Sanskrit resurgent

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When I was studying Buddhism at the University of Washington (Seattle) in 1967-68, there were about ten students in my first-year Sanskrit course for Buddhologists and Indologists.  What intrigued me greatly was that there was another beginning Sanskrit course being offered at the same time.  It had many more students than the class I was in and was offered by the Linguistics Department.  The rationale for encouraging (I can't remember if it was actually required) linguistics students to take Sanskrit was that the foundations of the scientific study of language had been laid by Panini, Patanjali, and other ancient Sanskrit grammarians around two and a half millennia ago, so that it would be good to have at least a basic understanding of the roots of the tradition.

Still, there was always something antiquarian about the study of Sanskrit.  After the rise of the vernaculars such as Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Oriya, Sindhi, Sinhala, Nepali, and Assamese, especially when they developed written literary forms, Sanskrit was relegated to the position of a dead, classical language, studied mainly by priests and pundits.

Now, however, Sanskrit has somehow managed to remake itself as a living language.  Universities around the world (including Penn), schools, and summer camps offer courses on spoken Sanskrit that are well attended, and there are villages in India where most of the people are conversant in Sanskrit.

The reason I bring all of this up now is that BBC News Asia just published an article entitled "Why is Sanskrit so controversial?" which focuses on the political aspects of the spread of Sanskrit in recent times.  One thing that I think needs to be made clear is that the modern rebirth of Sanskrit began long before the ascension of the BJP to power.

"The 'Revival' Of Spoken Sanskrit In Modern India: An Ethnographic And Linguistic Study" (1998)

Nonetheless, it is clear that the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is well disposed toward Sanskrit and that this venerable classical language can expect to see additional gains in the coming years.

"Narendra Modi’s Election Sparks Hope for Sanskrit"

"Shri Narendra Modi speaks on Sanskrit after honoring Sanaskrit [sic] scholar Vasant Anant Gadgil in Pune"

There's no danger of this ever happening with Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese), since it has not been a spoken language for two millennia, if ever.

[Hat tip Jim Breen]


  1. Piyush said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

    I am not at all an expert, but hasn't the case been made that Classical (i.e., Paninian) Sanskrit has also never been a spoken language, but more a constructed, idealized version of a vernacular reserved for use in literature and poetry?

  2. Piyush said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 9:37 pm

    My last comment was a punctuational wreck, so let me try again:

    I am not at all an expert, but hasn't the case been made that Classical (i.e., Paninian) Sanskrit has also never been a spoken language, but more of a constructed, idealized version of the vernacular, reserved for use in literature and poetry?

  3. jfruh said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

    I studied ancient history in college and grad school and always found it interesting the soft spot Classics Departments and classicists seem to have for Sanskrit — at some schools Sanskrit language classes are co-listed under Classics. I think the appeal is that foundations of classical study as we know it today in the 19th century were laid around the same time, and by some of the same people, who were figuring out that Sanskrit was actually a sister language to Greek and Latin, which kickstarted much of the idea of comparative linguistics. So Sanskirt has an important place in the origins of modern Western linguistics too.

    I think classicists are also fascinated by Indian culture generally because it's an Indo-European polytheistic society that never had its original religious beliefs replaced wholesale by monotheism — it's a glimpse as to how Greek and Roman religion might have developed if Christianity had never taken off.

  4. Rubrick said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 1:56 am

    There's no danger of this ever happening with Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese), since it has not been a spoken language for two millennia, if ever.

    Given Hebrew, one should never say never. ;-)

  5. Rubrick said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 2:00 am


    It's kind of trippy reading serious commentary about Classics from you just prior to reading today's installment of that thing you're slightly better known for. :-)

  6. Piyush said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 7:03 am


    I think classicists are also fascinated by Indian culture generally because it's an Indo-European polytheistic society that never had its original religious beliefs replaced wholesale by monotheism — it's a glimpse as to how Greek and Roman religion might have developed if Christianity had never taken off.

    I think you would find that most branches of Hinduism are almost exactly as polytheistic as Roman Catholicism.

  7. languagehat said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 8:36 am

    When I was studying Sanskrit with Stanley Insler over forty years ago, he used to start the semester with the thorniest, most intractable bits of Vedic irregularity in order to drive away the people who wanted to study it because of an interest in Buddhism or the like, leaving only the budding historical linguists he preferred to teach.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 9:39 am

    I passed up the opportunity to take Sanskrit as an undergrad and have second-guessed that decision ever since. It would have been with Insler, who was in those days the only game in town (he seemed rather ancient but googling suggests he was not that much older when I was a freshman than I am now — such are the effects of the passage of decades). He was firmly ensconced in the Ling Dep't and was I believe intermittently Chairman (although never DUS at least not when I had occasions to deal with whoever was DUS). A few years after I graduated the university hired another fellow with Sanskritist credentials but his appointment was formally in the Religious Studies dep't (maybe to deal with the sort of student hat suggests Insler didn't want to deal with). He was also appointed dean of my old residential college (meaning he only had a half-time-or-less teaching load — it was apparently thought a good place to stick people specializing in obscure languages, as I had studied Old Irish with his predecessor and Old Norse with the then-incumbent of the same position in one of the other residential colleges).

    Intro Sanskrit for undergrads in New Haven is (I checked the website out of curiosity) still cross-listed with a Linguistics dep't course number, but the fellow who teaches it does not even have an appointment in the department but holds the title "Lector in South Asian Studies," where "lector" = non-tenure-track second-class citizen* and "South Asian Studies" = some vague interdiscliplinary thing that isn't a proper department and does not have the clout and stability of a proper department. I don't have the impression that anyone new has been hired with Insler's lovely old-school title ("Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology") since he went emeritus.

    On the plus side, it is now possible due to the wonders of the internet etc. for Yale undergrads to study Bengali remotely — they go to a classroom in New Haven 2-3 times a week and there's a big video screen where the teacher (loaned from the Cornell faculty, which I remember having much stronger offerings in South and Southeast Asian languages way back when I was browsing catalogs in high school circa '82) appears live from Ithaca.

    Obviously since both Prof. Mair's undergrad days in the '60's and my own in the '80's the proportion of students of South Asian ethnicity at elite American universities has increased dramatically (although I expect at Penn like the other Ivies it has plateaued since the mid-90's due to what is very hard to believe is not the effect of de facto quotas), and I expect that may have affected the nature of the demand for South-Asia-related courses in various ways.

    *Sometimes, to be fair, a good fit for people with the right skill set for teaching introductory foreign languages to undergrads but who are not oriented toward being publication-oriented literary/philological scholars and thus aren't a good fit for the standard tenure-track model — but the subject of this fellow's dissertation suggests he would like to pursue the latter sort of career if the academic economy permitted.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 10:03 am

    From John Huntington:

    Sanskrit, is also a "living" language among the Buddhist priests (Vajracharyas or as they spell it Bajracharyas) and a few of the sangha members (Shakyas) of the Newar community in Nepal. Some of the the senior priests of my acquaintance can recite and explain/translate into both Nepal Bhasa and Nepali numbers of texts written in Sanskrit. during my work there 1994-2002 I was truly in awe at the facility of some of them.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    Perhaps some of you will remember this note about Sanskrit at Harvard:

    This is a comment to "Please don't do nothing here: a Bengali conundrum"

    BTW, I do not want to leave the impression that Daniel H. H. Ingalls, Sr. was anything less than an outstanding Sanskritist himself. He just wasn't concerned about building up an Indian Studies program or library (he passed up the PL480 funds).

    My main reason for leaving Harvard in 1979 was the lackluster nature of the Indian Studies program. In contrast, when I arrived at Penn in the fall of that year, there were at least five outstanding Indologists and an incredibly vibrant year-long seminar that brought in top scholars from around the world. I think that it met in Classroom 2 of the Museum every Wednesday at noon.

    The situation I described at the University of Washington was in the fall of 1967, the first year of my graduate study. My adviser was Edward Conze, about whom I have many colorful stories to tell.

    In my first meeting with Conze, he told me that if I wanted to be a serious Buddhologist, I had to take Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese. I did, and it almost killed me.

  11. chris y said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    I think you would find that most branches of Hinduism are almost exactly as polytheistic as Roman Catholicism.

    I think you're right. 4th century Hellenism, as espoused by Libanius and Julian the Apostate had also moved a long way in that direction. It's nevertheless interesting to see how an originally polytheistic religion evolves over the very long run.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    I may have told this anecdote before in a different context, but one day circa 1986 I had less than usual to do at my job toiling away in the basement of an obscure part of the Yale library system where I shelved newly-received publications of various UN and EU agencies, plus the voluminous (and bilingual) output of Statistics Canada. The collection I worked in only took up about a third of that building's basement, the rest of which was a semi-abandoned lumber room for odds and ends. So I went exploring and among other oddities (e.g. the fancy parchments evidencing dozens of honorary degrees received by a former president of the University which he evidently had not wanted to store in his own basement or attic) I found a cache (not huge, a few shelves' worth) of those oddly beautiful Tibetan books made even into the 20th century with wooden block printing rather than metal type. They had been stamped to indicate they had been acquired (a few decades earlier?) with P.L. 480 funds. I suspected that one reason they were languishing in such an out-of-the-way location was that as of that year Yale offered no instruction whatsoever in Tibetan to either undergrads or grad students and had no faculty whose primary scholarly work involved dealing with original-language Tibetan texts (although who knows but that someone might have picked up some reading facility along the way in grad school).

    So on the one hand I think it is well within the mission of a great university library to snatch up rare volumes that do not relate to the immediate intellectual interests of the current faculty or student body, because such institutions ought to take the very long view and if someone in the next century or two ever wants to look at such texts, they ought to be one of the places that will have them. But on the other hand I wonder if the federal taxpayers got value for their PL 480 funds or if they would have been better allocated to some perhaps less otherwise lavishly funded university library that was more likely to have actual teachers and students of Tibetan on its campus in the decades following the acquisition of the federally-subsidized volumes.

  13. cameron said,

    August 14, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

    I think you would find that most branches of Hinduism are almost exactly as polytheistic as Roman Catholicism.

    I think it's useful to distinguish mythology from theology in this context. Christianity has a monotheistic mythology and a strange trinitarian/monistic theology.

    Hinduism has a polytheistic mythology and a monistic theology.

    Judaism and Islam are monotheistic in both mythology and theology, though there are vestiges of an earlier polytheism in Judaic mythology.

  14. Andrew said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 8:51 am

    The reason that some people are suspicious of the "rise of Sanskrit" is that its promotion as a cultural signifier in India has almost nothing to do with the kind of historical and philological study which Dr. Mair recalled in this post (and others in the comments), and which LLOG has on occasion covered. There is growing support for the study of Sanskrit in India, but a lot of it is for a narrow, distorted, and ideologized version of the tradition. "Vedic mathematics," mentioned in the BBC article, is one example: there's nothing Vedic about it.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 9:09 am

    From John Colarusso:

    In the late 70s, Phyllis Granoff, who is now at Yale, worked with a Shaivite Tamil monk, one Sri Nivasan. He was fluent in Sanskrit. The two of them would carry on entire conversations in it. It reminded me very much of Ancient Greek, since it, like Greek, had tone, which Sri Nivasan had retained quite clearly.

    I hesitate to call this a case of living Sanskrit, since it resembles the use of Latin among Roman Catholic priests or among some professors in Vienna.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    From Josh Capitanio:

    Very interesting – I am always impressed by how well my father-in-law (an ardent Modi supporter himself) understands Sanskrit, though he was trained as an engineer.

    Regarding literary Chinese as a spoken language, I have noticed a trend in some recent Chinese period films (the recent adaptation of the _Sanguo yanyi_ comes to mind) toward what some people call "ban wen ban bai duihua" (half-literary, half-vernacular dialogue), presumably in an effort to make the films feel more "authentic."

  17. Shri Shankara said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    In Mysore, where I grew up in the 70s, there was a newspaper, Sudharma that was published in Sanskrit. I see that it continues to be published to this day. Being from an old Mysore family of Sanskrit scholars I remember we used to get it at home because the publisher knew my grandfather, who was a Sanskrit professor at the University of Mysore.

  18. Michael Katten said,

    August 15, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    Please consider that there is an entirely additional component to the popularity of Sanskrit among students in India: it is a "marks" subject. That is, schools in India cannot get enough students to enroll under regular conditions, so there is an understanding that regardless of how well you do, teachers will give you high marks. The quality of Sanskrit learning that goes on is very low, even though the classes are well attended. In the 1980s, you could still recite Sanskrit verses in most parts of India (I used to), and people would know those verses, and very kindly correct my pronunciation. No longer. One is lucky if anyone has even heard the very common verses most Indian used to know.

  19. Piyush said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 11:16 pm


    Actually, I was thinking also in terms of mythologies. It seems to me that the various devās (similar to the Greek or Roman pantheons) play exactly the same role in Hindu mythologies and worship practices as saints and the various shrines to Mary play in Roman Catholicism.

  20. Deven said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    Thank you for this blog item, which has led to many insightful comments and responses. I may add that, as a Sanskrit teacher, my experience has been that the spoken component, just as the script component, are crucial to developing the initial emotional connection that eventually may lead to expertise in the language. How crucial, and in what ways this is the case, varies among different methodologies for teaching the language. About five years ago, Pr. Fitzgerald (at Brown), Gary Tubb (UChicago), and I had a conversation about pedagogical methods we each employed in teaching students new to Sanskrit. I recall Pr. Fitzgerald telling us that he prefers to not introduce devanagari script initially but rather has students read Sanskrit through transliterated Roman script. His logic is to move students through the grammar as quickly as possible so that they can begin to read with understanding, without the extra (and to his mind distracting) effort of learning a new sign system. Gary Tubb and I generally disagreed with this approach, largely on the grounds that a.) devanagari script, while surely not the only traditional script used to represent Sanskrit sounds, has become the most popular script used for book printing (in both the North and the South) and, more importantly, b.) that learning the script – and the traditional visual aspect that learning a non-Roman script offers American students — nurtures the requisite affective connection to the language that develops an early sense of accomplishment (the script is pretty easy, comparable to other systems) before getting to steeper learning curves the language poses. Besides, it takes two weeks of diligent practice to handle the script in a working capacity. It takes a little longer to have mastery. I feel a similar potential with spoken Sanskrit. Full disclosure: I have not been able to implement a spoken Sanskrit program as successfully as I would like to at Penn, but this is largely due to the pragmatic difficulties of not having enough class hours and the always debilitating fact that students at Penn did not come here to spend ALL their time learning Sanskrit. Furthermore, good materials are still being developed in various quarters. Nevertheless, being able to form sentences, conduct simple conversations, and learn grammar topics the way one would learn them with other languages, holds enormous potential of leading at least one or two students to comprehensive expertise in the language. For all students, I have found that it helps them read faster, with more energy and understanding. Also, one last point, as far as the idea of Sanskrit not having been a spoken language, I believe that Panini’s Astadhyayi, and especially Patanjali’s Mahabhasya, make it amply clear that the language was indeed (and still is) spoken – not, of course the same way and in the same context we speak our vernaculars but also not the way we “speak” an artificial, constructed language. Think speaking English in a university lecture and English on the streets with non-university people. I think my colleague, Pr. Cardona, would have more to say on this matter.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 7:07 am

    I thank my colleague, Deven Patel, for his long and detailed comment, which raises a number of interesting issues. I suppose that similar issues exist for all classical, non-vernacular languages that are not regularly spoken in the modern world, including Latin and Greek.

    As I indicated in the last paragraph of my original post, when it comes to Literary Sinitic (i.e., Classical Chinese), there's little chance of it being treated as a spoken language, and there are many reasons for that, including the fact that it hasn't been used for conversational purposes for at least two millennia, if ever. Furthermore, we have only a poor understanding of how it would have been pronounced a thousand, two thousand, or three thousand years ago. Then there's the problem of its high degree of ellipsis, whereby authors were encouraged to leave out as much as possible of the sentences they constructed without losing their readers altogether, plus the high degree of allusiveness, which requires readers to ponder the extratextuality of the passages he / she confronts.

    For all of these reasons and others, professors of Literary Sinitic (LS), so far as I know, would normally never ask their students to spend time "conversing" in that language. Some professors do require their students to compose a few written sentences in LS, though I would never require that either, for the simple fact that LS no longer functions as a written medium in real life, plus the fact that there's no single grammar that would be applicable as a standard, since it changes from period to period and even somewhat from genre to genre.

    As a long-term teacher of LS, which is one of my favorite courses, and which my classes think I'm pretty good at, my main aim is to get the students reading and understanding as many different types of LS texts as possible within the first year (where LS is only one of at least four courses they must take per semester), and to do so with the highest degree of rigor and comprehension possible. I suspect that Professor Fitzgerald has similar goals in his Sanskrit classes.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 8:57 am

    From Joe Farrell:

    You might be interested in Jürgen Leonhardt's "Latin: Story of a World Language," a very refreshing perspecitive that totally circumvents the concept of "death" and that brings to bear a lot of evidence to support a very different view of the matter.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

    From Robert Goldman:

    The Sanskrit thread has as wealth of interesting comments and reminiscences of the rigors of studying Sanskrit especially in the dear dead days of old with the often far from welcoming professors of the language from Cambridge and New Haven. The story is that the late, great Harvard Sanskrit scholar Daniel H. H. Ingalls had put the following notice in the student handbook or course bulletin, “Sanskrit is a difficult language—students are advised not to take it.”

    But the significant difference between Sanskrit and other classical languages is that it is precisely not “dead” in the way that, say, ancient Greek or Sumerian, are. Nor has it had to be revived in modernity as a modern national language like Hebrew and Irish. The thing is that the religious cultures of which Sanskrit became a major linguistic medium, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism continue (at least the first and last of these) as active living traditions that give great respect to scholars and priests etc. who know the language. It also has a complex, if disorganized, network of support on the national and state levels in India and, for various reasons, at some Indian universities. It is also pushed by religious nationalists in India as a marker of a specifically Hindu culture and nation.

    Today although Sanskrit is spoken as a first language by only a very tiny percentage of the Indian population, a percentage that probably has not been very high at least since the middle of the first millennium BCE, there are nonetheless many, many thousands of people who continue to speak, read and write the language fluently and many who write poetry, fiction and drama in Sanskrit. There are feature films with Sanskrit dialog, Sanskrit newspapers, and there is even a daily Sanskrit news broadcast on All India Radio. Every year there are many Indian and international conferences on Sanskrit and the numerous subfields of scholarship in which Sanskrit has been the principal linguistic medium. At these events many panels and individual papers—delivered by Indian and foreign scholars, poets, etc.—are in Sanskrit, as are the discussions of the presentations.

    Because of the longevity of the religious, literary, philosophical, and scientific life of Sanskrit, it has produced perhaps 30 million texts over its long history and these are objects of study by many people for a number of reasons. Several major universities in Europe, North America, Australia, and East Asia have active Sanskrit programs leading to the doctorate. Student interests vary widely, but the major foci are Indo-European comparative linguistics, philosophy, religion (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism) traditional Indian sciences (grammar, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, rhetoric, etc.), ancient history and literature (epics, poetry, drama, etc.).

    The results of the recent elections in India have pushed Sanskrit back into the international news and that is by no means a bad thing. Efforts to further develop the availability and quality of training in Sanskrit in India can be a good thing and can encourage young people to appreciate the rich cultural heritage that has been expressed in the language

    But Sanskrit and Sanskrit training should not be made sectarian or political issues. Sanskrit served for many hundreds of years as the principal and most prestigious cultural, spiritual, scientific, literary, political, and intellectual medium of a vast swathe of southern Asia stretching from what is today Afghanistan in the west to Bali in the East. It was also through the medium of Sanskrit texts translated into the languages of central, east and and north Asia that the Indian religion and philosophy of Buddhism spread throughout the continent. It was a language equally cultivated by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains for the formulation and transmission of ideas both religious and secular and for works both scientific and literary. Some of its most influential texts, such as the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata helped spread Indian cultural knowledge and values throughout the nations and peoples of South and Southeast Asia, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim alike.

    After all it is people who adhere to particular religious traditions, not languages, which are capable of the expression of any and all human thought. Few languages in history have been as powerfully and widely expressive as Sanskrit.

  24. julie lee said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

    "There's no danger of this ever happening with Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese), since it has not been a spoken language for two millennia, if ever."
    ——I would disagree somewhat. Literary Sinitic has been compared here to the cases of Hebrew and Latin, and I would add Welsh and Gaelic—dead or dying languages being revived by a small elite (like Catholic priests in the old days) and/or by enthusiasts.
    Josh Capitanio has pointed out that Chinese period movies have dialogue in half-vernacular, half-literary Chinese. My impression is, they are _more than half_ literary Chinese. And I enjoy that literary dialogue.
    Chinese literati of my generation (now in their 70s or 80s) and before often spoke in half-vernacular half-literary at dinners or gatherings among themselves —like priests speaking Latin among themselves. Because I was foreign-educated, I would feel very embarrassed at these gatherings, because I could only speak vernacular. I kept my mouth shut. It was easy for gentlemen of my father's and older generations to speak Literary Chinese because they had memorized so many LS classics in their childhood and youth. They certainly corresponded in Literary Chinese.
    Recently I received an essay of reminiscence from a schoolmate from Taiwan of my generation. It was mostly in Literary Chinese, so different to to my own Chinese writing, which is all vernacular. And this schoolmate was a Chinese electrical engineer—a manager at IBM for more than 30 years–from Taiwan. I know that many of the upper-socioeconomic families in China and Taiwan want their children to learn Literary Chinese, and many retired intellectuals (scientists and engineers) eagerly spend time studying the Chinese classics in the original Literary Chinese. It's the same spirit as some people now study Ancient Hieroglyphic Egyptian–for the fun of it. So I don't think these great dead languages will ever die.
    When I was a graduate student in Chinese Lang. and Lit. at U. of Michigan many years ago, the Chairman, Prof Charles Hucker, told us about an experience he had. As a new Ph.D. and young visiting scholar on his first trip to Taiwan, he got off the plane and went to the desk and asked in Chinese: "I'd like to go to the university. How do I get there?" ("In Literary Chinese something like "Wu yu zhi daxue, ruhe zhi zhi ?", and in vernacular "Wo yao qu daxue, zemme dao nali qu?" ). The desk clerk was completely flummoxed. It took a while before they knew what he wanted. He had studied Chinese at university, but it was Literary Chinese.

  25. James L. Fitgerald said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    Thanks to all for this interesting posting and the many interesting comments. I am writing, however, for the narrow purpose of correcting the record of a policy attributed to me by Deven Patel. All of my students and the colleagues familiar with my teaching know that when I teach intro Skt I give a no-credit quiz on the Devanagari script on day 2 of the class and a for-credit exam on the script on day 3 (typically a Monday after a weekend). I demand an accurate knowledge of the script from the get-go, always have. I don't remember the conversation Deven recalls. It may be, however, that such a conversation did take place and what Deven may recall is my policy of not encouraging students to use Devanagari ACTIVELY. I understand various "pros" of having the students do so, but I have always worked them very hard across 3 days a week for 30 weeks. All the basics of the grammar and lots and lots of narrative reading (exclusively in Devanagari).

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    Sinologists in the late 19th century and early 20th century were excellent readers of LS (Classical Chinese), but they of course did not speak it, and only rarely would they write anything in it. Unless they had a missionary background, they seldom learned any of the vernaculars, and when they did, it was usually one of the topolects spoken where they or their parents were posted (e.g., the great George Kennedy of Yale). Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth and many other books which won for her both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize, was not a scholar, but she did have a missionary background which enabled her to learn vernacular and make a marvelous translation of the early vernacular novel Shuǐhǔ zhuàn 水浒传 (Water Margins, which she called All Men Are Brothers).

    Thus the early Sinologists usually learned only LS, but not the vernaculars. If they learned another relevant language besides LS, it was generally de rigueur for them to learn Manchu. Later on, after the American occupation of Japan, most serious Sinologists learned Japanese, and many of them learned it fairly well. A few of the younger generation started to go to Taiwan in the 60s, and that group did begin to learn Mandarin, but the level of Sinological research was considered to be higher in Japan, so many Sinologists, such as Robert Harwell, continued to go to Japan.

    It was only in the 80s and in a bigger way in the 90s, after Richard Nixon and Deng Xiaoping opened up the PRC, that sizable numbers of Chinese Studies scholars and students started to go to China and learn Mandarin.

    The generation of my teachers, men like James Robert Hightower, had a wonderful grasp of LS, but they didn't speak Mandarin, or, if they did speak it, they did so poorly. There are many stories about that generation like the one Julie Wei tells about Charles Hucker. Another one goes like this. A learned Sinologist was riding in a rickshaw. As the rickshaw boy pulled him along, he noticed that the place he wanted to go was just up ahead, so he shouted, "zhǐ, zhǐ 止止!", by which he meant "stop! stop!" But that only made the rickshaw boy pull him all the harder. The more the Sinologist frantically shouted "zhǐ, zhǐ 止止!" the faster did the rickshaw boy raced along the street, since he thought the Sinologist was saying "zhí, zhí 直直!" ("straight ahead, straight ahead!"). Finally, they ended up flipping over, which did indeed bring the rickshaw to a halt. If only the Sinologist had known the completely different vernacular term tíng 停 ("stop"), this misunderstanding and consequent accident would not have occurred.

    In China and Taiwan or elsewhere in the Sinosphere, nobody speaks LS. It's impossible, for — among others — the reasons I outlined in this comment:

    As I've pointed out endlessly for the past four decades, one cannot hold a free, spontaneous, unrehearsed conversation in LS. What generally passes for "LS" is basically a matrix of Mandarin or other Sinitic vernacular with bits of LS sprinkled in. The more learned one is, the more LS one can pepper one's speech with, but I would wager it's seldom more than 5-10% even for the most pedantic individuals. My brother Denis, who is indeed very learned in Classical, can do this in a very impressive fashion, but normal people usually look upon this kind of LS-laced speech as a curiosity.

    I won't get deeply into the quality of what passes for written LS nowadays, though it is true that a few people still try to write in a way that is even more heavily laced with LS than the type of speech I mentioned in the previous paragraph, perhaps 10-15% LSisms at most (more than that and most of their readers would be lost anyway).

    Here I must recount a personal experience. In the 80s and 90s, one of the world's most famous Chinese scholars (an ethnic Pekingese who was an enormously learned specialist on traditional literature) most kindly sent me at least one long, handwritten letter in Chinese every year. It was clear that he was trying to write in a register that was highly LS, but it was always a stylistic mess, neither fish nor fowl. I would sometimes show the letters to my wife, who was a beautiful stylist in Mandarin and who had higher degrees in Classical Studies, and she was always aghast. She abhorred that kind of pedantic, pseudo-LS, and felt embarrassed that Chinese would still try to impress people by endeavoring to resuscitate a written medium that had been dead as a spoken language for at least two thousand years (what the linguist Y. R. Chao called "unsayable") and then died a second, irrevocable death with the abolition of the imperial examination system (the main thing that had kept it "alive" as a written medium for the previous two millennia) in 1905.

    It is conceivable that a small band of zealots might attempt to revive LS as a spoken language, but it couldn't happen in Mandarin because the phonology has been radically reduced, making the degree of monosyllabic homophony a bar to spoken communication. It would be somewhat easier, but still extremely difficult, with Cantonese or Hokkien, because they possess more tones, including entering tones (final stops), than Mandarin. But even with Cantonese and Hokkien, they lack consonant clusters and a wider variety of finals that existed in Old Sinitic, so many syllables that would have been audibly distinct in Old Sinitic have now in modern Cantonese and Hokkien become homophones or near-homophones. As for reconstructing the full phonology of Old Sinitic and attempting to resurrect it as the basis for the pronunciation of a reinvented spoken LS, we really have no clear idea of what Old Sinitic sounded like, so that is but a pipe dream that I seriously doubt will ever materialize.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 8:47 pm

    "The story of my Sanskrit"
    by Ananya Vajpeyi

  28. V.Iyer said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 3:23 am

    The last Sanskrit orators to have an impact appear in the 1870's but significantly they all moved away from this supposed link-language (which had received some support from both the British Raj as well as scholar/missionaries in that textbooks and teaching plans for Govt. aided and Mission Schools existed)
    Pandita Ramabai was the toast of Calcutta in 1878, but her hosts couldn't countenance her marriage to a 'low caste' lawyer. Ultimately she went to England and America and converted to Christianity. Thus, she is associated with Medical and other Scientific training for women- as opposed to the revival of Sanskrit.
    One of Narendra Modi's heroes, Shyamjikrishna Verma, studied a little Sanskrit at the Govt. School and decided to specialize in it. He won fame as an orator and, despite being non-Brahmin, was given the title of Pandit by the Scholars of Benares. He distinguished himself in the Arya Samaj vs Blavatsky controversy and Monier Williams took him back with him to Oxford to help with his celebrated dictionary. However, his trajectory thenceforth was towards Gujerati, Marathi and other Vernaculars as a Radical intellectual with a soft spot (in the head?) for 'Harbhat Pendse' (Herbert Spencer). Indeed, he returned to England to espouse various radical causes.
    Swami Dayanand Saraswati (founder of the Arya Samaj) won acclaim for his Sanskrit oratory but his plan for Vedic Schools (gurukuls) failed ignominiously. He too switched from Sanskrit to Hindi after the mid 1870's. Subsequently, the Arya Samaj's D.A.V Schools and Colleges put more emphasis on excellence in English, Hindi and Science subjects (because that was what parents wanted) while relegating Sanskrit to early years education- i.e. chanting a few mantras.
    One reason why the Arya Samaj- in Punjab, for example- couldn't gain traction for heavy duty Sanskrit was because knowledge of Persian and 'shikasta' script was necessary for Legal and Land Revenue purposes. More generally, the elegant Urdu of a Jawaharlal or Tej Bahadur Sapru carried a greater cachet. People from the South, or Bengal or Gujerat, were afraid that a Sanskritized diction would label them as village pedants from the boondocks. It is noteworthy that when Subhash Chandra Bose became leader of the Japanese supported I.N.A, he very rapidly acquired proficiency in a Persianized Hindustani idiom- this wasn't simply 'pandering to the Muslims' (Bose came from a Province where Hindus were in the minority) it was a claim to the Delhi of the Moghuls- i.e. the Timurid dynasty still had more legitimacy in North India than some Sansritized Golden Age.

    In the Hindi speaking belt, the demand for 'shuddh' (i.e. Sanskritized) Hindi was clearly linked with the demand for more Govt. jobs. It did continue after Independence but failed to gain traction. North Indians still feel Urdu to be more prestigious. It is noteworthy that Modi's extempore speech on Republic Day avoids notorious Sanskritisms but deploys vigorous Urdu collocations.

    Yes, there is a Sanskrit conversation movement which has been gaining traction over the last 20 years- but nobody has actually said anything very interesting in it- so it remains a fad like 'Vastu' or 'Vedic Mathematics'. It has produced no orators. By contrast Avadhanam exercises- in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh- are often conducted both in the vernacular and in Sanskrit- where the latter has an edge by reason of its syntheticity and context independence. Furthermore, it is actually quite exciting and fun to watch.
    Smart people- especially those from the boondocks whose accent in the Vernacular language carries a stigma- are always going to be interested in Sanskrit or classical Tamil or Braj or other 'Riti' type medieval scholastic/poetic languages. However, the notion that Indians want to talk Sanskrit to each other has been shown to be false. There is a 'co-ordination game' whose Schelling focal point is either Globish or 'cool' Bollywood slang. What is lacking is a 'dis-coordination game' such that something hieratic and elitist obtains to overawe the Philistine. Not even the stilted English of celebrated Leftist Academics, who refer to the Poor by the Gramscian code-word 'subaltern', has that power any more. Indeed, the move to reform the syllabus so as to give prominence to the ideas of retired School teachers and Professors of Tourism is part of a wider, and surely salutary, desire to disintermediate the professional academics so as to restore the great Socially Liberative Mission of telling stupid lies to genuinely stupid people.

  29. julie lee said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 11:31 am

    Thanks to Victor Mair for correcting my inaccuracies (statistics etc.) regarding spoken Literary Chinese. Of course when gentlemen of an older generation used Literary Chinese partially in conversation they couldn't reproduce the pronunciation of the ancients, but would use modern pronunciation. I do know that some gentlemen who affect Literary Chinese in their writing can produce half-baked, laughable Literary Chinese. Liang Qi-chao, a famous, prolific, writer and reformist of the early 20th century, was one such person. And it is no wonder he failed several times in exams to get the jinshi degree (the top scholarly degree). I've heard people laugh at his half-baked literary style as neither fish nor fowl because it wasn't vernacular either. But his writings were widely read because of his reformist ideas. I've also seen my mom laugh at the writing of a gentleman-friend of my dad's who wrote in half-baked, atrocious, Literary Chinese, "like half-cooked rice". My dad also said the famous Chen Li-fu (Chiang Kai-shek's top aide) who later wrote books on Confucianism, wrote ungrammatical Literary Chinese. I checked and found he was right—Chen made grammatical mistakes in his Literary Chinese sentences.
    For the amusement of those here who don't know Chinese (Mandarin) , a few basic phrases below in a literary style and in vernacular, used in conversation:, among educated Chinese (of my generation and before):
    WO MA "my mom" (vern.)– JIA MU "family mother" (literary)
    NI BA "your dad"–LING ZUN "excellent esteemed"
    NI MA "your mom" — LING TANG "excellent hall"
    WO TAITAI "my wife" — NEI REN "the person within"
    WO ZHANGFU "my husband" — WAI ZI "the man outside"
    NI MINGZI JIAO SHEMME (vern.) "what's your name?"
    — GUI XING DA MING (literary) "noble surname big name?"
    WO XING WANG "my surname is Wang" — BI XING WANG "wretched surname WANG"
    NI JIA "your house" —FU SHANG "palace/residence above"
    WO JIA "my place/house" —BI SHE "wretched abode"

  30. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    From a colleague who is an outstanding specialist on premodern Chinese literature and lexicography:

    Thanks for sending this, which I indeed found most interesting and even heartening. I did not know of Sanskrit's resurgence. This gives one hope, despite the generally depressed state of Indic studies in this country.

    Of course I agree with your views about the teaching of LS. There are still, as you know, places in the U.S. that teach LS solely in Mandarin, but that turns it mainly into a Mandarin class.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

    From Tom Bartlett:

    I think I saw those conversations a while ago. I certainly agree that I have never thought LS could be spoken in modern times, and I doubt that it was much, if ever spoken in ancient times. But I do remember once wondering whether, if one read enough prose like 聊齋 or 三國, could one learn to write fluently that way? I proposed this to Judith Zeitlin, who didn’t seem interested. Problem is, one would need to read much, much more than just those two fictional works; one would need to read, and read well, much of the large corpus of literature that 羅貫中 and 蒲松齡 knew well. I suppose that the gap between spoken and written forms of Chinese is inherently and irreducibly greater than in the case of "phonetically" written languages, due to the logographic nature of the sinographs. As a classics major in college, I was indeed (as one comment mentioned) aware of Sanskrit as a related language but regrettably never got beyond the first lesson of a Sanskrit text that I started to read by myself shortly after finishing college. I always thought it interesting that the nuclear physicist Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit intensively, apparently hoping to find ultimate wisdom in it. Is the movement to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language intended to bridge the linguistic gaps among all the Indo-European and Dravidian tongues, based on their shared religious tradition of Hinduism, as enshrined in Sanskrit? Does the phonetic character of the Devanagari script make that more feasible than if it were written logographically? I suppose so. The modern revival of Hebrew was mentioned as a cautionary example against saying LS could "never" be "revived" as a spoken tongue. But Hebrew was continually used since antiquity in liturgical speech by devoutly religious Jews, as I understand it. In addition, a brilliantly controversial Israeli linguist whom I heard talk at Monash University in Melbourne has argued that modern Hebrew should be called Israeli, because the people who shaped it were native speakers of Yiddish and other European languages, so modern Hebrew shows more similarities to European tongues than to modern Semitic tongues. There's no doubt in my mind that speaking Mandarin can occasionally be an asset in teaching LS, to illustrate parallel points of syntax or phrasing. Still, I prefer teaching primarily in English, in which I am more articulate than in Mandarin. I also believe that teaching in English has the advantage of requiring students to address semantic issues more fundamentally than if a modern Chinese dialect is the primary medium of instruction.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 11:17 pm

    Recent conversation with a colleague has revealed to me that even in the generation now in their sixties, the not-speaking-the-vernacular-well model still survives.

    He explained: "I'm just better at learning to read any language than at learning to speak it.) Maybe this is why the languages I've added in recent years have been classical ones: Latin and Greek, and my hope is to find a way to squeeze in Sanskrit before too long."

    He also stated: "Naturally I'm with you on the prospects for LS as a spoken language."

  33. turanga said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 11:21 pm

    An interesting recent example of an extempore speech in Sanskrit:

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