Telugu Language Day

August 29 is the Telugu language (festive) day observed in honor of Gidugu Venkata Ramamurthy. Gidugu was a Telugu writer born on August 29, 1863, in the town of Srimukhalingam, Srikakulam district, close to the Andhra-Odisha border. He was probably exposed to many languages, including Telugu, Odiya, Koya, Chenchu, and Savara. He is known for creating a script and grammar from the Savara language, a tribal language belonging to the Munda language family. He is better known for his fight to use commoner's Telugu as part of literature instead of the archaic scholastic version of the language. While we do all the pomp in celebrating religious festivals or national holidays such as Gandhi Jayanthy/independence day, Telugu language day is practically orphaned.

This is a very long article on languages and their evolution, focusing more on my native tongue, Telugu. Not having written anything serious in Telugu, I have never developed fluency in writing Telugu, and I feel a bit disappointed that I am writing this in English. But, at least, it has the advantage of reaching out to a broader audience, including my children.

Let us consider the following three versions of the same sentence that loosely translates to "Sun is about to set" or "it is time for the sunset."

"sanseTki Taim ayyiMdi" (సన్ సెట్ కి టైమ్ అయ్యింది)

"sUryAstamaya samayaM ayyiMdi" (సూర్యాస్తమయ సమయం అయ్యింది)

"poddeLLi pOtuMdi" (పొద్దెళ్లి పోతుంది)

I used a Telugu transliteration scheme to write the sentences above using the English alphabet. The specific scheme I used is a standard scheme called the Rice transliteration scheme, which is more or less the standard scheme used for typing Telugu using the English keyboard. It was initially developed at the Rice university and hence the name.

I would like first to note that no one but a Telugu person can clearly understand the above lines. Therefore, there is no doubt that all the lines are written in the Telugu language. However, the words originate from three different languages. The first line includes two English words, sunset and time (though I write how a Telugu person would write/pronounce it). This sentence makes sense to anyone from three generations (including the one before me and the one after). Typically, English has been part of formal education for the last three generations, and the recent two generations mainly studied in the English medium. However, my parents' generation will never use this sentence, and my children will invariably use only this sentence.

The second line contains mostly Sanskrit words, and anyone with formal education (my generation, parents, and grandparents) in Telugu will be comfortable using that line. My children may make sense of it but may never use that kind of language.

The last line has only Telugu words; perhaps my great-grandmother would use and understand only that version of the language. We belong to a socially backward class; most of my extended family has only three generations of literate people. My great-grandmother knew Telugu as spoken by her parents and relatives and has no exposure to other languages or even to Telugu literature. Hence, she would never use fancy words from other languages.

Like most of us, I, too, grew up believing that there is something called a correct or pure version of every language and, at times, took the role of Grammar Nazis (the ones who care more about grammar than the intended meaning). But how dare someone says that the language spoken by my great-grandmother is not pure or correct? She used her way of speech throughout her life and never needed anything more.

The above lines are a prime example showing that every language evolves and the evolution can be quite fast, especially in the vocabulary used. A language is a combination of its vocabulary and the underlying grammatical structure. And the underlying grammatical structure is more static and unique to a language than its vocabulary.

Telugu has had significant influences from Sanskrit, Urdu, and English over the last thousand years, and today it is impossible to speak Telugu without many words from these "foreign" languages. The influence is so profound that some of the most common words in Telugu have been replaced by loan words. For example, most Telugu-speaking people use the word "time" in English, and if you insist on a Telugu word for time, then they will give a list of words such as "samay," "kAlaM," which have origins in Sanskrit. The original Telugu words for a time, such as "vELa" and "sEpu," remain in the language in some form but not as synonyms for the word time. Many original Telugu words for basic concepts such as truth, the Sun, the Moon, and a day have long been forgotten. In many cases, the actual terms remain in some form, but ironically, the word for the truth seems to have been lost forever.

Telugus literature is assumed to start in the 12th century with a poet named Nannayya, aptly called the Adikavi (the first poet). Nannayya is famous for translating part of the Sanskrit Mahabharata into Telugu. The rulers of the Telugu-speaking world before the time of Nannayya were patrons of Buddhist and Hindu religions and preferred Sanskrit. Sanskrit was already a classic language at the time, with beautifully written grammar for over 1500 years. Moreover, much of the religious literature was all in Sanskrit, giving the language a sacred status. This is very similar to the position given to Latin and ancient Green in Europe before modern times. Nannayya was strongly influenced by Sanskrit, including some of the grammatical structures. He even wrote one of the first treatises on Telugu grammar and chose to write it in Sanskrit. As the educated classes, comprising of upper caste society, always had a particular preference for Sanskrit, the situation continues till today. Many even claim that Telugu is a direct descendant of Sanskrit.

During the 14th to 20th centuries, there were strong influences on Urdu as it was the official language of the rulers. Hence, many legal terms in Telugu are indirect loan words from Persian, Turkish, Hindi, and Arabic. The recent globalization brought English to the forefront, and the influence of English on Telugu is an ongoing process.

Before I proceed further, I want to caution that the history of a script is entirely different from that of a spoken language. A script cannot exist independently, but a spoken language can survive without a script. Many languages do not have any script. Such languages are spoken by illiterate tribes typically isolated from urban centers. However, even a highly literate population like the Konkans did not have an independent script. And some languages made sudden shifts from one script to another.

A classic example is that of Korean. Telugu uses a descendent of the ancient Brahmi script, as do most Indian and South Asian languages. Interestingly, the consensus is that the Brahmi is a descendant of the Aramaic script. Aramaic script is an abjad (a script with no vowels) and is responsible for all Semitic scripts, including Hebrew and Arabic. On the other hand, the Brahmi is an abugida (a script where each unit is a combination of a consonant and a vowel). Telugu script comes from the ancient Brahmi through Bhattiprolu (a village near Guntur) script, Kadamba script, and finally, the old Telugu-Kannada script. Telugu and Kannada have used a single script for centuries; hence, any Telugu person can read Kannada without much difficulty. Reading Kannada is different from understanding what is read. They are two independent languages, mutually unintelligible, with almost identical scripts.

So, what is a language? Unfortunately, this is a tricky question. The most recent research shows that even animals communicate through sounds, and their communication may be regarded as languages. For example, it is found that dolphins use sufficiently complex sounds even to have names for each individual. However, it has also been shown that none of the animal languages are complex compared to human languages.

A more straightforward question is whether two languages are truly different or just two dialects. The distinction between languages and dialects is that two languages are not mutually intelligible, whereas dialects are intelligible with little effort. Telugu has many dialects based on region, caste, and religion. The three significant dialects corresponding to the three areas are Coastal Andhra, Telangana, and Rayalaseema. In each of these geographies, the accent varies significantly. I was born in the Godavari districts but grew up in Hyderabad and thus am comfortable with both the Andhra and the Telangana dialects. It is funny to note that when I was in the hostel, I had to act as an interpreter for two close friends from Telangana and Andhra.

The Telugu film industry was primarily funded by wealthy Andhra producers, and the predominant dialect used in Telugu films was the Andhra dialect. If they use the other dialects from Telangana and Rayalaseema, it is typically for villain characters. Most of the villains in the last four decades of the Telugu film industry are probably associated with the Telangana region. Many of my friends supported the state's bifurcation, quoting the film industry's prejudice toward the Andhra dialect. Indeed, the film industry has only started experimenting with various dialects recently.

Telugu has other dialects beyond the two states, including regions of Karnataka and Tamilnadu. The Coimbatore region of Tamilnadu had many Telgu immigrants during the sixteenth century. Their descendants still speak a version of Telugu. Their language has a large percentage of Tamil words, and for a native speaker like me, it is almost impossible to recognize that it is Telugu, let alone make sense of it. One of my retirement goals is to study Coimbatore Telugu and write a grammar for it. If I were to guess, linguists might categorize Coimbatore Telugu as a new descendant of Telugu.

Languages evolve just like biological species evolve. However, unlike species, languages do not have something like DNA. The grammatical structure and vocabulary are the closest analog to DNA. Inscriptions and literature are like fossils. Languages change when some new technology or concept enters the population. These are like the mutations affecting DNA. When people from different languages interact, a new language may be formed. This is akin to the recombination of two-parent DNA.

Linguists have two concepts called Creoles and Pidgins, typically early stages of a new language. For an excellent creole and pidgin evolution model, the readers may look at a recent book by Peggy Mohan. Historical linguistics, the study of language evolution, is as fascinating as any other science. I close this article by going a bit into the history of linguistics and writing the latest theory of the linguistic history of Telugu.

Panini's work on Sanskrit grammar in the 5th century BCE is the earliest known work on linguistics. He consolidated the Sanskrit language from Rig Veda and the later Vedas along with the epics. He provided a general set of rules catering to all existing language versions. We have been told that the linguistic rules are so general that they are identical to the recent rules of computer programming languages. When grammar is written for a language, ironically, the evolution of language slows down, stunting the progress of its literature.

Moreover, we start associating languages with grammar as pure or correct. In reality, the other dialects continue progressing while the grammatical language remains the same. Imagine that the English language continues to evolve into new dialects such as American, African-American, and, more recently, Hispanic. However, literary English stays true to the grammatical language. Linguists call all such versions the standard version of a language.

While Panini's work is the first linguistic work, the study of Panini's work by an English linguist and an Indian judge, William Jones, led to the first serious work on historical linguistics. Judge Jones first conjectured that Sanskrit was the mother of all North Indian and European languages. He later theorized that Sanskrit is the oldest cousin rather than the parent. Later generations of English, German, and French linguists continued William Jones' legacy. They left us with incredible work on Sanskrit and other Indian languages as well as Iranian and European languages. The work of these linguists is as fascinating as the personal sacrifices they made for their study. The study extended far beyond languages, including archeology, the rediscovery of Buddism in India, and many other things. One of many such fascinating things is the discovery of the Indus valley civilization, which requires another lengthy write-up. Linguists continued to study different languages and categorize them into various families. The family that consists of Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, French, and English is called the Indo-European languages. The Semitic language family includes Arabic, Hebrew, and the ancient Aramaic. One of the most interesting facts of linguistics is that the language of the Madagascar and Hawaii/Fuji islands descend from the same family with their origins in the island of Taiwan. Much of these studies were based purely on language and literature. However, recent scientific advances allow us to verify all such linguistic connections through DNA analysis since languages are passed from parent to child just like DNA.

It does not require a detailed study to recognize that the South Indian languages differ from that of North India. Most of the South Indian languages belong to the Dravidian family. The word Dravidian is a Sanskrit word for Tamil, as it is believed that Tamil is closest to the ancient parent of Dravidian languages. The Dravidian languages are classified as North, Central, South Central, and South Dravidian. The Northern Dravidian languages include a language called Brahui, spoken by a small number of speakers in current-day Afghanistan. Telugu belongs to the South Central branch along with the tribal languages of Koya, Gondi, and Chenchu. The Southern branch contains Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu, and Kodava. It is believed that the Telugu branch separated from its parent sometime in the second millennium BCE, the Kannada branch in the first millennium BCE, and finally, Malayalam in the early Christian era.

The most controversial of these include a theory that the lost language of the Indus valley was Dravidian. Even the recent DNA analysis supports this idea. However, the politics of modern India makes such theories highly polarizing and controversial.

Whatever the origins of a particular language, let us all agree that change is only the constant thing in a language. As I approach closer to the title of a senior citizen (still eight years away), my tolerance for convent Telugu goes down. I constantly remind myself that there is nothing called correct language as long as the language is good enough for communicating all ideas. My father was exposed to the most formal Telugu in his school and Shakesphere in his college, even though English was considered a second language. I barely learned Telugu or English. Whatever I learned was outside the school. The situation worsens with the current generation. The entropy is constantly increasing, I suppose.