At a time when languages across the world are dying, we should be celebrating these languages

Lets re-define classical Linguist says as Madras HC ends legal row over language statusTamil on palm leaf, by Anton Croos (Own work)via Wikimedia Commons
news Classical Language Tuesday, August 09, 2016 - 19:54

After the Madras High Court disposed the petition against the withdrawal of ‘classical language’ status for Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Odia, linguists urge that the Indian government should take this opportunity to alter the definition of ‘classical language’.

The HC on Monday cleared the legal uncertainty over the grant of ‘classical language’ status to non-Tamil languages by dismissing senior advocate R Gandhi’s petition challenging the same.

While Gandhi is yet to see the copy of the order from the court, he alleges that there has been some political interest in awarding these languages the classical status.

R Gandhi says, “When they have set criteria, they should be abiding by it. But, it could be that people in the classical language committee have flouted the committee’s rules to serve their vested interests."

The four criteria drawn up by the seven-member committee, headed by then Sahitya Akademi president, Gopi Chand Narang, were:

• High antiquity of a language's early texts or recorded history (going back 1,500 to 2,000 years)

• A body of ancient texts considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers

• A literary tradition that is original and not derived from another speech community

• A discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or offshoots

“Oldest known Kannada literature in the written form is 'Kavirajamarga' from the 9th century AD. The language might have come into existence even before, but literature is what the committee considers. Telugu, Malayalam nor Odia meet the criteria that the government has set,” says Gandhi.

What irked people about Gandhi’s PIL is that he has stated that the prominence of Tamil language would be lost if the other languages, which have been conferred ‘classical language’ status, are treated on par.

“I understand that these languages that have been accorded the ‘classical language’ status do not tick all the boxes of the Gopi Chand Narang Committee’s recommendations. But Gandhi’s petition looks more like he's instigating a local competition for funds and grants,” says linguist and Padma Shri awardee Ganesh Devy.

“This is not a local competition. At a time when languages across the world are dying, we should be celebrating these languages. It is understood that once a language gets a classical status, it gets global recognition as many universities start offering courses. This in turn promotes its growth,” he adds.  


The history of the ‘Classical Language’ status

Devy explains that initially the word ‘classical’ was used in the European context only for their languages - Greek and Latin. It was in the 19th century when the British included Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit etc as classical languages that was there a major shift in its meaning.

In a similar case, when the 8th schedule was formed in 1949, there was a discussion on which languages had to be included in it. It was decided that Sanskrit should be placed though no sizeable number (less than 10,000) of people claimed Sanskrit as their mother tongue.

“It is ironical how during the 1971 Census, it was agreed that if there are less than 10,000 speakers of a language then the language should not be included in the Census report. However, Sanskrit was taken as an honourable exception,” says Devy.

Going by the same argument that Sanskrit has been the base language of Indo-Aryan languages, Tamil was also given the ‘classical language’ status as it is considered to be the mother of Dravidian languages.

“One must remember the old Tamil – Grantha is the language in which the classics were written,” says Devy.

Grantha is a language committed to a written a form of representation. Currently seen as period style in the form of writing. The linguist notes that just like how the Tamil script and the language have evolved from Grantha, it must also be understood that the idea of literature also changes with time.

Devy draws a similarity between Gandhi’s petition and Lord Macaulay’s statement that all of Indian literature might just occupy a shelf of a good European library.

“While I am not disputing Gandhi’s claims, he must also remember many Indian languages have had a rich oral tradition and it is based on this that Marathi is also fighting for ‘classical language’ status,” Devy points out.

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