Linguistic expert Dr Peggy Mohan’s new book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Languages (Penguin India / Viking, Rs 599) challenges the idea of ‘racial purity’ in India. Interwoven with anecdotes from her childhood in Trinidad and later experiences in the US and other parts of the world, the Delhi-based educator and author of three novels looks at the migration patterns and intermixing among the larger Indian population down the centuries through the lens of our words, grammar and syntax. The book concludes that Indians are hybrids, like our languages.
Having earned her PhD in linguistics from University of Michigan, Dr Peggy was a professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. She has developed educational television programmes for children, and learnt cartoon animation and opera singing. She now teaches music at a reputed high school.
We spoke to her about the book, her study of languages, the dominance of English, and how digitisation is adding to the mix.
What excites you about the study of language – or linguistic archaeology as you call it – and why do you think it is important in this age of digital communication?
‘Important’ is a hard word for me to process. Maybe it’s better to say ‘interesting’.
Anywhere I go, my first sense of the place is through language: what are they speaking, what does it say about who settled in the region, and what new migrations are still going on.
For example, in Sikkim, many Tibetan groups use Nepali (a language from a different family) to communicate between themselves, the way in Nagaland the different tribes have begun to use Nagamese, which is close to Assamese (again, a language from a different family).
It’s like seeing history and population shift happening before your eyes! There is so much to mull over, without any final answers, only more questions, taking the journey further into strange and exciting territory.
I often feel that I’m like a dog, who perceives the world through scents that humans cannot detect, experiencing a landscape familiar to people, but in different ‘colours’.
And in this digital age you can even get a glimpse of language in motion without leaving your desk. Google searches take you to a huge amount of ‘published’ material that you would not have even known about earlier.
What are your thoughts on the Englishisation of the internet?
Language is a mirror that reflects whatever is happening in the world of politics, economics and human society. Over the past few centuries, the world has been moving towards greater centralisation – of the market, of technology, of political systems – with fewer and fewer people at the top.
Language cannot but reflect this in the way it seeks to band us together. If you are unhappy about the way more and more languages are falling into disuse, and want to see them survive, you have to be just as unhappy about the shape of a world that is forcing us to be more and more similar. It’s a political issue.
The upside is that we can easily have conversations like we are having now. The downside, I think, is that the loss of linguistic diversity is as harmful to us as all the other loss of diversity we are seeing in the natural environment.
Just as a language is identical in size to the group (or empire) it services, an internet run out of Silicon Valley will have the stamp of American English on it. Let’s not forget that China too has its own internet ecosystem, and it isn’t in English. But even in China smaller dialects are falling between the cracks, and we are seeing greater homogeneity asserting itself.
The word ‘communication’ is, after all, linked to ‘community’.
Has digitisation (messaging, emojis, abbreviations) further added to this erosion of diverse mother tongues or has it added its own new kind of complexity and nuance?
Notice how easy it is now to get children, even those who have ‘reading problems’ in school, to use the internet to seek out the kinds of things we want them to learn. Many kids are addicted to the kind of videos we once had to push on them as ‘educational’; children with learning disabilities are able to send and receive messages on their phones. Where has the reading problem gone?
Language is not static; it is alive, so it will keep adapting to the new niches that open up. And internet is one of them. The simplified style, with emojis and abbreviations, is not really a ‘new’ language. The rules and grammar are almost the same as earlier language.
The change is mostly in vocabulary, and that too mostly nouns. I regard them as just clothing, stuff that can be taken off and replaced without the ‘genome’ of the language being affected. We have moved on, so the old literary styles with longer sentences and archaic words had to be put away in mothballs.
One thing is certain: today’s language, thanks to the internet, is way more accessible than ever before. Because we now need people to be able to use it. Earlier we were happy to ‘fail’ those who didn’t ‘speak like us’!
And no more spelling mistakes! What’s not to like?
What can the study of linguistics teach us about history that history books leave out?
It’s a work in progress. Many of the models I use in my book to track history are not (yet) standard in linguistics, or are standard only in creole linguistics (which was previously not applied to India). Linguistic models are an evolving thing, and we improve them as we find new situations that need them to be tweaked.
The models in this book show a past where men and women contributed separately to the making of language in India, and it is just possible that this has something to do with the way we remain divided. Women were the old and settled social formation, men the newcomers, flushed with excitement but incomplete, if what they wanted was children.
You have had a wide variety of interests from cartoon animation to opera singing. Which one has been especially meaningful and fulfilling for you, and do you continue to practice it?
It’s hard to do cartoon animation without a project, and opera singing without being in a group. But the skill transfers easily: I’m always drawing (I did the men and little donkey on the cover of the book), and singing in my classes. Strangely, all these things link up. Opera singing is training on how to protect your voice from damage when you teach, drawings and paintings feel like they need stories in them to be alive (they can’t just be depictions).
I love illustrating the songs I teach, with huge colourful dinosaurs on the walls, or life-size cartoon characters like Simba.
Cartoon animation also taught me about the role of eyebrow movement in voice intonation (you can’t say ‘Hiiii!!!’ without lifting your eyebrows). Each of these things has its season, and is a way to fill time and the urge to explore. But maybe I like drawing and painting best, and the chance for the psychological sketches you have to do for cartoons.
You’ve brought in stories and even folktales that are part of a region’s linguistic history in this book. What is your observation about the link between language and storytelling?
When I first started recording folk tales, it was only because it was the best way to keep people speaking so that I ended up with lots of speech data to analyze. Then I found that when they told stories their sentences were longer, more complex, and more full of the kind of vocabulary and stylistic touches you couldn’t ever elicit by just translation. Stories were like the most fleshed-out picture of a language. And what the old people said was as interesting as how they said it.
My best storytellers were the old women who had been original migrants from India. Later, I found that groups of them would often meet in the evenings just before sundown and share and repeat the old stories, as a way of remembering.
They had to meet and tell stories to each other in order to remember, because these old ones couldn’t read and write. So they kept on reworking their stories, and editing their memory of the past, and over time their stories picked up more hopeful colours as they felt relaxed and content with the lives they had led.
Can language be gender-biased? What does that say about these societies?
One intriguing thing I found as I looked at India was the way mixed languages preserved the contributions of men and women in separate layers. The men were like ‘sperm donors’ of vocabulary, while the grammar, and the sounds, and how these words were put together came from the women and the earlier people in general. There really were two parental streams, and it lined up beautifully with gender!
Moreover, in many areas (and not only in India) there was the phenomenon of ‘men’s languages’ that were off-limits to women. Like Sanskrit. And we still find in parts of North India families where the boys used to be schooled in Urdu and Persian, while the girls were taught Hindi/Devanagari and Punjabi/Gurmukhi. And there were also Muslim families where the men spoke Urdu but the women spoke the local dialect.
Women, in a very ethnic sense, were the ‘other’! In a way, this system allowed women to keep a bit of mental space away from the men who were actually the newcomers to this land.
It is hard to think of a language as being unfair to women without the larger power structures being equally unjust.
How many languages do you speak fluently yourself? And what about your daughter: has she picked up the love of languages from her mom?
Difficult question! I don’t know them all in the same way! I can’t speak Creole on demand, though I slip back into it in the right company. French, Spanish: need a day or so to wake up. Hindi (though I still Google a few words to be sure of their gender: Bhojpuri – the language of my ancestors who migrated to Trinidad – is like Bengali and has no gender). Sanskrit, Latin: not really used for years. And I know a bit of a lot of others and can listen in and find my way.
I’m reasonably okay in Turkey, Iran, Indonesia and Japan, staying with nouns and a few sentence types. And I’m always ready to blunder into more languages.
My daughter is different: she didn’t like Sanskrit in school, though we made her learn Tamil, and she was thrilled when she worked in Chennai for a year. But she feels she really ‘only speaks English and Hindi’. My granddaughter knows Spanish – growing up in California – so we have a secret language between us.
First published in eShe’s May-June 2021 issue