An old question

Ashok Aklujkar aklujkar at UNIXG.UBC.CA
Sun Jul 5 23:04:50 UTC 1998

 Jacob Baltuch <jacob.baltuch at EURONET.BE>  asked with reference to an earlier posting by me: >Do you equate "spoken language" with "language having *native* speakers"?<

No. However,  I see no good reason to doubt either that Sanskrit was a spoken language or that it  had native speakers (and dialects).

(As indicated in my earlier posting, my understanding of "Sanskrit" in this context is the following: a language generally agreeing with Vedic but distinguishable from it (mainly because of loss and innovation in morphological categories and loss of pitch accentuation) and having a significant degree of affinity with the language described by Paa.nini (some features such as loss of older accentuation excepted) and generally employed in the later parts of the Braahma.nas (including the Upani.sads) and in much of the Mahaa-bhaarata, Nirukta, Kau.tiliiya/Kau.taliiya Artha-;saastra and Mahaa-bhaa.sya  -- that is, a language having features *shared* by the (sub)languages attested in the specified texts and texts similar to them.  In linguistic features, this language was not significantly different from the language found in the earliest available classical authors such as Kaali-daasa and A;, although it could take different forms depending on the genre in which it was employed.) 

(While the above understanding is not so rigorous as to be called a definition, I believe, it is justified by the first occurrences of "Sa.msk.rta" to refer to a language or language group (I have discussed these occurrences on pp. 70-71 of the volume edited by Houben). If someone successfully challenges my working definition or comes up with a significantly different and better definition, I must reconsider my view. I am quite willing to do so.) 

 I do not have time to present a detailed argument in favour of why I think Sanskrit had native speakers. Let me, however, mention that it seems extremely unlikely to me that there were no native speakers among or behind the bards to whom we can attribute those parts of the Mahaa-bhaarata (for example) which bear signs of oral poetry. Vocabulary development seen in agricultural terminology etc. or in secondary (taddhita) formations also frequently seems to be of such character and such spontaneity as we would associate with the existence of native speakers.  

Actually, I find the resistence to thinking of Sanskrit as a language with native speakers  puzzling (I do not mean to imply that Jacob Baltuch has displayed such resistence, but I have frequently encountered it in discussions elsewhere).  I wonder if this resistence would be there if it is not assumed, as it seems to be implicitly (and uncritically) assumed many times, that in the distant past too Sanskrit was a language only of brahmins. If we had thought of Sanskrit all along as a language that, at least in the B.C. period, more than one class in the society used, how far likely is it that we would have entertained the possibility of its being a language without native speakers? 

(The ancient literature clearly establishes that brahmins and k.satriyas spoke Sanskrit. If I recall correctly, vai;syas like saarthavaahas are also represented as speaking it. The evidence which establishes that ;suudras were presumed to understand it -- e.g.,  pratyabhivaade ';sudre in Paa.nini --does not prove that they spoke it but it at least makes the possibility that they -- some of them if you will -- spoke it more likely than the opposite possibility.)

Another factor in the resistence to thinking of Sanskrit as a language with native speakers could be the way it has been taught in the period in which the cultural background necessary for raising questions regarding its nativity took shape -- in which a historical study of it began and continues to be made (India uninfluenced by contact with the West does not have, as far as I know, notions such as maat.r-bhaa.saa or janma-bhaa.saa in the required sociolinguistic or historical sense). There has been so much emphasis on grammar in the teaching of Sanskrit during this period (this is not to say that the emphasis was missing in the earlier periods; but it existed then in conjuction with very different cultural elements and institutions) that many students have developed and continue to develop the impression that a language requiring so much mastering of grammar could not have been anyone's native language (it is not realised by many that children in different parts of the world still learn to speak languages that are at least as complicated as Sanskrit in grammar and that there is no reliable or scientific way of deciding whether a language is difficult or easy.) 

(I do not attach any particular cultural or historical value to a language having native speakers. I do not subscribe to an equation like' native = natural, therefore, superior.' A language having near-native speakers in large numbers can be more important in its cultural contributions than a language with native speakers or many languages with native speakers taken together).

In the preceding lines I have approximately indicated when and where, in my view, Sanskrit is likely to have been a  language that had native speakers. 

Jacob Baltuch asks another good question (thank God, not directed at me individually this time): >whether the liguistic processes which led to the evolution of Classical Skt. from Vedic Skt. are  the kind of processes normally exhibited in "normal" first (native) language transmission.< 

The answer would obviously depend on our being able to identify the latter processes and to reach a consensus about them. The problem of how linguistic change occurs and in what way it is related to language acquisition, particularly to first/native language acquisition, is far from easy to tackle. 

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