Book: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
Section: End of Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 (Page 170 to 200)
Charming like a Creeper
At the end of Chapter 4, Ostler talks about how China always managed to overcome foreign obstacles by either rebuilding its power in China to drive invaders out, or by simply absorbing the invaders with their massive population. They did this with the Mongols and the Manchurians respectively. The author warns that Chinese may go the way of Egyptian, as it slowly loses its cultural center. This is because despite its 1 billion speakers, like Egyptian it has lost its religion, ostensibly becoming an atheist state, it has lost its Confucian and Taoist ideas, and it is slowly becoming more and more Western, however unlike Egypt it has not lost its political independence, which may save the language.
If some languages can be seen as Hunters, growing rapidly, then Sanskrit can be seen as a creeping vine, slowly spreading its tendrils across Asia over two thousand years. Outside of India, which still speaks languages descendant from Sanskrit in areas such as the Punjab, Sanskrit never taken up as a popular language, remaining purely as a medium of learned communication and sacred expression, strongest where the dominant religion had come from India. Sanskrit was never just a spiritual language, despite the West's notions on the matter, being found in literature and work ranging from economics to romantic comedy. It also holds the most elaborate development of the pun known anywhere in the world. The language itself began northwest of the Punjab, modern Pakistan, spreading south along with its people, as well as heading into Tibet. The Aryan people (derived from the word arya, later used to mean gentleman) spread offshoots of their language all over the Indian subcontinent, replacing the native Dravidians entirely in some regions. They also spread to northern regions such as Assam (in modern India) and Nepal, where while official languages today, they are not the common tongue. Native Dravidian tongues in southern India such as Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada persist, and some of their words were even borrowed into Sanskrit. Sanskrit spread across to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, primarily and above all as a language of religion and the elite. Although the Buddha's works were mostly written in Pali (which is an offshoot of Prakrit, a relative of Sanskrit) at first, they slowly began to be written more and more in classical Sanskrit, facilitating the spread of the language. Through the Silk Road and Buddhism, Sanskrit spread itself to Tibet and the rest of East Asia, and while not replacing languages, it remained important wherever Buddhism persisted. The last place Buddhism and by extension Sanskrit spread was Mongolia, when it was spread on the backs of Chinese preachers and the desires of Mongolian Khans.
Indian culture is unique in the world for its rigorous analysis of its own language, which it furthermore made the central discipline of its own culture. The Sanskrit word for grammar even comes from the word meaning analysis. Even historical Indian grammarians such as Patanjali stated that the study of grammar was important primarily for the advancement and better understanding of the Vedas, the religious texts of the Hindu faith, a book of hymns. Grammar in the formation of sutras is so complex that a meta language has been formed to be used during the creation of new sutras, making them entirely different from mainstream speech. Despite this love of grammar, writing (especially in relation to the Vedas) is not seen as good. It is often decried, even in other ancient cultures, as it promotes forgetfulness and can cause misinterpretations of text. This lack of text also leads to a vast vocabulary, with many near synonyms. One linguist states that there are fifty synonyms for 'lotus', a favorite concept in Sanskrit poetry. Words tend to have multiple senses. The most straightforward word for lotus, padma, has eleven extra senses in the neuter gender (lotus-like, form of a lotus, etc) and eight more in masculine. This, along with the special characteristic of Sanskrit to use word liaisons often to make sentences into one long stream of syllables, leads to an opportunity for punning on an almost inconceivable scale.
The author believes that the initial role of politics in the spread of Sanskrit was simply through military conquest and dynastic subordination in the Indian subcontinent. However many of these gains, especially in the south, seemed impermanent, because after every great Sanskrit empire fell, the region would relapse back into Dravidian speaking languages. However many of the gains that were made were actually made with Prakrit, which is related to Sanskrit but used much more in day to day life as well as in dedications and prose. However around 150 AD Sanskrit began to eclipse Prakrit even in these areas. In fact, in India there was a constant shift in which dialects and forms were on top, with the language of kings one century being that of peasants the next. Interestingly enough, the language of the Buddha was most likely Maghadhi, an offshoot of Prakrit, not Sanskrit as many would believe. In fact the earliest Buddhist councils were recorded in Maghadhi, and it was even the language of King Ashoka himself. Later the language of Buddhism would be Pali, which formed out of a massive mix of languages, some even western in origin, and was in part a Buddhist Aryan creole. Later on a form of Sanskrit, called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, formed, which is essentially where the language is written using Prakrit grammar and words, and then styled later to be reminiscent of classical Sanskrit, put overall very different grammatically.
Greeks had interactions with the Indians primarily after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the diplomacy with the Diadochi Seleucids. Most of the influence of Sanskrit on Greek was through the names of products coming from India, such as ginger, which derives its name from a town on the Ganges river. The Greeks detailed the castes and tribes of the Indians, as well as the similarities between Hindi and Greek deities. The Greeks, however, did not analyze Indian culture except for on the superficial scale. The Chinese, one the other hand, came as serious students of Indian culture, primarily Buddhism. Most information is from four Chinese pilgrims, each of whom wrote a memoir of their journeys as well as bringing back Buddhist texts to translate, and each were spread on journeys of about a century apart. They each brought back new information on India. India, for the Chinese, was the home of Buddhist enlightenment.
|One possible Aryan migration route|
Sanskrit first appears, as most Indo-European languages do, as the speech of conquering warriors on horseback who establish domination over their neighbors and turn them into serfs and subjects. Evidence can be seen in the importance of horses in ancient Aryan culture, as well as their introduction of chariots and metallic tools. The language, however, has adopted much of the Dravidian features as well, making it distinct from neighboring Indo-European groups. There are other language groups in India, such as the aboriginal languages of Orissa, related to those of Bengal. These languages were distinct at least up to the seventh century AD, and can still be seen in some villages and words in the region today.
Sanskrit also spread first to Sri Lanka, and then to the rest of Southeast Asia, with civilization being associated with Indianization in the region, much like China with Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. It is not clear how the language spread, other than it definitely was not by military conquest. It could be through pirates, priests, merchants, refugees, ambassadors, or maybe even a combination of all of these factors.