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Gujarati is a family of languages. Some of these are written in Arabic script and spoken in both India and Pakistan.

Growing up in Gujarat, I was taught that Gujarati language traces its origin to Sanskrit language. That Gujarati is taught to be written in a variant of Devanagari script today, seemed to me like a natural extension of this origin story. But this story omits many waves of significant influences that other languages, like Arabic and Persian, have had on Gujarati.

Political choice

We grow up linking the spoken language with a particular script to an extent that, over the years, this link seems ‘natural’. But the popularisation of a particular script over another is a political decision, driven by the context in which the language is standardised. One striking example is the Turkish language script reform under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1932, when ‘official’ Turkish language ceased to be written in the Ottoman Turkish alphabet (a Perso-Arabic variant) and was replaced instead with Latin alphabet. One of the goals of this reform was to remove influences of Arabic and Persian languages, both associated with the clergy in the Ottoman Empire.


Also read: Sanskrit a casualty of 3-language formula, make it compulsory till Class 8: RSS-affiliate


Sanskritisation, in search of ‘pure’ Gujarati

Like in the case of the Turkish language, Gujarati underwent a process of standardisation. The use of a variant of Devanagari script was made in order to align with the idea of Gujarati as “the accomplished daughter of Sanskrit,” in the words of missionary Joseph Van S. Taylor. The language reform in Gujarati took place in parallel with that among many other languages in pre-Independence India. During this time, writes Clair Tisdal, ‘three main varieties’ of Gujarati were found: ‘Hindi Gujarati’, ‘Parsi Gujarati’, and ‘Muhammadan Gujarati’. Both Parsi Gujarati and Muhammadan Gujarati were seen as “corrupt” by the Hindu high-caste intellectuals in that period. These intellectuals (consisting mostly of Brahmins and Baniyas) would go on to determine what constitutes “pure” Gujarati.

Given that there were competing claims as to what constitutes “pure” Gujarati language, the upper-caste intellectuals sought refuge in a constructed past. As Riho Isaka writes, “the Hindu literati claimed the ‘purity’ of their language in the ancient age and its deterioration during the ‘Muslim period’.” During this standardisation that took place between the nineteenth and early twentieth century, words from ‘foreign’ languages like Arabic, Persian, and English that were commonly used in spoken Gujarati were replaced with those derived from Sanskrit. Gujarati hence underwent a process of Sanskritisation.


Also read: Subramaniya Siva, Tamil nationalist who fought for purity in the language


Language of Gandhi, Jinnah

The politics of pre-Independence nationalism played an important role in the Sanskritisation of Gujarati, which was the first-language of both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi, the fathers of the two partitioned nations. Their respective relation with the language has a lot to say about the politics of language(s) in the pre- and post-Partition era. Gandhi played a significant role in the standardisation of Gujarati. Through Gujarat Vidhyapith (an institution he helped set up), Gandhi led the publication of Jodanikosh in 1929. According to V.   Sebastian Jodanikosh “was the first dictionary which sought to standardize Gujarati orthography with a set of 33 rules.” Over time, multiple updated editions of the dictionary were published and its rules adopted in schools to teach a standardized Gujarati. The standardized orthography was intertwined with Sanskrit to an extent that, as Somabhai Patel writes, “[i]f you want to know Gujarati spelling, then you should know Sanskrit spelling because without Sanskrit knowledge, you are not going to write ‘correct’ Gujarati.”

On the other hand, Muhammad Ali Jinnah came to be associated with Urdu, the language that was linked with Islam because of the use of Nastaliq (Arabic) script and which was to become an official language of Pakistan. Jinnah was born “Mahomedali Jinnahbhai” and raised in a Gujarati-Ismaili family. According to historian Faisal Devji, “while his knowledge of Urdu, the official language of Muslim nationalism, was poor, Jinnah apparently spoke Gujarati and Kutchi beautifully if never in public.”


Also read: Ambedkar was wrong, Gandhi wrote against untouchability in Gujarati journals too


Disassociation of Muslims

Today, Gujarati written in Devanagari script is considered a ‘Hindu’ language. The Muslim population of Gujarat is imagined as relying solely on Urdu, and seen as not belonging to Gujarat (or India) because of the myth of all Muslims having arrived in the sub-continent as ‘invaders.’ Yet, Muslim communities in the region have spoken Gujarati for many centuries. Many among them continue to write Gujarati in Arabic script.

The cover of a book that explains Lisan ud-Dawat vocabulary. It is published and distributed by the Alavi Bohra community | Picture courtesy: alavibohra.org

Lisan ud-Dawat, a language used among the Alawi Bohra and Dawoodi Bohra communities in both India and Pakistan, is one such example. Both communities belong to the greater Ismaili Shia community that traces itself to Fatimid Ismailis in Egypt and Yemen. Because of the presence of Bohra diaspora communities around the world, including in countries like the United Kingdom, Kenya, and the United States, the language has made its way outside of the region.

Gujarati, beyond Sanskrit

The name ‘Lisan ud-Dawat’ (لسان الدعوة) is derived from Arabic and can be translated as the ‘language of the religious gathering’. It continues to remain the principal language of sermons and religious rituals among the Bohra community, with many of the traditions written in and passed on in this language. The language is seen as a “bridge” between Gujarati and Arabic (the language of the Holy Quran) and incorporates more Persian and Arabic words than that found in the standardised Gujarati.

Why is it important to know about the existence of the plurality of Gujarati languages? The existence of languages like Lisan ud-Dawat puts to question the myth of Sanskrit as being the only language that influenced Gujarati. Its presence is also a proof of the co-existence of Hindu and Muslim communities in Gujarat prior to the Mughal rule in South Asia. That myths about the Gujarati language and its history persist is indicative of the politics of assertion of dominance of a religious majority over a religious minority in India.

The author is a doctoral scholar studying sociology. Her research focuses on the study of race, religion, and secularism in France. She speaks Gujarati, Hindi-Urdu, French, and Arabic. She tweets @shreya_parikh. Views are personal.

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14 Comments Share Your Views

14 COMMENTS

  1. Author is trying to create issue out of non-issue, and seems to be motivated. As usual, politicans are in habit of doing their business with capital from other peoples pocket. And they do it without consent of real capital owner and without promise of any positive returns to capital owner. The author is doing exactly that – either purportedly or is at least deluded.

    Language evolves with assimilation of volcabulary / new words from other languages. Similarly, influence of other langaugages can have negative / deterioratary influence. For example, if a redundant word is borrowed from other language (as, in case, that the native language has word to represent the particular idea, still we borrow from other language) , it would probably skew the meaning of foreign or native or both words. we see it happening. for example – indians use word “glass” for “tumbler”, which is completely nonsense. It makes sense to stop prevalent use of word “glass”.

    If word are used from other languages thoughfully, everybody will love it. for that reason It must happen through central authority. There is no reason to criticise that.

  2. There is no pure language… The paragraph “Sanskritisation, in search of ‘pure’ Gujarati” is complete bakwaas. No doubt politics play an important role, but majority population plays a bigger role and there is no politics there. If 100% know Gujarati and 10% write it differently, the written text of 90% will become mainstream.

    People who migrated to Africa way before even Gandhi went there, speak a Gujarati which would be very tough for the current people of Gujarat to decipher. So languages evolve. There will be hundreds of words in today’s Gujarati that has Persian influence. Also I am sure many of these words were used even before Mughals invaded, because Gujarati Community was involved in trade since long.

  3. When we discuss about the language,we need to eliminate other aberrations. As we evolve,move,mature,we should be able to appreciate the beauty and influence of historians,in promulgating literature,arts,in their Durbar. That is the case,when wise ib the undivided India learnt Persia to apprise the Mughals of the ancient wisdom of Neeti,codes,culture,customs,hidden in our life.And the patronisers were interested in understanding our culture,in depth,and they first wanted to understand the language first. It widened our aptitude to learn more languages,underlying theme and core values,connecting through the dots of common areas for comparson. In Japanese which had several Chinese Kanji,pictorial writing has three meanings,kun, their writing Hiragana for native words,Katakana for borrowed words,and Kanji for pictorial root expression. Many Buddhist scholars travelled from China,Mongolia,Japan,Sinhalam in their quest for understanding the religion in its place of origin,from seers,and wise and were influenced by the thematic representations of sastras. In Japanese,each day is associated with prakriti, like Sub,Moon,Fire,Sea,Tree,Wealth,Earth etc..Like we connect them to Grahas..The Chinese link each Lunar year to mythogical animals,representing the trends in capsule. I learnt Gujarathi, the sweetest melodious,simple soft spoken languages only to understand my brothers,sisters there better as many of them spoke only Gujarathi and their love and hospitality urged me to reach out to them..The wise sastras wete translated into Persia,by our own scholars at the behest of those Governing rulers,later they got it translated into Arabic and European languages. British also encouraged its officers to learn Sanskrit to understand the tenets written in various sastras, for a better understanding and not superficial hear say and fragmented meaning. If you imagine that your language is the river connecting all others,you will fibd every lotus,sprouting out from this base river,emits love,purity,fragrance,beauty,connectedness to Solar system Appreciate,enjoy,evolve

  4. No matter what a Samskrit or Arabic or Persian lover will wish, development of a language follows its own course.
    Study it, enjoy it. What’s the point in duelling with each other?

  5. In past or current time, no one lagugae use other languages words.It is continuous process of change the world and word. I think author should study and reaserch well in advance before writing this article, whether she student or scholar of doctorate.

  6. ગુજરાત ની ગુજરાતી ભાષા ગુજરાતી એક અનન્ય ભાષા છે , હતી અને રહેવાની, કુતર્ક નો કોઈ જવાબ ન અપાય એક સજ્જન સામાન્ય જ્ઞાન દાખવતા હું અભિવ્યક્ત કરી રહ્યો છું.
    ઉપરાંત,
    ભાષા હંમેશા વિકાસશીલ હોય તો જ સમય ના પરિમાણ માં પોતાનું અનન્ય ગૌરવશાળી પદ જાળવી શકશે.
    જય જય ગરવી ગુજરાતની ગુજરાતી ભાષા.

  7. Who on earth ever claimed that Gujarati was the daughter of Sanskrit and was solely influenced by Sanskrit?
    No language on earth can claim to be influenced by or have been derived from only one single language. And no Indian academic/scholar has ever made any such claim.
    Yes, it is an inescapable truth that a huge majority of modern Indian languages have been derived from Sanskrit and therefore are heavily influenced by it. However, it is nobody’s case that Sanskrit was the only language whih shaped and guided these new languages of the masses.
    Even Sanskrit itself has underwent many changes over the centuries by coming in contact with other languages. The Sanskrit of 1000BC and the Sanskrit of 2000AD are worlds apart in structure and grammar. Any scholar of Sanskrit will attest to this fact. The image of Sanskrit as a rigid and ossified language is one which is very deliberately peddled by scholars belonging to the liberal/secular cabal as it beautifully serves their own agenda.
    This article seems to have been written with the intention of proving one’s loyalty to the “cause” of liberalism/secularism. And as is the norm, it features very prominently the vilification/denigration of Sanskrit and the upper caste Hindus. What better way to prove your secular credentials?

  8. Bullshit article. Everybody if they add a tag research Schiller means upper caste lower caste divide. One should go and read what the British crook Thomas Bagington Macaulay said more than 150 years ago in Hindu systems and Sanskrit. His letters are still available.

  9. @ashok
    Our ancestors were not enslaved and paying Jizya tax as much as your ancestors did. Heavily perisanized and Arabized language sounds foreign to us. South Indians may understand Shudh Hindi better.

    We prefer Sanskritized Hindi since we recognize many words and understand better. Your loyalty to your Muslim masters is more important to you than your fellow citizens understanding a Prime Minister or an announcement? So you got a problem with that?

    • Hehe!
      What xenophobic gobbledegook! “Your loyalty to your Muslim masters”!!
      If you were truly South Indian, and knew a bit about languages and linguistics, you’d know that your “better recognition” of Hindi words is due more to your communal mind than to the relative distances among languages.
      Even if you choose to stay underneath your provincial rock, you’d do a favor to yourself to take a class in comparative languages to be able to succeed in the modern world.

      • Idiot/ hypocrite:
        What is “really South Indian”.
        Lot more Sanskrit words are in South Indian languages. It is 100% truth. Actually all Indian languages. Sanskritic Hindi is more intelligible to Indians who are not native Hindu speakers.
        You are an arrogant jerk.

      • Language expert Reign Forest

        You got a problem with the statement more Sanskrit words than Arabic and Persian words are present in all Indian languages?what kind of language expert are you!

  10. We should be a proud, self confident nation, acknowledge the many chapters to our history. One of the statesmanlike decisions of PM Nehru was to stay in the Commonwealth, develop cordial relations with Britain. It would have been so easy to denounce two centuries of foreign rule, get a free pass on his first two terms in office by blaming the past. The Hindi we speak at home has many influences, Punjabi and Urdu being amongst them, not a sliver of Doordarshan’s Sanskrit.

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