What I’m reading: Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its languages

Peggy Mohan’s Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its languages is a fascinating history of the languages of India.

There are two key, intersecting themes: one is the idea that existing local language form a forming a substratum, which shapes the development of new invading languages and forms the basis of slow creolization. The other is the gendered nature of the invasion of one language area by another: the invaders tend be males at first and as intermarriage and settlement occurs the invading language becomes the language of prestige and the invaded language the language of the home. In time the language of the home adopts words and other features of the prestige language but retains its grammatical features, yielding a slow-cooked creole.

We learn, for example, how early on Sanskrit and Dravidian languages intermingled with the former adopting retroflection, how the Namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala region in southwest India incorporated Sanskrit nouns into the Malayalam they adopted, how Uzbek developed into Urdu. We also learn about the mysterious Harrapan language of the early Indus Valley, the emergence of Nagamese as a new offshoot of the Māgadhan languages in far northeastern India, and the Sanskritization of Hindi in the 1800s. And we learn about the role of English in India under the raj and in post-colonial India.

The book plays in challenging the folk ideas of the history of Indian languages such as the status of Sanskrit as the mother tongue of all Indian language, wishful thinking the globalization of English, and harmful notions about the purity of languages.

Mohan’s writing is clear, crisp, and not overbearingly academic. For a reader, there are two potential challenges to the book: I did not have enough background in the language history of India to fully appreciate nuances of the historical exposition. And I imagine non-linguist readers who are versed in the history of India might find ergativity, creolization, and other technical terms to be stumbling blocks. But the book would work splendidly for a course on the history of Indian language taught by which an instructor who could guide folks along and fill in the parts they need. Wanderers, Kings, Merchants definitely piqued my curiosity to learn more.

And for those interested, here is a Wikimedia map of the language of India (not part of the book).

By Soumya-8974 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94862881

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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