Tag Archives: Languages of India

Sanskrit isn’t just an ancient, scholarly language, it’s also a living tongue caught up in Indian politics

The cast of the Sanskrit play, "The Cleverness of the Thief." Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white.  (Photo: Corey Pein)

The cast of the Sanskrit play, “The Cleverness of the Thief.” Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white. (Photo: Corey Pein)

Here’s a post from Patricia Sauthoff. The podcast above is even better.

Sanskrit has been lingering at the edges of Western culture for a while now. It’s an obscure language that not many people know, but a lot of people know about.

I started studying Sanskrit as a written language a few years ago. Back then, when I told people about it, they assumed I was a big “White Album”-era Beatles fan or into Transcendental Meditation. Now they just assume I spend a lot of time doing yoga.

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

I’m actually a Ph.D. candidate at The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I study Sanskrit so I can do research and read ancient texts, not order lunch or hail a cab. But last year my studies took a turn for the practical when I decided to take a conversational Sanskrit course over the summer.

Sanskrit is an ancient language, but it’s actually pretty easy to hear it out in the world — if you know where to look. India’s 2001 census counted 14,000 Indians who claimed it as their mother tongue. There are Sanskrit language newscasts; I’ve seen Shakespeare and other plays performed in Sanskrit here in London; and there is a community of language learners and teachers from around the world who gather on Twitter to share their knowledge, ask for help, and meet others interested in communicating in Sanskrit. Some are in India, some are part of the Indian diaspora, and some — like me — are Westerners interested in learning something more about the language and culture of South Asia.

And it does look like interest in Sanskrit is growing. The study of Sanskrit is certainly surging in popularity, both in India and in the West. Students at Princeton University recently launched a petition to get Sanskrit back into the curriculum. And at my own school, the second-year Sanskrit course grew to 20 this year, up from just two the year before.

It turns out spending a month speaking Sanskrit day-in and day-out is pretty surreal. Instead of reading philosophy books, I learned how to say things like telephone — dūrabhāṣā — and bicycle — dvicakrikā. It reminds me that Sanskrit isn’t just a language of dusty books. And as anyone who has ever namaste-d knows, it’s a language that’s really fun to say out loud — or even to sing.

There were 20 of us in the class, learning, speaking and singing six days a week for four weeks. Several of my classmates were Indians living in Europe. Some were graduate students like myself, and others were professionals taking a break from work. There was even a Buddhist monk who out-chanted us all.

Much like any other intensive language course, we were expected to communicate only in Sanskrit. But where other immersion classes are for beginners, most of my classmates had years of experience reading the language. Of course, slowly translating a written work and rapid-fire conversation are completely different. Those who spoke Hindi, Bengali or Gujarati found the spoken Sanskrit a little more familiar than those of us who just read.

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

We learned to speak through traditional methods like singing and chanting, but also by discussing everyday things. We learned lines of ancient poetry and had a Skype chat in Sanskrit with a professor in Australia.

The students in my class were aware that the revival of Sanskrit is contentious. It’s sometimes tied with the rise of Hindu nationalism. Events like the newly introduced Sanskrit Week are seen as privileging one language and culture over others. India’s second largest religion, Islam, does not have historical ties to Sanskrit. Even among Hindus, the country’s largest religious group, Sanskrit learning has historically been something for only the privileged castes. In the southern part of the country, languages such as Tamil developed simultaneously but separately from Sanskrit.

But in the classroom, we didn’t discuss the current debates or the history of the language. Instead, we practiced for an upcoming performance of songs and a play for friends, family and the Indian ambassador to Germany.

Most of us study Sanskrit in order to read it, and learning to speak it was a challenge. My vocabulary includes a lot of technical philosophical terms that aren’t easy to translate into English, but it now also includes some useful everyday ones, too. I’m used to being able to slowly read complex books, but when it comes to quickly answering a basic question like kuśalam asti vā — “How are you?” — I freeze.

After a month of class, I realized Sanskrit isn’t about self-expression for me. It’s about reading the ideas of the past. I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience it as a living language, but I’m more comfortable treating it as a dead one.

Check out the podcast (above or on iTunes) to hear about Sanskrit’s near-perfect alphabet from translator Terence Coe.

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India’s new leader favors the Hindi language, which is a problem for the country’s 50 million Urdu speakers

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Here’s a post from California-based reporter Sonia Paul.

I spent several months in Lucknow, India, studying Urdu.

I knew that it would be a daunting task. But I had a leg up — it wasn’t going to be completely new. Several years ago, I’d studied Hindi, which the native tongue of about 25 percent of Indians. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, appears to favor Hindi, which has alarmed speakers of India’s many other languages.

To the untrained ear, Hindi and Urdu sound similar. They share a lot of the same vocabulary. But they use different scripts. And they have different connotations.

In India, Urdu is generally associated with the Muslim population.

“I come from a Muslim family, and since we were kids, we were supposed to read Urdu,” said 21-year-old Nusrat Ansari.

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

I met her in Lucknow, when she was auditioning to perform Dastangoi, an ancient Urdu storytelling art that’s being revived. She said that as a child, she spoke mostly Hindi.

“At that point in time I wasn’t that interested in Urdu, so I didn’t take it up properly. But once I went to college and I had a bit of cultural thing,” said Ansari. “I thought, okay, I should learn Urdu,” Nusrat said.

“What do you mean by ‘cultural thing?’”I asked her.

“I started engaging in all sorts of … cultural revivalism activities.”

Hindi and Urdu are so similar that when Ansari was listening to the lines she had to memorize — which were in Urdu — she wrote them down in the Hindi script. Similarly, when I started learning Urdu, I also started out by writing in Hindi.

Writer and performer Mahmood Farooqui, who has been reviving Urdu storytelling, says reciting Urdu is a sign of prestige in India.

“Our radio anchors like to use Urdu, our television anchors like to use Urdu, parliamentarians like to use Urdu poetry, political leaders — even Modi recites a couplet or two,” he said.

But you won’t find India’s new prime minister giving a speech in Urdu. Because he’s such a staunch advocate of Hindi, many people are wondering whether his new language policies are part of a larger plan to wean out languages like Urdu.

Urdu’s origins are different from that of Hindi’s: Hindi’s script stems from Sanskrit, while Urdu traces its roots to Persian. It came into being in India around the 15th century, when Persian began to mix with local north Indian dialects. And by the 18th century, Urdu was an important literary language in India.

“It’s like English is now, in the sense that it was the language of prestige,” said Mehr Farooqi, a South Asian languages scholar at the University of Virginia. “It was considered to be the language of educated people. So everybody studied Urdu, and therefore they spoke Urdu.”

But about a 100 years ago, Urdu started to decline in India. The British wanted a common language for the country, and more and more people wanted Hindi to be that language. Hindi and Urdu — even though they were so similar in spoken form — became symbols of religious difference.

“It became like Urdu equals Muslim, Hindi equals Hindu,” said Mehr Farooqi.

This is why the new government’s promotion of Hindi is so controversial. It puts a spotlight on India’s postcolonial division into India and Pakistan. And it was another setback for Urdu, said storytelling artist Mahmood Farooqui.

“You had a lot of Hindu nationalists and Hindu fundamentalists saying Urdu created Pakistan, so let’s ban it, said Farooqui. “There was a lot of discrimination against it in schools, the government did nothing to propagate it, or to help its cause. And that continues to be the state of affairs today.”

And while some people, like Nusrat Ansari, are motivated to learn Urdu, she admits the language is struggling.

“I have met a lot of people who are really interested in this language and who would like to learn it,” she said. “But I wouldn’t say that it’s very popular and everybody understands it. Most people haven’t been that exposed to it.”

This exposure will be harder to come by if the new Hindu nationalist government keeps favoring Hindi over India’s other languages. That would only compound the problems Urdu’s already facing. But there are about 50 million native Urdu speakers in India — and others, like Ansari, who are rediscovering the language through its cultural heritage. So while Urdu may not have the same dominance in India it once did, it looks like there might still be a place for it in the country.


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No room for African or Indian languages in Disney’s multilingual version of ‘Let It Go’

Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

Disney has released a version of the Oscar-nominated song “Let it Go” from the animated movie Frozen that includes lyrics sung in 25 languages. It sounds global and inclusive, but most of the languages are European.

This is the Epcot World Showcase of songs: a trip around the linguistic world — or at least the one according to Disney.

The song opens with a line in English, followed by French, German and Dutch. That sets the tone.

Seventeen of the languages are European, including some that are not exactly widely spoken — Catalan, for example, and the dialect of Dutch spoken by the Flemish of Belgium. Regular Dutch is also included, as well as Serbian (but not Croatian), Bulgarian and many more.

Danish is represented too — appropriately enough, given that “Frozen” is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

From Asia, there’s Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian and Thai. And from the Americas, Latin American Spanish and Canadian French. (Interestingly, there is no Brazilian Portuguese, or for that matter, British English.)

From Africa there’s … nothing. Not one language. The same goes for South Asia. Between them, these two regions acccount for for more than 3,000 of the world’s languages.

I contacted Disney to ask why they ignored such a huge part of the world. But no one returned my calls and emails. (One Disney representative did say to me as she connected me to a colleague’s voicemail, “Thank you, Sir. And you have a magical day.”)

Disney, of course, has long been criticized for its preference for white-skinned heroines. Before the release of “Frozen,” a Tumblr called This Could Have Been Frozen re-imagined Elsa the Snow Queen as black, Tibetan, Mongolan, Iniut and other ethnicities.

Given that dissatisfaction, the release of this song seems like a missed opportunity. It wouldn’t have taken much to have had “Let it Go” recorded in say, Zulu or Yoruba, and included in the multilingual mash-up.

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