An article in a recent Sunday newspaper reminded me once again of a passionate and well reasoned article by Sheldon Pollock, Crisis in the Classics that was published earlier this year in India’s World, a special issue of Social Research: An International Quarterly.
The paper can be downloaded freely from the above link for those of you who many not have read it yet. The main thesis of the paper- at the risk of condensing an argument that is already forcefully minimal – is that there is a dangerous decline in scholarship in the classics in India, dangerous enough that its extinction is more or less assured.
The fate of the soft subjects in a hard world is a matter that we- at the UoH in particular- should be concerned about, in part because we have at least three Departments that are players in the classics game, Urdu, Telugu and Sanskrit. And a whole Centre that concerns itself with Endangered Languages.
The danger is near. As Pollock puts it: There have been no major Sanskrit projects in India since the completion of the critical edition of the Ramayana at Baroda more than 30 years ago. All the great classical series (such as Anandasrama, Trivandrum, Gaekwad, Madras) have been more or less discontinued, and as a result the manuscripts in those collections are no longer being published. Indeed, there have been few new Indian editions of complex Sanskrit texts at all from among the scores of important manuscripts that lie unpublished in archives. In the area of hermeneutics (Mimamsa), for example, I know of no one in India today capable of editing works like those edited just a generation ago by P. N. Pattabhirama Sastry or S. Subrahmanya Sastry… I have not encountered a single PhD dissertation on Sanskrit in India—and I have seen many— worthy of publication by a Western university press.
The situation is no different in the other classical languages […] Our core group of colleagues was looking for others to join us who possessed a deep historical understanding of a regional language, conceptual skills, and the capacity to communicate their knowledge effectively. We were able to locate only four qualified scholars in India, and identified no one for a host of languages, including Assamese, Marathi, Newari, Oriya, and Panjabi.
Assamese, Marathi, Panjabi, Oriya- these are hardly languages we think of as being on the brink of extinction, but the lack of scholarship in these could eventually drive them to the brink. Indeed, some of our languages have already vanished, or been relegated to kitchen languages as the linguist Loreto Todd calls them- spoken only in private or in fields, not worthy of a literature.
My erstwhile colleague (at JNU) Anvita Abbi’s efforts to preserve the last traces of the Great Andamanese (GA) have been heroic but futile. She explains that about ten languages form the present Great Andamanese language family, and the number of speakers in some of these such as Bo (one of the last speakers of the GA language is shown in the poster on the left) now number five or so. The language groups are complex- Anvita’s work is on the Koine language, a mix of four varieties of the present GA language. One can only wonder how soon there will be none left, no varieties, no speakers, no GA. The announcement of a talk she will give in London next month is poignant. Breathing life into a dying language: Documenting Great Andamanese. The Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal are home to three highly endangered languages: Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese. Professor Abbi will share her experiences documenting them and compiling a multilingual multiscriptal interactive dictionary revealing the ecological and archeological signatures of the original communities and their ties with the environment. An ethno-semantic and ornithological account of the local birds and their names in the Great Andamanese language features in the dictionary and in the book Birds of the Great Andamanese co-authored by Professor Abbi and Dr Satish Pande. The talk will include examples of original sound and video recordings of the last native speakers of Great Andamanese.
This may well have been the history of the world since the tower of Babel- one language gives way to another, one evolves into another, some die, new ones are born. So why should we care? To misquote Elizabeth Barett Browning, let me not count the ways, but instead appeal to both art and science. Each time a language dies, something of humanity dies with it, some common collective memory vanishes… Abrams and Strogatz modeled the death of languages mathematically in a paper in the scientific journal Nature a few years ago. They end their letter with the analysis that to prevent the rapid disintegration of our world’s linguistic heritage, some simple steps are possible: The example of Quebec French demonstrates that language decline can be slowed by strategies such as policy-making, education and advertising, in essence increasing an endangered language’s status. Not a particularly deep or lateral conclusion, perhaps, but still, something that we can heed at the University, since we do care deeply about this issue in the context of preserving our heritage.
There are many other disciplines that are undersubscribed, but more on those another time. As also on whether we need a “western” press to validate the scholarly quality of our own work, and why there is not University Press of any standard left in India…
Finally, in case any of you are wondering what that image at the top is, this is the atoll near one of the most remote places on earth (and which cannot actually be seen in the image, its too small a speck), the island of Furudu. Ever since I heard of it on the CBS show 60 Minutes many many years ago, this has always struck me as a metaphor for planned extinction: Exiles are consigned there, and typically, forgotten.