Towards the beginning of her book, Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through its Language, Peggy Mohan talks about a “Tiramisu bear”. A rare creature, with cream coloured fur and coffee-brown paws, having features of both a polar bear and a grizzly bear, born when a male grizzly bear migrates and mates with a female polar bear.

The story of our languages is similar. Shaped through migration and a change in environment, amongst a host of other factors, languages form in layers like tiramisu. And Mohan strips them layer by layer in her book, hypothesising the recipes of how they might have been formed.

Wanderers, Kings and Merchants has a lot to unpack. As Ludwig Wittengstein once said, “An entire mythology is stored within our language.” While telling the tale of Indian languages, what becomes apparent is that a peek at languages takes you through a rabbit hole of many disciplines, including migration, history, gender, political economy, and genetics.

Nationalist tongue

The book couldn’t have come at a better time, when Hindu nationalism is at its peak and language has become an important tool for the “purity” of culture and what it means to be Indian. As per a 2020 report, in three years, the Central Government spent 22 times more on promoting Sanskrit than on five other classical languages. After the passing of the Central Sanskrit Universities Bill, 2020, the erstwhile Union MHRD Minister spoke about the greatness of Sanskrit and how “unique” a language it is.

This is the first thing Mohan tackles head-on: the claim that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages. Tracing the Rig Veda and the arrival of Aryans, she talks about the gradual presence of retroflex sounds in Sanskrit – like dhonā (wash) and ḍhonā (carry)) – which isn’t a feature in any other Indo-Aryan language, but is unique to the Indian subcontinent, especially the Dravidian languages. This points to the influence Dravidian languages has had on Sanskrit and how one cannot say Sanskrit gave birth to these languages.

Mohan deals with multiple aspects of language, both in the past and the present: the existence of Sanskrit words in Malayalam and its relationship to the migration of Namboodiri Brahmins; the emergence of Hindi and Urdu, where she takes readers through fascinating history and how the dawn of the Mughals and the rise of the British gave rise to the divide and rule policy even where language was concerned; the rise of Nagamese, and how trade influenced the birth of a new language amongst communities which had lived in isolation; and, finally, the rise of Indian English and the challenges it poses.

Origins and connections

Throughout the book, you see how interconnected things are, which also makes you more conscious and interested in your own language. Mohan cites an interesting study where researchers asked a group of “Hinglish” speakers to talk only in Hindi. However, none of the speakers (who were bilingual) could talk in Hindi without bringing in words from English.

This is the difference between bilingualism and diglossia. In the former, a person is comfortable in both languages, but in the latter, there is a hierarchy, with one language being dominant – something which is increasingly happening with us.

The books offers a ringside view of how new languages are formed. For instance, it cites examples of the oppressed borrowing words from colonisers to come up with a pidgin version of the language. The children of these slaves would use this version and embed it in their natural grammar to come up with a creole.

Mohan shows how the intermingling of languages is often gendered. Since migrants are always men who arrive with their own language and marry women who speak the local language. This results in the next generation’s being exposed to a mixed language. Often male and female children are made to learn different languages, based on their “social roles”. Like men learning the Persian script while women learnt Devanagari.

The book is as forward-looking as it is historical. Towards the end it raises pertinent questions about the hyper-connected world with a tendency to homogenise, and what it would mean for a world to converse in just one language. She writes, “We are beginning to understand that every step we take towards convergence comes at a cost: connectivity goes hand in hand with surveillance, and being able to speak to each other across oceans in the same language is linked to a loss of diversity.”

Wanderers, Kings and Merchants isn’t alwats an easy read. Someone who doesn’t have an understanding of linguistics or Indian languages will find themselves re-reading passages and struggling with pronunciation. Nonetheless, it is a comforting read, for it makes one realise the “correct” way to speak is often misplaced.

If there’s one thing to take away from this book, it is the awareness of how difficult it is to pinpoint the “birth” and the “purity” of a language. However, Mohan is also quick to warn that “languages are not in perpetual motion...when times are stable, languages do not change much...”

Umang Poddar is an editorial head at Lawctopus, and a lawyer. He is here on Twitter.

Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Languages, Peggy Mohan, Penguin Viking.