Review: Wanderers, Kings Merchants; The Story Of India Through Its Languages by Peggy Mohan

As Peggy Mohan parses languages to uncover the imprints of migration patterns, accompanying power shifts and the intermixing of populations in India, she makes the world her canvas
Central Asians came down to India through the Hindukush mountains. (Shutterstock)
Central Asians came down to India through the Hindukush mountains. (Shutterstock)
Published on Aug 06, 2021 07:36 PM IST
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By Syed Saad Ahmed
352pp, ₹599; Penguin
352pp, ₹599; Penguin

As a native of Bihar, I can speak and write Hindi well. But some peculiarities in my speech had been a mystery. For most other Hindi speakers, rain and chairs are female, while doors and the sky are male. I use the right genders for people and animals, but when it comes to objects and ideas, I elide all differences and turn everything masculine.

Peggy Mohan’s book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages helped me realise that what I had thought of as my failing has a history of possibly 4,000 years. It is a feature that stems from my language’s substratum — its foundational structure that is evident in its grammar.

The substratum of the languages of eastern India (Bhojpuri, Odia, Assamese, etc.) is different from the ones spoken to the west even though they belong to the same Indo-Aryan family of languages. Thus, Bhojpuri is closer to Bengali even though it is regarded as a dialect of Hindi.

Like Odia and Assamese, Bihari languages do not have genders for objects — one of many common grammatical features. And that’s perhaps why this feature shows up in my Hindi.

Mohan, a linguist, novelist and teacher, says that such characteristics of languages can tell us about the history of their speakers. As she parses languages to uncover the imprints of migration patterns, accompanying power shifts and intermixing of populations in India, she makes the world her canvas. Flitting from Farghana in Central Asia to Ghana in West Africa and Caribbean creoles, Mohan draws parallels with developments in the subcontinent.

Wanderers and merchants: Old illustration by Lancelot after Barth, published in Le Tour du Monde, Paris, 1860. (Shutterstock)
Wanderers and merchants: Old illustration by Lancelot after Barth, published in Le Tour du Monde, Paris, 1860. (Shutterstock)

In this effort, she does not rely as much on the written record of the elites as the spoken language of whom she calls the little people (farmers, peasants, the working class). Her linguistic archaeology extricates clues from tongues that point towards their substrata to highlight the role of little people in the making of languages. Mohan goes beyond the cloak of nouns a language wears (Sanskrit nouns in Hindi and Malayalam, Persian in Urdu) and examines its structure (grammar, syntax).

She upturns commonplace assumptions, such as the myth that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages or even that Hindi ‘descended’ from Sanskrit. In fact, as she instantiates with a signpost, modern Sanskritised Hindi’s structure sometimes has more in common with English than with Hindi!

Mohan highlights the impact of power and gender dynamics on language confluences. We learn about the differences in how languages evolve in turbulent times vis-a-vis stasis and why migration alone might barely have any impact on languages.

Genetic studies point to the significance of the migration of men and how they impact the languages the women they interact with speak. This pattern, she says, has been repeated many times in the subcontinent — the influx of men from Central Asia, resulting in Sanskrit incorporating sounds unique to South Asian languages around 1700 BCE; Namboodiri men introducing Sanskrit words in Malayalam around the 8th century CE; and again, Central Asian men bringing Persian words into Hindi (the term Urdu came about later).

Throughout the book, Mohan draws upon her personal experiences — born in a multicultural family, she was exposed to Creole English, Trinidadian Bhojpuri, Hindi and standard English as a child. She references popular culture: how Ashoka Hotel in Delhi “fell from grace” when its final ‘a’ was erased; how some of Kalidasa’s characters speak Sanskrit like a colonial Indian bureaucrat talking in English; and how the Alexa command, a “wake word” to rouse virtual assistants, is functionally akin to the Sanskrit Om, a wake word that prompts gods to listen to your chants!

Author Peggy Mohan (Couresy the publisher)
Author Peggy Mohan (Couresy the publisher)

Her writing mixes the academic with the chatty. The book’s thought experiments (If a Dravidian woman were trying to pronounce Sanskrit, what would she have sounded like?) and eureka moments (Indian English could be considered the latest Prakrit; Nagamese, thought to be a pidgin or creole, is the newest member of the eastern Indo-Aryan language family) turn a scholarly text into a racy read.

However, it can occasionally be difficult for the non-specialist to follow phonetic symbols and terms like fricatives and unrounded back vowels. In a departure from academic convention, Mohan extensively references Wikipedia. While this might perhaps make the footnotes more accessible, it makes it difficult to dig deeper into some of her assertions.

Many of her arguments might seem like fanciful conjectures at first, but the rigour with which she marshals evidence is satisfying. Whether it is from traditional practices, analyses of recent language confluences or creative interpretations of the Rigveda, she joins the dots between clues strewn across millennia like a time-travelling sleuth.

Rising above the rubble of the popular notions Mohan demolishes, I got a sharp view of languages grounded in the communities that speak them. It made me more aware of my own reflexive speech patterns and word choices.

Mohan’s work is important not merely because it is an intellectual joyride through a fascinating past, but also because it informs the present. The issues it explores through the prism of language are inextricably linked to our daily lives — not just the ever-raging language wars and claims to supremacy and antiquity, but also how we teach our children and live our lives.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and filmmake

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Saturday, October 16, 2021