An old question

Robert J. Zydenbos zydenbos at BLR.VSNL.NET.IN
Thu Jul 16 08:15:36 UTC 1998

Sandra van der Geer wrote:

> Personally, I think such a narrow, culture dependent and
> genealogical categorisation is a bit dangerous, especially in the
> case of languages. If a vernacular Prakrit was the Muttersprache
> for a certain north-Indian child, and Sanskrit was the
> Vatersprache, you suppose the child learned his first words from
> his Prakrit speaking mother, and learned his second words from his
> also Sanskrit speaking father. Education as a right of the father.
> [...]

No, I never supposed any such thing. And any such projection of
meanings onto what I wrote involves unwarranted assumptions (e.g.,
that the only education worth mentioning can take place only
through Sanskrit, or that mothers cannot educate).

I was hoping that the list members would realise, without further
explanation, that expressions like "mother tongue" (and by
extension, "father tongue") are metaphorical. (For instance: what
about children whose mothers have died in childbirth? How can they
have a "mother tongue", if there is no mother to teach them the
tongue? I hope that the absurdity of taking these expressions
literally will now be clear.)

The terms Muttersprache and Vatersprache, it is true, do reflect
different spheres in which the languages are used: the
Muttersprache in the more personal and geographically more
proximate sphere ([extended] family, circle of friends, village
community, etc.), the Vatersprache in the impersonal and
geographically more remote sphere, learnt in a less personal
setting (school, academy). Of course the later use of the acquired
language is a different matter (e.g., were contacts through Latin
between Erasmus and Thomas More impersonal?). This is about as far
as the metaphor should be stretched. If I were unfair, I could take
Van der Geer's illustration and say that Prakrit too had become a
secondary Vatersprache among the Jainas in South India and in North
India in the Apabhramsa period (so instead of Muttersprache,
Prakrit would be an Onkelsprache or something, to be taught by an
uncle? maternal or paternal uncle? let's not be ridiculous).

As for "narrow" and "culture dependent": let us please note that a
term like "maat.rbhaa.saa" is current in India too. (Perhaps this
makes the use of the term 'politically correct' again.) -- And now
that I have already had the audacity to inflict this hateful narrow
cultural damage on our readers, maybe we can use the term
nevertheless. I will, in any case.


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