Book Review

Humans have lived in India for about 65,000 years and while we have records of the languages of the Onge, the Jarawa, and the Great Andamanese, we cannot say that these languages are unchanged from what they were when the first Indians arrived from Africa. 65,000 years is a long time for a language to stay put.

Why I picked this book?

Wanderers, Kings, Merchants – The Story of India Through its Languages, the title of the book was intriguing. Moreover, I like reading about Indian history, and when this book came and the title said – the story of India through its language, I was instantly interested in knowing what the book contains. India is a country with so many languages and dialects, how these languages must have originated, sustained, perished, and lived on for so long made me curious to know the journey of Indian languages through the ages.

the book

As the name suggests, the book is about India and the Indian languages combining history and linguistics effortlessly. It starts with the Rig Vedic era to the present times capturing how language has gone through changes, what were the reasons for changes, and the impact on language due to various migrations that India has seen.

Aryan migration to India and along with it the migration of their language Sanskrit and how they interacted with the locals and what came out of that interaction. The journey of Sanskrit through the years and the changes it has gone through is all very fascinating and interesting.

Sanskrit itself might have had a two-step history in the subcontinent, starting with a relatively low-key initial entry in the North-west, followed by several centuries later by another phase which was expansionist, backed by military might, rejigged Srauta rituals and the beginning of what grew into a caste system in Kurukshetra, the ‘land of Manu’.

The author talks about the impact of Sanskrit on the Dravidian languages, especially Malayalam. How Sanskrit is assimilated into the Malayalam language by Namboodiri Brahmins from north India changed the Malayalam language. What are Indo-Aryan languages, and how were they born?

There is a huge distance separating Hindi from the early days when Sanskrit was still spoken. The language that grew into early Hindi traces a murky path alongside early Prakrits, Middle Indo-Aryan, and the Apabram`sas to what it was when the central Asians set up the Delhi Sultanate. Hindi goes back, on its paternal side not to Sanskrit, which was a perfected gem and, as such, an evolutionary dead end, but to Prakrits, and all its words came from this source.

The book is full of interesting facts and stories and makes you think how interesting the journey of a language can be. How some language remains for years and how some die because we cease to speak them anymore. And how some languages are nurtured, guarded, and kept alive even though they are not used in our daily conversation.

The Writing

Writing is effortless and arranged systematically as per chronology. It starts from the Vedic period to the current times taking you through each period and providing details of the language and people of that time.

Who Can Read?

The book has two aspects to it one is linguistic, and the other is historical. It takes you through Indian history with the linguistic changes it has gone through over the years. So, anyone interested in linguistics and history would enjoy it. Those who have no basic understanding of linguistics might find the book tough to read and understand. For me also it was not an easy read, but it is interesting for sure.

About The Author

Peggy Mohan began life in Trinidad, West Indies, and earned a PhD in linguistics from the University of Michigan. She has taught linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, among other centres. She is the author of three novels, and has contributed to reputed publications, such as the Economic and Political Weekly and IIC Quarterly. She has developed educational television programmes for children, and learnt cartoon animation and opera singing. She now teaches music in Vasant Valley School, New Delhi.

Our Verdict

Wanderers, Kings, Merchants – The Story of India Through its Languages is a fascinating book that takes you through the journey of Indian languages and how they shaped over the centuries. A perfect blend of history and linguistics and how the migrating people from all over impacted the language in India.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *