By Anvita Abbi  

The fact crucial for understanding the place of language in human cognition is its diversity. The diversity of language points to the importance of cultural and technological adaptation in our species. Diversity helps us adapt to varying and conflicting environments and is key for survival. Uniformity kills. As languages are succinct witnesses of the varying ways in which the human cognitive faculties perceive the world, their grammars and dictionaries are rich sources of information about the unique world-views of the speakers of these languages.

With an army of 1635 different languages, India represents seven distinct language families– each with its specific characteristics, history, and genealogical distinctiveness. These languages are different from the languages spoken outside South Asia and thus, can be recognised as ‘Indian’. What makes them ‘Indian’ will be the matter of our subsequent dialogues.

Diversity That Helps One Understand Identity

Languages manifest various ecological and archaeological signatures of the communities that maintain close ties to their environments; they are also important repositories of our shared human history and civilisation.

Although the species-specific language learning ability is genetically coded, the development of the language is a bio-cultural hybrid: a product of intensive gene-culture coevolution.

It is this co-evolutionary nature of human language and the system that underlies it, that is evidence of ways by which the speaker perceives the world and develops cognitive abilities. Grammar then represents systematics of the conceptualisation of the world by a society with reference to the ‘self’.

Grammar That Establishes Identity

One of the most important task that a grammar and lexicon of any language accomplishes is the establishment of the identity of its speakers.

One of the most important task that a grammar and lexicon of any language accomplishes is the establishment of the identity of its speakers.

It does this through the use of intricate and complex rules of language. The constructs of a grammar thus establishes the existence of the ‘self’; since each grammar represents the cognitive abilities and distinct world-view of the speaker.

‘Self’ is seen in relation to other members of the society as well as to the outer world which lies beyond the visual area. One good example from the former category can be presented from the language of the Great Andamanese.

The Andamanese Connect

The language of the Great Andamanese people[1] portrays their conceptualisation of the world through their body, the anthropic principle. This underlying principle governs the division of the human body in seven major parts, each represented by an abstract sound sequence. These sequences are syllables attached to every part of speech. Thus, er- symbolizes external body parts such as ‘head’, ‘ear’ etc. but ‘e-‘ symbolizes internal body parts such as ‘pancreas’, ‘liver’ etc.

Thus, er- symbolizes external body parts such as ‘head’, ‘ear’ etc. but ‘e-‘ symbolizes internal body parts such as ‘pancreas’, ‘liver’ etc.

When a Great Andamanese has to describe the external beauty of a person or thing, s/he attaches er- to the word for ‘beautiful’ as in er-bungoi, but if s/he wants to describe internal beauty, s/he uses e-  as in e-bungoi. These are very good examples of proof that languages evolve with the complex interaction between human biology and culture.


The language of the Great Andamanese people portrays their conceptualisation of the world through their body, the anthropic principle. | Photo Courtesy: Pexels

There is an interesting word in the Great Andamanese language which has no parallels in any other Indian language. The word is raupuch. It is the word used for ‘the one who loses her/his sibling’. In most modern languages one comes across words for the member of the family who loses her/his spouse, such as ‘widow’ or ‘widower’; or those who lose their parents, such as ‘orphans’. However, none of the languages that I know has such a concept as denoted by raupuch which establishes the identity of ‘self’ in relation to the lost sibling. Numerous terms denoting familial and non-familial relationships in various Indian languages are proof of our intimacy among the members of a family as well as grounding the relationship of ‘ego’ with the rest.

Grammar That Contributes To Gender Distinction

Field work in the languages of Jharkhand and East Central India exposed me to the sensitivity to gender distinction, represented by two distinct grammars: one for female and another one for the male in Kurux or Oraon, the Dravidian tribe.

Among many features in Kurux, the most prominent ones are two distinct verbal endings and plural formation of nouns in women’s and men’s speech.

Women–to-women and men-to-men speech differ substantially in their grammatical patterns leading to the establishment of two distinct grammars representing two distinct identities. For example, the plural form for ‘old women’ in male speech is paccor while in female speech it is pacco:mukkae; similarly the word for ‘male dancers’ in male speech is nalur while in female speech it is nalu:alae.

Grammar: Not Just A Documentation Of Language

The self and the invisible interlocutor/s are represented by an intricate and complex pattern of verb agreement[2] in Magahi, the language spoken in parts of Nepal and India (Bihar).  Verb or final part of the sentence indicates the identities of the interlocutors, their status in the society and above all, their attitude about the invisible referent. All in one–by mere verb agreement/endings.

Thus, grammar is not, after all, innocent documentation of language. It indeed encodes the thoughts, culture, attitudes, world-view, and identity of the speaker.

Dr. Anvita Abbi, Padma Shri, is a linguist and scholar of minority languages, known for her studies on tribal languages and other minority languages of South Asia.

[1] Andamanese are the descendants of early Paleolithic colonizers of Southeast Asia and are the survivors of the first migration from Africa that took place 70,000 years ago. At present they live in the Strait Island, Great Andaman, India.

[2] Verb agreement refers to the encoding on the verb inflection of the information contained elsewhere in the sentence. Generally, verb agreement shows information regarding gender, number and person of the subject or the object of the sentence under consideration.

Featured Image Credits: Pexels

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Posted by The Indian Economist