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 FAQ1 - Linguistics

Frequently asked questions about Linguistics - Part 1


Hi, Andrés Muni again. In this document I will be answering frequently asked questions about Linguistics. If you have an question that you would like to ask me, feel free and e-mail me. I will answer your question personally and, if it is really interesting, I will also place that question along with its respective answer in this document for everybody to enjoy them.


 Questions about Linguistics

Andrés Muni answers your questions

Q: How did Sanskrit language arrive in the modern Europe?

A: The study of Sanskrit language arrived in the modern Europe through two parallel channels:

(1) The romantic, literary and philosophical interest in the Indian culture.

(2) The scholar interest in the history of that Indian culture.

Those two channels have the work of Sir William Jones (1746-1794) and his two collaborators --Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) and Henry Colebrook (1765-1837)-- as their source. Charles Wilkins was the first Englishman that became a Sanskrit scholar. In 1784, Jones founded the Asian Society of Bengal, in whose series of "Asian researches" the first systematic attempts to discover the ancient roots of Indian culture were published.

In Germany, the wave of enthusiasm regarding Indian literature had J. G. Herder (1744-1803) as its main source. That wave of enthusiasm included such great personages as Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Schelling, Kant and Schopenhauer. Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) learnt Sanskrit language from Alexander Hamilton, whom he met in 1802. Friedrich Schlegel was the first person who translated Sanskrit texts directly into German language.

Q: How did this process continue to evolve up to the present time?

A: Throughout the course of the 19th century, the interest in respect of Sanskrit language continued to decline in Great Britain, despite the British occupation in India. It did not happen the same thing in continental Europe anyway. At present, Great Britain has very few Sanskrit professor's chairs and they are mostly in charge of philologists. On the contrary, in Germany, right from the first Sanskrit chair established in Bonn (1818), almost every university has had flourishing departments covering a wide scope of Indian studies.

However, a dispassionate and objective study of Sanskrit language was growing in the group of British people living in India (officials of the British East Indies' Company, and after 1860, officials of the Crown). During the 20th century, a large number of British managers, lawyers and men serving in the army began occupying themselves with the Indian culture. Of them, it is impossible to overlook John Woodroffe --a judge in the High Court of Calcutta-- generally known as "Arthur Avalon" (pseudonym), who devoted his life to the expounding and defense of Tantricism.

Q: What are the new findings about the Indian civilization?

A: Recent excavations show that, during the Bronze Age, there were hunters, fishermen and farmers in Harappa (3300 BC). Throughout seven centuries, Harappa was one of the five urban centers of the civilization of the Ganges valley. Harappa was one of the most important cities in a civilization that flourished in the period 2600 to 1900 BC. It was one of those centers of population which were united with each other by force of commerce and kinship. These five cities formed a civilization that spread to the north (from Arabian sea up to the first spurs of Himalayan range of mountains) and to the east (as far as New Delhi). Just as the Mesopotamian civilization (whose cities were built a few centuries before those of Harappa), this civilization owned a system of writing and thousands of things proving this have been found buried in the area in which these people lived. Unfortunately, the attempts to decipher the ancient inscriptions by the learned men were not successful. Recent excavations show that in 3300 BC --that is, seven centuries before the apogee of Harappa (2600 BC)-- there was a village in the place where Harappa was finally built. Inscriptions on pots show that these people wrote by using symbols almost at the same time as the inhabitants of Mesopotamia developed the supposed first system of writing.

From the findings by the archaelogists it is proven that Harappa was a city of craftsmen and traders, that is to say, a sophisticated society based upon the middle class. Ruins of big temples as in Mesopotamia were not found in Harappa (there is no evidence of a reign or theocracy having been established in Harappa). There is no trace of the existence of an army either (there is no engravings or sculptures showing scenes of war, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia).

Q: What were the causes for the dissapearance of Harappa?

A: The five big cities (a kind of mounds with plenty of houses over it) of Harappa grew throughout the course of the centuries, since their inhabitants constructed their houses and streets on those of their predecesors. There is no ruin of a wall surrounding the city, but each mound had a fortification which was not intended for defense but for avoiding the floods that were brought about by the Rabi river (one of the tributary rivers of the Ganges). A big portion of the Harappa's exported goods travelled along the Rabi river before getting to the Ganges. It may be assured that a part of those goods went from there to Mohenjo Daro (a sister city of Harappa which was located 650 km to the south). Just as Harappa (a name borrowed from a present town), nobody knows what was the real name of Mohenjo Daro in the ancient times. "Mohenjo Daro" is a modern appellative that an anthropologist translated as "Mound of the deads". The first archaelogists exploring that place thought that the city (and the entire civilization) came to an end due to invading hordes of Central Asia. Recent studies report that neither weapons nor evidence of attacks have been found there. Studies of some skeletons found in cemeteries of that region have not shown that the original inhabitants were displaced by immigrants with different characteristics. It could not be explained with complete certainty the reason for the disappearance of such longevous civilization, although it is suspected that the fluctuations in the level of the Ganges river had great impact. The floods destroyed the agricultural richness of the city, and thus the commerce and the economy was interrupted. It is probable that hundreds of villages would have been annihilated either by overflowings of the rivers or through floods brought about by streams searching for new riverbeds. Other towns were forsaken after the Sarasvatī river --which runs parallel to Ganges-- got dry because of the deviation toward other fluvial systems by her main tributaries (Note: the rivers are considered to be "goddesses", hence the feminine gender). If the writing of the Ganges valley were to be deciphered, these theories would be confirmed.

Q: What is known about the writing of this civilization?

A: The archaelogists have catalogued more than 400 different symbols that were written on seals and pots. The longest inscription contains 26 symbols. Certain linguists opine that the language belongs to the Dravidian group (including Tamil and other 25 more languages which are still spoken in the subcontinent). However, the aforesaid writing is different from any other known one. Some pots that were found in Harappa (dating from 3300 to 3000 BC) have signs engraved on them which are similar to an inscription in the form of a trident. This trident-like inscription was found engraved on a seal being used a few centuries later. The scholars agree with each other regarding two points: (1) the inscriptions should be read from right to left; (2) the characters stand for words, syllables or sounds. Nevertheless, since those scholars only have brief passages and no inscription acting as a Rosetta stone, they propose contradictory translations [Note: I based my answer on the work by Meadow (Harvard University) and Kenoyer (University of Winsconsin)].

to be continued


 Further Information

Andrés Muni

This document was conceived by Andrés Muni, one of the two founders of this site, and conversant with linguistics.

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