Who Speaks Indian? (Part II)

Rifts between languages are often more political than linguistic, but in South India, they run far deeper. Bottomless, in fact: Dravidian languages are ancestrally unrelated to Indo-Aryan. The Hindi language is more closely related to English than it is to Telugu. (Sir Winston Churchill cited this as a basis for his claim that “India is a geographical term,” and not a nation; today, many Indian scholars contend that emphasizing linguistic division belies a long history of cultural and linguistic exchange.)

It is likely that Dravidians are the native people of the whole subcontinent. Evidence abounds, the strongest of which are the isolated pockets of Dravidian speakers as far north as the mountains of Pakistan (and even Iran). Early contact between Dravidians and the Aryan invaders to whom North Indians trace their ancestry was probably not friendly. The struggle continues today on the island of Sri Lanka between speakers of Tamil (Dravidian) and Sinhala (Indo-Aryan). My roommate’s brother is currently visiting from Bangalore, and described to me how the heart of Kannada-dom is being colonised by Hindi; the situation is totally otherwise in Chennai (a.k.a. Madras), the capital of Tamil Nadu.

The Dravidian languages of India

As things settled down in the 1st Millennium B.C., Aryans and Dravidians mixed together. In the North, almost everyone learned Indo-Aryan languages. The presence of isolated islands of Dravidian speakers, most prominent the Brahui of central Pakistan, offers the strongest evidence that theirs was once the dominant language family of all India. But among the major languages, North-South exchange would reshape both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian.

On one hand, Dravidian languages borrowed many words from the interlopers. Dravidian influence on the Aryans was even more fundamental. Grammar in the Rig Veda, the earliest attestation of Sanskrit, differs in significant ways from that of Avestan, Sanskrit’s close cousin in Iran. Vedic Sanskrit also includes retroflex consonants, which are alien to Indo-Iranian, but are typical of Dravidian. The occurrence of so many specific differences at the same time can best be explained by large numbers of Dravidians imperfectly learning the conquerors’ language, and adding their own flavour to it. (My focus here is not religion, but I was recently fascinated to learn that scholars believe that native spirituality influenced the development of Hinduism from the Vedas to the far more abstract Upanishads.)

Lexical borrowing is more superficial than grammatical borrowing. Having retrenched to the far south, Dravidians were keen to preserve their languages. Tamil is often called a living Classical language: it has changed very little in two thousand years, a singular feat for such a prominent, cosmopolitan language.

More than a century ago, thousands of Indians fled the dusty plains of northeast India for the white sand beaches of Fiji. They took their language with them.

Tamils and others were, however, happy to export their culture abroad. India traditionally had a massive influence in Southeast Asia and East Africa. Thai and other languages took inspiration for their scripts from the curvy scripts of South India. Today, Tamil is one of the four official languages of Singapore.

Some Indians exported not just their culture, but themselves. The only country outside the subcontinent with an Indian language as its official one is, of all places, Fiji. More than a third of Fijians, descendants of indentured laborers who fled rural poverty seeking greener pastures on Polynesian sugar plantations, speak a native dialect of Hindi.

The most surprising members of the Indian diaspora, and by far the oldest, are the itinerant Gypsy peoples (also called Romani) of Europe. They probably left northwest India some time in the early Middle Ages, and arrived in Europe a few centuries later. Because they never recorded, nor even tried to remember orally, their own history as a people, their origins were a mystery until some rather surprised linguists noticed connections between their language and those of India in the 19th Century.

Those Indians who remained, of course, really went in for writing. Indeed, in some cases it is a primary factor dividing Indian languages. Aside from a higher percentage of Persian loanwords, the main thing that distinguishes Urdu from Hindi is use of the Persian script, instead of Devanagari. Many North Indian languages, especially in the modern era, use Devanagari, but Bengali and the South Indian languages have their own (all of which derive from the ancient Brahmi script).

A comparison of the many beautiful scripts of India

Maldivians, who converted to Islam under Arab influence, use the Arabic script for their Indo-Aryan language, while the people of Goa, a longtime Portuguese colony, use the Latin alphabet. Use of the Latin alphabet to write Hindi (Romanagari) is fairly common, especially in the digital age, but it is bitterly opposed by language purists. One government minister recently had to apologise after he admitted that he did not mind reading his briefs in Times New Roman.

India’s most surprising language stories come from tongues that very few speak. Linguists recently discovered a deep connection between a language of the Himalayan foothills and those of the Nicobar Islands a thousand kilometers off the coast. Evidently sometime around 25,000 years ago, some people went on holiday to escape the frigid mountain winter and never went home.

Archaeologists posit that the tropical southern tip of India was the first place that ancient Homo sapiens settled after migrating out of Africa. People in some villages there chant prayers that no one alive understands and have no discernible relation to any language. Linguists finally thought outside the box, and noticed that they have the ring of primordial imitations of bird calls and other sounds of nature.

Finally, in our exploration of a stupendously diverse land of a billion and a half people, we must not forget the two hundred or so tribesmen of North Sentinel Island. For tens of thousands of years, they have made their home on a tropical island roughly seven kilometers in diameter far out in the Bay of Bengal, and have not spoken to any other living soul. Curious British and Indian researchers have sent locals of nearby islands to try to make contact, but they return reporting that they cannot make head nor tail of what the Sentinelese are saying. Since the islanders have a nasty habit of sending other emissaries back without their heads, few are keen to try again. Sometimes actions speak stronger than words.

Who knows what they’re saying about us?

Explore Part I here.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets