Language Log

The man behind a 9,000-page, eight-volume Kannada dictionary that took 54 years to write

Professor G Venkatasubbiah, at a sprightly 104, is still the man for all Kannada-related linguistic crises.

A couple of years ago, when there was talk of politician ND Tiwari and the result of a certain DNA test, a Kannada newspaper reporting the story found itself unable to come up with a term for “biological son”. It did what writers, translators and students dealing with Kannada-related linguistic crises have done now for decades: it asked Professor G Venkatasubbiah, a man whose name has become synonymous with Kannada usage and lexicography. There wasn’t a precise equivalent, he said, and then went on to suggest a phrase the newspaper could use instead.

Now in his 104th year, GV – known by his initials as teachers often are – is a towering figure in the world of Kannada letters (and, as it happens, words). He’s had a distinguished working life as a college teacher and principal, as an editor, as a translator who has made works by Kabir, Shankaracharya, RL Stevenson and J Krishnamurthi available in Kannada, and as author of a large shelf’s worth of literary history and criticism. His monumental achievement though remains the stewardship of the 54-year-long project which brought into being the Kannada Sahitya Parishat’s Nighanu – an eight-volume, 9,000-page monolingual dictionary.

“It happened this way,” he began, at his austerely appointed home in south Bengaluru. Writers and researchers had long been feeling the need for an authoritative and comprehensive Kannada-Kannada dictionary when the matter came up for discussion in December 1941 at the annual meeting of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat. The Parishat, a non-profit that serves to promote Kannada, resolved to create such a dictionary. Their model was to be the Oxford English Dictionary, in part because the “historical principles” approach, where the evolution of word meanings is traced, was appropriate for a language as old as Kannada. Also because, GV said, “It was the best dictionary. It is still the best dictionary.”

GV and his classmates at Yuvaraja College in Mysore. Credit: commons [Licensed under CC0]
GV and his classmates at Yuvaraja College in Mysore. Credit: commons [Licensed under CC0]

The committee in charge was headed by Professor AR Krishnashastry, a scholar and polyglot who counted Pali, German and self-taught Bengali among his languages. After a couple of years of administrative preparation, a dictionary office came up at the Kannada Sahitya Parishat in early 1944.

“Unfortunately, no linguistic survey had been done in Kannada,” GV said. Words would have to be gathered from written sources. The editors identified 903 (later expanded to 1,750) works of literature from different periods – the 10th century Pampa and Ranna, the 15th century Kumaravyasa, the 17th century Lakshmisha. They chose works of contemporary stalwarts such as KV Puttappa, Shivaram Karanth and others, making sure that different parts of the state were represented: “We wanted to collect words from Udupi, from Raichur, from Mysore, from Madikeri.” Then, there were words from nearly 10,000 Kannada inscriptions dating from the 4th century to the 18th century, and of course, words from all previously existing Kannada dictionaries.

The editors wrote letters to scholars across the state asking for help. Seventy-three agreed to participate and were assigned books to trawl for words. One of them was GV, who would go on to become the chief editor of the dictionary.

Wordy arguments

The fundamental unit of dictionary composition in this case was the slip – an A5 piece of paper dedicated to a single word. A scholar created a slip when he or she encountered a word fit for inclusion, and wrote down quotations that used the word, the source text and period, and the word’s meaning. “A huge number, around 5 to 6 lakh slips, were collected,” said GV.

Each slip would eventually be discussed by the editorial committee in Bangalore to arrive at the word’s meanings and to choose examples of its use. “Supposing a word has three or four meanings, for each meaning three quotations were given, and in order of time. Say: 10th century, 11th century, and 13th century,” said GV.

These meetings seem to have had their share of wordy arguments. “In every meeting one or two words...” GV trailed off. He recounted that one of the editors, with an affinity for Persian-sounding words, had made a slip for khubhuki. “We discussed it for one hour,” said GV of their attempts to determine if it was a word at all. The quotation on the slip began with the proposed word, but when the editorial committee finally went back to the source, they saw that it read “aa khubhuki” which in Kannada could mean “that khubhuki”, but from the context it looked like the break had been introduced during typesetting. The word was aakhubhuki, a compound word for the feminine of rat-eater (it should be noted here that the source was a telling of the Panchatantra).

“They began to laugh,” said GV.

Then, there was chadurarasa, which GV argued could not be a word because chadura – clever or intelligent – could not be a rasa. After a discussion lasting three days, they concluded the word was a wrongly-printed chadurasa – four-sided – from a particularly sweet vachana that (roughly) goes: “A block of jaggery is square, but tell me what shape has sweetness?”


Sometimes they encountered a word whose meaning no one around seemed to know. One was beṭṭe, found in the work of KV Puttappa, generally regarded the greatest Kannada writer of the 20th century. “I wrote a letter to him,” said GV, asking “what is the meaning of this?” Puttappa replied saying that beṭṭe was a kind of fish. He added: “It is good to eat.” GV said, laughing, “To prick me – since I don’t eat.”

It took around 10 years to collect words and another three to arrange them in alphabetical order before the writing of the dictionary could begin in earnest.

GV’s initial training in lexicography came in the early years of the project. Professor Krishnashastry saw that he had a flair for the work and offered to teach him. At the time, GV was working as a lecturer at Vijaya College, Bangalore. They met on weekends and in the early mornings to study the Nighanṭu – a glossary of obscure words from Vedic Sanskrit – and the Nirukta, a 5th century BCE commentary on the Nighanṭu that deals in part with how to deduce the meanings of words from their roots.

How are these texts relevant to a Kannada dictionary modelled on the OED? “A lot of Sanskrit is necessary for developing a Kannada dictionary,” GV said. He explained that Kannada uses both Dravidian and Sanskrit words, and Kannada poets down the ages have been influenced by Sanskrit poetics, all of which make a grounding in the language and its etymology useful.

GV recalled Professor Krishnashastry telling him after work on the dictionary had begun: “This will not be finished during my lifetime. You are young. It is possible that it may be finished in your time.” Professor Krishnashastry died in 1968. The first volume of the dictionary was printed in 1970. The eighth and final volume appeared in 1995. GV participated in the creation of all eight volumes and was chief editor for six of them.

GV has put together other, somewhat specialised, dictionaries: an English to Kannada dictionary prepared with translators in mind, a dictionary of difficult words, a list of words used by the poet Muddanna, and a collection of foreign loan words in Kannada. He has also written widely on lexicography. For 15 years he wrote a column in the Kannada newspaper Prajavani where he answered questions from readers about word usage and meaning. The words that figured in these columns, along with his commentary, have been collected in three volumes that GV called a societal dictionary. Even now, he spends some time updating these books as new editions are released. Asked if he’s working on anything new, he said, “Now, I can’t write much. I read. I have a large library with some books which I have not read, want to read. I am 104 now, so I have to spend my time.”

Professor G Venkatasubbaiah being felicitated by LK Advani in Bengaluru in 2012. Credit: Credit: Rkkrupa/Wikimedia commons [Licensed under CC BY 1.0]
Professor G Venkatasubbaiah being felicitated by LK Advani in Bengaluru in 2012. Credit: Credit: Rkkrupa/Wikimedia commons [Licensed under CC BY 1.0]

A few days before our meeting he presided over the release of a collection of poems, and he read one of them out to me with evident relish, pausing to point out a worrying recent tendency among writers to elide vowels.

But languages keep changing, and it is a matter of concern to GV that the dictionary isn’t. Work on the dictionary stopped after the last volume was published in 1995. “It has never been updated,” said GV. “It is first-class work, but it requires revision and addition.” For decades now, GV has been advocating a linguistic survey of Kannada-speaking areas. This is because the dictionary at present only contains words from written sources, and not all Kannada speakers are represented in the language’s writing. Then, there is a constant exchange between Kannada and surrounding languages such as Tamil, Telugu and Marathi. “New words are being coined,” he said. “For example, these days they are using the word kirik.” The word evokes general roguery and its complications, similar to the Bambaiyya jhol, and is the last thing some of us would expect to hear from a centenarian Padmashree recipient, and not least because “it is not in our dictionary”. Nor for that matter is the phrase nettara nenu, meaning “blood relation” and proposed by GV in place of “biological son”.

For all the effort in recent decades that has gone into asserting Kannada identity – from resentful stone-hurling to lobbying for classical language status – there does not seem to be much concern for the most comprehensive store of Kannada words, the distillate of its long history and literature. The dictionary has not been digitised even, something that would make it easier to use as well as update. The work of two generations of scholars on the dictionary was made possible by a state government willing to fund the initiative. Now, GV said, “Politically, no one is interested.” His offers over the years to train a group of lexicographers to continue work on the dictionary have not been taken up. Occasionally there are assurances that the effort will be revived – most recently from the chief minister of Karnataka on GV’s hundredth birthday. But nothing has come of them. The dictionary has made it to a second, unrevised edition. GV said, “It may not be printed again. It becomes old.”

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