous theory. These become weak arguments against the nature of Indian environment and archaeological finds.

There are other unanswered questions such as

  • Why did Sanskrit evolve in the extreme north (or Northwest), not in the south which could do a better job of it in later times?
  • Why there is more commonality between Sanskrit and outside languages than between Sanskrit and Dravidan/Munda tongues?
  • Why there are hardly a few derived words for elephant in Sanskrit while there are more than twenty root words for elephant in Tamil. Elephants were everywhere in India, except NW Provinces and beyond in cold countries.  
  • When and where the fire worship start? Only Iran and NW India gave emphasis to Fire worship. I have not heard of it elsewhere outside also. Why should it start in a tropical country like India?
  • If Proto-Sanskrit came from central Asia, there were mammoths there long ago. This could have introduced some words for the beast akin to elephant.

All these are confusing questions for me.

B. With the available information for me until now, I can make out my own theory like this:

1.       There was a wave of modern humans, who migrated slowly from Africa through Middle East and split off to Central Asia, India and China at different times (based on Genetic theories) some 50,000 to 30,000 years back.

2.       The wave of upper Palaeolithic people that came to India 30,000 yrs BP (marked as M20) could have developed, as they advanced to Neolithic, two main groups of indigenous languages 1) Dravidian Family and 2) Gaudian Family of tongues. The Dravidian covered areas of Pancha Dravidas:  Tamil nadu (including Kerala), Karnataka, Andhra, Mahar-rashtra, Gurjara (Gujarat). The Gaudia family could have covered areas of Pancha Gaudas:  Saraswat (Western UP & Rajastan), Kanyakubja (Eastern UP), Maithili (Bihar and Nepal), Gaudia (Bengal) and Utkala (Orissa). The Gaudias north of Vindhyas were not included in Aryavarta of Vedic times. Only Gandhara (Afganistan), Kashmira and Sapta Sindu (Panjab and Sind) were included in Aryavarta. It was in later puranic times the whole north was called Aryavarta. (Though the terms Pancha Dravida and Pancha Gauda are applied to Brahmins only in slokas, I think it should refer to people in general. The Sloka of Skanda Purana refers to them as Dakshinavansins and Uttaravansins)

3.       In old Aryavarta, Vedic Sanskrit either evolved or imported (I do not know from where). Were there newcomers like M17 people involved? Vedic language could have spread to Iran or vice-versa. The Vedic language spread eastwards to Gangetic plains right unto Bengal and Orissa. Vedic language mixed up with old Gaudia languages (Old Prakrits) and created New Prakrits. It also created Prakrit in Mahar- rashtra, which became Maharashtri in Sanskrit. Simultaneously, Vedic language was refined to Classical Sanskrit (Bhasa), for which Panini wrote a grammar. Gujarat still maintained old Dravidian culture largely, though adopted its own form of Prakrit. Later puranas, Itihasas and Kavyas appeared in the classical Sanskrit in Maghada area.

4.       Subsequently, a new set of Prakrits called Maharashtri, Suraseni, and Maghadi etc. evolved with Sanskrit as the base vocabulary, perhaps retaining the syntax from old Prakrits. In much later development, the present north Indian languages evolved out of the New Prakrits. (PTS Iyengar says that we can just substitute words in these languages with Tamil words and still make out meaning, which we cannot do with Sanskrit). Sanskrit remained with Brahmins and Kshatrias while New Prakrits thrived with Vaishyas and Shudras (only in north).The evolution of classical Sanskrit involved borrowing many words from Old Prakrit and Dravidian into New Sanskrit

[Note: 'Mahars' were original inhabitants of Maharashtra. 'Mahar' is corrupted from 'Malla' of Karnataka, 'Malavadu' of Andhra and 'Malayal' of old Tamil country. All these derived from the word "Malai" (hill). They were all hill (Kurinji) people.]

Dear Desikan, I have sufficiently confused you now that you can mull over it when you have free time there. I am eager to find some light in this confusion, so that I can answer queries on my book as they come. Please do give your assessment of this.

With best regards


Dear Narayan,

I am convinced of the simple derivations of samyak kritam and praak kritam. I am convinced that the praakrits of the Ganga-Jamuna-Saraswati region coexisted with a protodravidian in all of India and especially in Sindhu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, South India. The protodravidian spread north from the Sindhu and down via Gujarat while the praakrits dominated the Gangetic plain. Sanskrit and modern Dravidian tongues were formalized relatively recently.

I cannot answer all of your questions. Will make an attempt.

  • Vedic chants predated the puranas. Itihasas as available now and all the puranas are obviously in fully formed Sanskrit. One can easily digest an assumption that the Himalayan slopes on the Indian side and sites like Naimisha forest, Badari forest etc were places where Vedic chants were composed/revealed/received and that the wise men in charge of the vedas or their disciples would have been involved along with other wise men from the South in creating Sanskrit and Dravidian languages from existing dialects of the country. Horses were freely available before puranas were written and itihasas were rewritten.
  • Fire worship was imported into the rest of the country from the rishi sites on the cold Himalayan slopes. This is primarily where wise men had been going from all over the country in search of truth through penance and contemplation, throughout India's history. The Vindhyas and the ghats of the south also provided similar peace havens for rishis and siddhas.
  • Meaningless conflicts have taken place in all ages and some glorified by history or poetry. Some are exploited politically years after they took place.
  • When you want to hit some one you either have a strong reason or you create some. Ask modern day presidents. There is no need for any modern Indian to identify either with dasyus or dasyu-baiters.
  • Urbanization is not vedic (periodwise)
  • elephants preceded birth of sanskrit and the puranas; and perhaps the rebirth of itihasas in sanskrit.
  • No proof that Sanskrit first appeared only in the Northwest. It could have evolved as well in the south. I would rather go with those speculators who claim that wise southerners were involved in chiselling sanskrit out of the old chants and the praakrit dialects.
  • There is commonality between Sanskrit and the dialects of north India even after they have absorbed a lot of Persian expressions.There has been adequate entry of sanskrit expressions into south Indian dialects as well,which were different from praakrits as a class and related more perhaps to the Sindhu tongue.
  • Elephant names? Dialects can have many names, while more modern languages formed from them will select only a few for regular use. The Tamil preoccupation with preserving its old roots would help for instance in keeping all 20 available dialect names at least in a dictionary, but catch a Tamil at random and try any equivalent on him other than yaanai, spoken as aanai. He will stare at you.
  • .Rishi camps in Himalayan slopes would have needed fires throughout history. It is an easy cultural step to start woshipping it as divine.( illuminant, destroyer, possibly transporter of matter/offering to another realm?)
  • When Sanskrit was made, elephants were everywhere in Indian forests.

With reference to your theory of how it all happened, I will write separately to add some riders to your beautiful theory. 

Regards. Desikan

Dear Narayan, This is in reply to your B part. Here are my riders.

  1. No need to comment.
  2. The upper Paleolithic people who would have arrived at the comfortable lower Sindhu and Saraswati delta  would have slowly developed a proto-dravidian speech pattern, The people would already be mixes, not completely hybridized and would have been able to separate themselves into
  • pure hunters who would have retired to forests and settled in them (colder Himalayan ones as well as Aravalli, Vindhya, Dandaka, ghats of the south and others)
  • hardy and intelligent lovers of the mountainside who loved a simple life
  • settlers, with agricultural tendencies in the Sindhu delta, who may have spread just a little to neighbouring inland areas of modern Gujarat and Maharashtra
  • similar people who tried out other friendly river fed terrains by trekking eastward and southward

Of these, the hunter groups in deep forests would have developed their language (spoken) to the barest minimum. Their practices would have remained insular, simple and tribal. Whenever they did get out in smaller groups to interact with others in agricultural societies, the short engagements would not have been friendly and robbery would have been the aim.

The simple-living thinkers in the Himalayan slopes and also possibly in some other mountain slopes would have been able slowly to develop advanced dialects (the rishis associated with the Vedic chants, herbal medicine practices, yogic and penance activities, Siddhas of the south and so on. Vedic language as well as old forms of Tamil may thus have been born among rishis and siddhas.

The wise men with simple ways would have had to face up to onslaughts from the pure hunter robbers often.

Trekkers eastward would have had to develop several modifications of their lingo into praakritic dialects.

Settlers in Sindhu delta and western India would have had scope to interact with them and their languages too would have become other prakrits.

Trekkers southward would have escaped this interactive influence because of the Vindhyas and would have settled down south and modified their language into dialects continuing to have the Dravidian characteristic.

The rishis of Naimisha and other Himalayan authors of the Veda revelations would have attracted disciples first from their immediate mountainous neighbourhood and next from the river-fed plains lying south and southeast. The Aryavarta concept would have evolved thus.

The neighbourhoods would also have provided periodic armed support in containing the mountain based hunters.

Regards. Desikan.


 Appendix 2

I did not answer Sri Narayan's question on the alleged exclusive steppes/savannah origin of darbha grass. More than one species of long grass which can dry up to the consistency required of it in Indic rituals may have qualified for the names kusha/durva/darbha. Also, when crude rafts from the Mediterranean regions or Africa carried our very ancient mute ancestors to India through the Indian ocean, quite a few such grass species could have been unintentionally imported and taken to the riversides of India.

There are place names like Darbharanya, Kusasthala etc in our country. A very large number of accounts of non ritualistic use of this grass as well. In Rameshwaram neighbourhood you have the town called Tiruppullani or Darbhasayana, where Rama is believed to have rested on a bed of kusa grass. One of his sons was named Kusa too.

South Indian rishis trekking northward would have found a region near the Vindhyas where darbha was not easy to find. They must have promptly named it Vidarbha.

 Appendix 3.

Another thought about itinerant rishis. Within the time gap between Balakanda and Yuddhakanda, it is possible through a careful reading of the Ramayana epic and supporting puranas to deduce that Valmiki shifted his Ashrama at least once right across the Gangetic plain, Bharadwaja from Gauda Desa to Maharashtra and Agastya from Godavari to Kaveri to Mahendragiri!

Such facility of travel was possible because these regions must have shared the same group of languages and a homogeneous cultural pattern and way of life.

I am happy to present the above as additional ideas/data to help along the musings of our Medhavis while playing with the Indian language question.

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