ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Language as People’s History

Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through Its Languages by Peggy Mohan, New Delhi: India Viking, 2021; pp 352, ₹599

Typically, linguists form an exclusive breed in academe—transacting in a dense, often impermeable language. Being a non-linguist interested in the questions of language, my interactions with them (all men) have been stressful and often “unintelligible.” Peggy Mohan in her book Jahajin gives us a glimpse of the upper-caste, male-dominated nature of linguistics in North India (2015: 246–56). Her observations are not off the mark even today. Unlike the mainstream of linguistics, Mohan’s recent book is a work of art. She beco­mes a linguist-storyteller—unburdened by academic conventions yet rigorous in her analysis. With visual metaphors ran­ging from lemon pickles, ovens, dry ­onion covers to dodo bird and Tiramisu bear—Mohan’s expositions are insightful and teach us how to approach the ­uninitiated. The book connects lang­uage with changes in economy, politics and environment. The aim, from the very outset, is to upset pure, winning visions on language, culture and human existence. Like our languages, we too are products of mixing and intermingling—a point that reminds us of B R Ambedkar’s (1979: 3–22) statement that castes are “artificial” cho­pping off of a people. Mohan’s story of Indian languages inadvertently gives us cues to understand this.

Divided into eight chapters, Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through Its Languages places language as a “faithful mirror” of history and change. Mohan takes us through the “bittersweet” migration stories of Sanskrit, Malayalam, Hindi/Urdu, Khasi, Nagamese, Assamese and Caribbean Creoles with a pleasant tadka of Trinidad Bhojpuri. Men and supergro­ups of empires, market and literacy engulf the masses—rapidly or gradually—forcing them to pay in kind and language. These men could be the Vedic tribes, Namboothiri Brahmins, Central Asians or English, depending upon the contingencies of time and place. The story of ­migration and power bleeds into the very structure of our languages. The metaphor of the pizzly bear or “tiramisu” bear (as the author calls it, after the Italian dessert), is creatively repeated to emp­hasise the germane possibilities of mig­ration in the evolution of languages. In the introductory chapter, Mohan gives us a fair idea of what she sets out to achieve in the book. She asks—what do languages say about people? She ans­wers this question by decoding signs of early language mixture and then “match them to known history and emerging evidence” (p 5). The following sections highlight some of the features of this captivating book.

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Updated On : 6th Sep, 2021

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