Monday, November 07, 2005

It's All Devanagari To Me (Language, Modernism, Culture, Chicago, Google)

I was briefly in Chicago this weekend for the Modernist Studies Association. I actually missed most of the conference, though I did catch some interesting talks, meet up with some friends, and see a solid keynote address from Hazel Carby. From amongst the panels, I particularly enjoyed Erin Carlston on W.H. Auden's connections to the "Cambridge Spies," Patricia Chu on Rebecca West, Christopher Wixson on J.M. Barrie and Noel Coward, Brian Holcomb on Anita Loos, and Dennis Allen on Ronald Firbank and the Camp tradition in modernism.

I changed the topic of my own paper to G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr so as to jumpstart the essay I should be writing on him (Desani also fit the topic of my panel -- Modernism and India -- just about perfectly). Though I definitely felt the (new) paper was a little rough around the edges, it was received positively (it was a small audience, and only one other person in the room had read the book).

I also got to have coffee with a couple of book-bloggers recently mentioned on this blog, Sam Jones and C. Max MaGee. Nice to hear a little about Chicago's (thriving) literary scene from these guys...

Meanwhile, the little corner of the blogosphere I keep my eye on has been quite productive -- interesting stuff on language and linguistics, postcolonial literature, etc. etc.

* * * * *

Let's start with linguistics, shall we?

You can see the reviewer's bubbling enthusiasm in this review of Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word (via A&L Daily). It looks like an excellent book; a passage that seemed particularly striking to me was the following:

Languages enlarge their numbers of speakers in various ways: through trade, conquest, migration, imperial consolidation, or religious proselytizing. The latter two — Spanish in the Americas and Sanskrit in Southeast Asia are instances — seem to be the most efficacious. Trade is an especially poor bet, as the examples of Phoenician, Sogdian (on the Silk Route), and Arabic (in the Indian Ocean) illustrate. Ostler comes to one of his few definitive conclusions on this point: “No community famous for specialization in trade has passed its language on permanently as a vernacular, or even as a lingua franca, to its customers.” The customer, you see, is always right, and the customer’s language is therefore to be preferred.

Aha -- that sort of explains why there's so little of Arabic on India's western coast, while traces of Portuguese are quite pronounced.

* * * * *

Devanagari. Speaking of language issues, Kerim asks a really interesting orthography question in a post on Devanagari at Keywords:

One of the cool things about the Devanagari script is that it is ordered phonologically. The sounds are listed in order of where in the mouth the sound is produced: gutturals (produced in the throat) first, and labials (produced by the lips) last, with a steady progression in between. . . I am curious when this ordering became standard. I know that the study of language and grammar has ancient roots in India, such as the famous fifth century scholar, Pāṇini, but the Devanagari script is actually much more recent, dating from the twelfth century. Some of its antecedents were the Siddham script, the Gupta script from the fourth to the eighth centuries and, ultimately, the 5th century BCE Brahmi. (I really like the way Brahmi looks!) Looking at these scripts I see that many of them listed in the same order as the Devanagari script, but it isn’t clear if this is a modern convention or if there are historical reasons for listing them this way.

Perhaps some of my erudite readers have more insight into this?

Wow, that is a really good question -- the kind of thing could easily turn into a Ph.D. Dissertation in Historical Linguistics. (Incidentally, if you click through to his blog, many of the obscure references in the paragraph have links.)

* * * * *

Google Print. Sepoy at Chapati Mystery links to a number of South Asia-related public domain texts that are online via the newly-launched Google Print service (which you have already heard all about if you read blogs). Highlights from his list from a literary perspective include Kipling's Out of India and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's The Poison Tree.

There are many contemporary books available there (for searching) too. The overall functionality is along the lines of "Search Inside This Book" at Amazon, though the number of volumes indexed is already much higher (especially for public domain/out of print books).

I have to do a separate post (or even a series of posts) exploring the possible benefits of Google Print, but for now let me just link to the results of my search for "Hatterr," again from G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr. The list of sources there -- which took just a second to generate -- improved my Desani bibliography by about 1000 percent. (I probably should have run this search before doing a conference paper on the book!)

* * * * *

The Literary Saloon has also had a series of helpful posts on Indian and African literature over the past few days, including this post on the impact of Indian literature in English in Europe, a post on Pakistan's bizarre restriction on importing works of fiction from India, even when the authors are themselves Pakistani. The restriction doesn't extend to nonfiction.

And in African literature news, they also link to an interesting interview at the BBC with Chinua Achebe, where he suggests that he's not particularly concerned that the oral storytelling tradition in Africa is dying. He also speaks up for the importance of storytelling (literature) in African languages, including his own mother-tongue Igbo. Interesting, because early in his career Achebe was pretty outspoken in defending his writing in English (against the almost Stalinist condemnation of English as a language for sell-outs, expressed by critics like Chinweizu).

* * * * *

The cap to my weekend was a viewing of the cheesy/crappy/silly/entertaining Bollywood film Shaadi No. 1, a David Dhawan movie so outrageously stupid I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.


ana beynaam said...

hey amardeep!

thank you (and kerim) for the ph.d dissertation tip! and that is really cool i think about how devanagari is ordered. i was just thinking about urdu, and how it seems to be the reverse, beginning with labials, then dentals and so forth, although the order according to places of articulation deviates as one goes along.

have a good week! :)

11:59 AM  
Srikanth said...

One of the cool things about the Devanagari script is that it is ordered phonologically.

As given above, Devanagari is a script, while what Kerim mentions as phonologically arranged is the Sanskrit alphabet.

Though Sanskrit is present throughout India, it is only recently (after Europeans took up Sanskrit study) that Devanagari became the standard script for the language. Sanskrit used to be written in the script of the regional language (or in Grantha in the Tamil region). So, Indian languages (except Tamil, an ancient language itself) have the same alphabet as Sanskrit, with some additions (such asthe short E and O vowel sounds in the southern languages).

I am not sure when exactly the phonological arrangement came into vogue, but the first book of the Taittiriya Upanisad is called Seeksha-valli (seeksha - 'phonetics'). See Lesson 2 of this book here.

8:38 AM  
s said...

The latter two — Spanish in the Americas and Sanskrit in Southeast Asia are instances — seem to be the most efficacious. Trade is an especially poor bet...

I think trade is the reason shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers in Bangalore learnt to speak in Hindi, with so many north Indians coming down for work. (Kannada is the local language.)

8:52 AM  
Kerim Friedman said...

Srikanth: What do you mean by your distinction between “script” and “alphabet”? If Sanskrit didn’t have its own writing system, how can it have an alphabet? We can write Sanscrit in the latin alphabet, with a few modifications, but that doesn’t mean that Latin has the same alphabet as Sanskrit. Now, it is possible that the system of phonological ordering preceeded writing, but I haven’t yet found any evidence of this.

3:22 PM  
Anonymous said...

How does one account for the fact that Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa, if not for the Arab traders from Oman and Yemen ?

3:24 PM  
Srikanth said...

I guess that was a bit of a blunder on my part. For now I leave a related link that I found. (Though there is again a mistaken reference to the Devanagari script.)

I shall come back after giving this more thought...

11:43 PM  
Kerim Friedman said...

Srikanth: Ah, just as I thought: Panini! That's great. Now if we can only figure out what they mean when they say he arranged an alphabet which didn't come into existence until a few centuries after he died... As I wrote, I suspect that he did at least lay the phonological groundwork for this particular ordering, perhaps applying it to some older script.

8:42 AM  
Sunil said...

Actually, Kerim....Sanskrit used various different scripts, but the Devanagari was adopted more or less universally in around the 12th century. This phonological arrangement comes from Pannini's asthadhyayi.

But almost all other earlier scripts of Sanskrit used the phonologically ordered format. For example, the kannada script, considerably older than Devanagari, is ordered the same way. The kannada script was originally devised to allow a liberal useage of Sanskrit words, vocabulary and grammar (since it has a huge number of loan words and grammar from Sanskrit, though it is a Dravidian language).

I learnt a little more about this in a Sanskrit class some time ago....but alas, memory fails me. I'll try to dig up more details

11:18 AM  
Srikanth said...

the Devanagari was adopted more or less universally in around the 12th century.

Sunil: Not universally. Each region used its local script. A traditionally educated (in a vedic patasala) priest who lives next-doors cannot read Devanagari (he calls it Hindi), but only Grantha.

12:00 PM  

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