Saratchandra Shenoi

On leafing through the histories of Indian languages, one is bound to notice a very conspicuous difference between the history of Konkani and those of other languages. Where other languages could be found to have enjoyed a secure geographical stability, for Konkani, the distinguishing feature could be termed a disturbing mobility. It is this peculiarity that makes the study of its history a difficult and cumbersome effort on one hand, but at the same time, a unique and interesting experience on the other. To want to pursue the rare and the uncommon, rather than the abundant bulk of the common, is only a natural extension of the healthy curiosity of childhood. And here, in the case of Konkani, the fact that it is my mothertongue lends the quest a further touch of earnest sincerity. But even so, I shall adopt here a common man's approach only, without venturing either to prove or to disprove past surmises. I shall also expressly avoid overly leaning upon any specific theory propounded by experts of various veins, measures, and times.

It is seen that all studies of Indian history and culture usually prefer to take up the northern and the peninsular regions separately, irrespective of the period being discussed. This is because of the marked differences in the environments of both these regions. The difference has long been established even by the prehistoric tool-traditions of the regions. Natural environment, needless to say, has a fair influence upon the culture of a people. This is verily true for their language also, since the language of a people is an essential part of their culture. A simple comparison between the languages, as also of the cultures, of world's extreme climates would bear sufficient proof of these facts even to a layman. On the other hand, the living languages of today are mostly secondary ones having undergone many permutations and combinations through the centuries. The present day Konkani too belongs to this latter day category just like many of its sister languages, even as its origin could be traced back to a fairly ancient past, and even as it does bear the stamp of that originality to this day. But, the very nature of modern Konkani makes it quite impossible to limit our study either to northern or to peninsular India! It actually stands as a link between these two, historically as well as linguistically.

Roots of Antiquity

Even as its name itself links it to the well-defined, precise region of Konkan, the roots of Konkani are not so obvious. A search for these roots, prompted whether by historic instinct or by linguistic inquisitiveness, is sure to generate some interesting questions, if not any ready answers. The prime question, to my mind, of course is, how much of Konkani is of the Konkan region and how much of it comes from the banks of the sacred river Saraswati of ancient times! My quest on these lines, however, is not for any other purpose than to quench my own insatiable curiosity!

Just like Gujarati, which could acquire its present name only by about late 17th century, there was quite an extensive period when Konkani too had no name even, and was referred only as the ‘language of the Brahmins’- Brahmananchi Bhas. Experts and scholars, even now, hold this language more or less in synonymy with the migrating Saraswats of ancient northern India.

Saraswat Brahmins were originally the inhabitants of the region flanked by the rivers Saraswati and Dhrishadvati since Vedic times. This tract is described as Brahmavarta in the Manusmriti. The river Saraswati and its banks are described in Rigveda also. The chapter Saraswatakhyan in the Shalya Parva of Mahabharatha describes the ancient heritage of the Saraswats. It describes also the 12-year long drought-hit famine, and as to how Sage Saraswata had initiated sixty thousand disciples to the Vedas, Sastras and Samskaras. Reference to this is found elsewhere too; like in Gadaa Parva of Mahabharata, in Sahyadri Khanda of Skanda Purana, in Sootasamhita, and in Bhudha Charita of Aswaghosha.

People on the move

The time of their migration to the south, as well as the route which they took, is of prime importance for a discussion on Konkani. Sri. V N Kudva in his History of The Dakshinatya Saraswats (1972) lists several surmises regarding both. While there appears to be some sort of general consensus in the opinions of history scholars regarding the bulkier migration during the fifth century AD, some pointers definitely hint at earlier batches migrating during the third century BC. Evidence is also there about some subsequent batches moving south during a much later period, up to eleventh century AD. The routes taken by these batches are also different. The surmise is that, while the earliest batch of the third century BC may have come directly from the original Punjab region, the bulkier batch of the fifth century had come from Tirhut in Bihar, a region, which they seem to have occupied for about twenty generations!

These migrants were indeed a distinct ethnic group, and they did of course have a language of their own. Since that period is denoted as the period of Middle Indo Aryan languages, it is only proper to assume that theirs was a Northern Prakrit of their own. Original ‘Prak-Krits’ were ancient languages of the citizenry, which were in vogue since 800 BC at least, even though the emergence of any Prakrit as a written language of literary use is observed to have occurred only by 600 BC. Prakrits were strong and sturdy languages with conspicuous characteristics, and each Prakrit bore the individuality of the ethnic group, which it represented, or else, it had a base region to which it belonged exclusively. Magadhi Prakrit was to Magadh, as Ardhamagadhi was to the Jains. Pali became the property of Budhists, while Souraseni and Maharashtri were associated with those respective regions. Yet, strangely enough, few scholars seem inclined to allot or denote individuality to the language of these migrating Saraswats. Actually, it clearly and easily stands to reason that theirs would have been a quite distinct Prakrit, in view of their distinct and antique ethnicity, as well as socio-cultural identity. I find only Dr S R Dalgado(1855-1922), lexicographer and scholar, opining clearly ‘In all probability, it represents the Saraswati language which the Orientalists consider extinct, and which the emigrants of Trihotra or Tirhut introduced into Konkan.’ Most others are content just toying with the names of tongues that might have influenced the Saraswats - namely, known Prakrits like Bala Bhasha, Magadhi, Paishachi, Souraseni, etc. It is perfectly true that Konkani has had many influences. For that matter, what language has not, I wonder!

A keen eye, I am sure, will be able to differentiate between the literary Sanskrits of different authors of ancient times. This becomes possible chiefly due to the influence of their respective mothertongue-prakrits on their literary output! Even though Sanskrit is famed as an established, well knit, well defined language, of sturdy foundation, not likely to entertain any change easily, it is no great task to differentiate a Kalidasa piece from say, a Lilasuka one - two Sanskrit poets with different mothertongues. Such is the underlying strength of the mothertongue to influence its user! Dr. Sumitra Mangesh Katre, in his invaluable work The Formation of Konkani (1942) has remarked in passing, how he has observed a good percentage of Dravidian incursions in the phonology and vocabulary of Sanskrit. I mention this just to throw some light upon the inborn strength and power of ‘mere’ spoken languages! If that is how the spoken languages of the populace could influence even Sanskrit, what drastic changes couldn’t they have wrought upon the sparingly used language of a migrating lot!

Attaining New Identity

Thus it is that the mothertongue of those migrants, however peculiar and however ancient though it might have been, had slowly assimilated much through social and cordial co-existence lasting several centuries, for there is no reason at all to believe that they had left it at home in order to adopt the tongue of the new region! It is quite evident to us, Keralite Konkanis, how such an osmotic process might have taken place, because we have before us, our own case of a very similar nature! Living in Kerala for the past several centuries and generations, we too have assimilated a good deal, from Malayalam, despite having led a rather self-containing, introvert social life. But the social setup and life of the Saraswats of that period and region is described as a little more lenient and extrovert. The elongated intervals in between migrations, which occurred several times, had thus seen to the making of the Konkani language! The name of the language, no doubt, was acquired from the region of their new dwelling – The Konkan. The reason for the language being referred to as Brahmananchi Bhas could only have been because the rest were using something less refined, and not because it was any entirely different language. Or else, why would the foreigners have taken the trouble to learn Konkani instead of learning that other language of the commoners? This could only mean that the language of the erstwhile ‘migrants’ had by that time definitely attained wide usage, and that there was definitely no other local language in vogue for the foreigners to learn. This was in early sixteenth century. Konkani had, by that time, clearly attained and established her new identity, individuality, and popularity.

It is highly significant that even after a systematic, and extensive analysis of the phonology, morphology, and to some extent, the syntax even, Prof. S M Katre could still not classify this language fully into any of the established, well known, distinct groups of Middle Indo Aryan languages! He concludes thus – ‘The phonological data shows that so far as the earliest innovations are concerned, Konkani agrees with the South-West Group in the majority of its characteristics and partially with the Central Group when there is a divergence between these two groups.’ He further remarks – ‘In its vocabulary, Konkani today shows a large number of vocables preserved in Old Marathi but for which Marathi has coined other expressions. This topic has been dealt with, a number of times, by various scholars. Reference may be made in this connection to the short list given by Dr. V P Chavan in his book - The Konkan and the Konkani language (1924). He also notices therein a number of Konkani vocables, which he finds only in Gujarati and not in Marathi. There are a number of Old Gujarati vocables preserved in Konkani but not in Modern Gujarati! It would be interesting to investigate in great detail this fascinating subject!’

Linguistic Osmosis

Here, in order to get a fair and clear picture of this seemingly strange phenomenon, we may first consider the cases of these sister languages of Konkani. How at all did modern Marathi and Gujarati languages lose all those words of their own golden past, in spite of having all the stability and security that any language can virtually hope for? Could there be any other reason than that they were lost because of the simple reason that they were slowly replaced by newer words from external language sources! Is it not ever so common that every new generation is given to borrowing and coining at least some new words, phrases, and figures of speech, howsoever rich their own language maybe? In this light, is it at all abnormal that Konkani acquired a few hundred words from the languages of the regions it passed through, especially, when this passing through had actually taken the span of several generations? Here, we have to expressly remember that it is the grammar that distinguishes and characterizes a language rather than its vocabulary.

Hence, the ancient Gujarati and Marathi vocables found in Konkani by both Dr Chavan and Dr Katre are merely indicative of the not so short a sojourn of the Konkanis in those regions at an ancient period of time. It has to be much before Hemachandra (1089-1173) of Gujarat, popularly hailed as the Panini of Prakrits, who brought out the Deshi Nama Mala, a lexicon of the native dialects. In a similar way, the Tirhut route is also sufficiently reflected in the phonology of Konkani, which is what made Dr Katre to allow certain exceptions and link it in part to the Central Group of Modern Indo-Aryan languages, wherever it differed with Gujarati and Marathi - the South West Group of Modern Indo Aryan languages.

But this phenomenon of word absorption is governed by certain principles. Languages accepting new words into their folds under normal circumstances do so with certain definite, yet natural and highly characteristic changes only. In Kerala, we can easily recall that, besides common nouns, even place names have been absorbed from Malayalam into our mothertongue. But they have been accepted with certain characteristic alterations only. These natural acquisitions are assets to any language. They not only enrich it, but also truly and truthfully reflect the most basic, root characteristics of the language. The changes that are prescribed and imposed on words from other languages, while absorbing those, are highly characteristic of the host language. Anyone wishing to study a living language would definitely be benefited by a concentrated study of such assimilated words. The study of Tadbhava words is no new thing. Only, we can extend it here to the case of proper nouns also!

Aberrations – Past and Present

But in sharp contrast are some of the changes pushed down the throats of languages by well-meaning ‘benefactors’ and the like, of their own accord, in order to ‘modernize’, ‘simplify’, or even ‘standardize’ the language! Unfortunately, Konkani has been benefited by many such changes, not just prescribed alone, but meekly and submissively accepted as well! As a matter of fact, we have to consider the natural growth of the language as arrested once forever, when the exodus from the Konkan region started. Till then, the languages that could influence Konkani were but sister languages alone. Besides, the influence was limited, gradual, and natural only. Moreover, it was rather a case of give and take than just borrowal alone. In fact, it should not be too difficult to find at least a reasonable number of words, usages, and figures of speech in Marathi and Gujarati, that they could only have got en-passant, from their association with Konkani - the language on the move!

The advent of the Portuguese is considered a very critical stage to the Konkan region and the Konkani language. What followed was pure devastation in any respect. Dr Katre observes-‘ while Konkani successfully resisted the influences of its more powerful neighbours in the Indian field and preserved intact its phonology and morphology, it was not so successful in its fight against the Portuguese. But the Aryan tongue has resisted the wholesale incorporation of foreign matter.’ The original was fast getting dismantled and mishandled. Before the turn of the century, hundreds of books of Christian literature were produced and propagated in an entirely deconstructed language, written in the Roman script.

The growth of Konkani, from that critical and fatal point of time, could only be termed unnatural, if not downright artificial! Dr Jose Pereira, in his book Konkani A Language (1971) quotes Filipe Neri Pires ‘-it differs much from the dialect used today (1854) in Goa, which is an unqualifiable medley in oriental linguistics, if not corruption taken to the last point of degeneration. Everything is transformed today; the original terms as well as its various inflexions have suffered great mutations, foreign to, and sometimes incompatible with, the nature and genius of the mothertongue.’ The Konkani society too was subjected to changes in an equally drastic way. If we examine intently, we can discern that the difference between various dialects of even present day Konkani undoubtedly reflect an equal difference in the socio-cultural background of the users of those dialects, whether in Kerala or elsewhere. Similar differences are easily observed in the case of regionally stationary languages also, with reference to people belonging to various religions and castes, as well as to environmentally differing regions. In the case of Konkani, the variations are naturally more pronounced, firstly because of the separating distances and surrounding languages, and secondly because of its topsy-turvy growth since, say 17th century. To dwell upon the history of that period is not a pleasant past time. Hence I shall ‘ throw sad reflections to the wind, where they belong -’ as recommended by singer-composer Barbara Flack in one of her signature creations.

On the brighter side, this informs us in no uncertain way as to how the language of a people is an inseparable part entwined with their culture, and their very identity. In this light, it is unfortunate that an ominously large percentage of present-day Konkanis, spread over four states, are either just lethargic, or worse, even allergic to their own mothertongue! Some hold that standardization between the dialects would bring these separated people together and would cause more of a language-awareness in all concerned. But most of those who speak for standardization can only beckon the scattered ones to follow the Goan version, because of practical reasons! But, for my part, I feel that standardization of Konkani could scarcely be achieved by trying to teach others. The possible way to at least just get into its shadow could only be by developing a sincere and genuine wish within one's own self to understand the language of one's brother! Should we be giving weeks upon weeks for learning Russian or French or some other foreign tongue, and yet not care to spare even a few hours to get familiar with just a handful of peculiarities of the Konkani of our brother living almost next door?

Some of us will have the first-hand experience of learning to handle a language of another state, say Kannada or Bengali, for our basic and practical purposes, within the time-span of a month or so of living in the respective states. Those who do not have such first-hand experience must have had at least an acquaintance who has had the same. A Konkani of any place or religion can, in a similar way, get to know the variations of other places and religions without much of a difficulty, provided he or she, as the case maybe, is interested enough! To make such a declaration, I need no other authority than my own first-hand experience!

But learning something for the sake of learning is one thing, and using it hastily and authoritatively in print is another! It would be devastating if one were to put such easy and hazy knowledge of a language in print, under whatever excuse. I make this point because I have actually come across such a practice by some writers of Kerala. This malpractice, for I cannot call it by any other name, may give rise to yet another new dialect that is neither of Kerala, nor of any other place! In modern times, these writers are the ones taking the place of the first persecutors of the language, and the later benefactors who put it into new shape! In such books one repeatedly comes across words such as ‘Bapooyk Bapooylem Bapooyn’, which are neither of Kerala, nor of Goa, the Goan usage being ‘Bapayk Bapaylem Bapayn’ and the Kerala usage being ‘Bapak Bapalem Bapan’. Similarly, the Goan usage of ‘Ashem Jashem Kashem Tashem’ is seen wildly confused with ‘Aso Jaso Kaso Taso’ or ‘Ashi Jashi Kashi Tashi’! This is but an example of the gross and numerous mistakes that have been actually committed, as if with a vengeance, in the said books. They stand as a prime example of what, in actuality, the zealous over-enthusiasm of the little-caring Standardizers can do!

Folklore under ethnic transplant

The Konkanis of Kerala are indeed a transplanted ethnic group. While the time of their first appearance in Kerala could be anybody's guess, the real migration, in the true sense of the word, is known to have taken place during the Portuguese rule of Goa (16th C), chiefly subsequent to the establishment of the Inquisition. That mass migration which took place in the latter half of the sixteenth century was indeed a bit of an Exodus, because the threat to the existence and identity of those Konknis was quite real, just as the journey that they undertook was truly courageous. Thus we see that the history of the Konknis of Kerala spans the past several centuries. The Konkani community, a distinct ethnic group comprising Brahmins, Vysyas, Kunbis, Sonars etc, had left Goa (made their next move!) to reach different parts of coastal Kerala. They have since become an integral part of this State, having representation in almost all of the districts of the coastal belt.

A close study of this genuine and sweet folklore, which they have succeeded in keeping intact, would be beneficial for any study relating to Konkani. Besides the much popular folktales, there are numerous types of folksongs and rhymes, which they have handed down from generation to generation, through oral tradition alone! The significance of this achievement will not dawn on us unless we earnestly consider the actual passage of time and the changed surroundings, which these people had overcome. There are play-themes suitable, and actually used for various occasions and growth-stages of children. There are priceless proverbs, idioms, phrases, and riddles, that are not merely gems as such, but also act as path indicators to anyone on the look out for the roots of Konkani, providing the basic character of the language, as yet quite un-tampered!

Fortunately enough, no drastic changes have been imposed upon this folklore as yet, with the exception of some slight variations in stories, a few lost traditions being replaced by later ones, and some highly natural osmotic tendencies as described earlier, that are the hallmark even, of all folklore. The Konkani folklore of Kerala now stands as the prime source and avenue of many research possibilities. Its single most conspicuous variation with the Konkani folklore of other regions would be chiefly in vocalization. The book of Konkani Folktales (Jayanti Naik) brought out by Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, clearly indicates this fact. Konkani regions have found good representation therein, and yet no story is at all difficult to follow. Apart from a confusion caused by the presence and absence of the desinential (terminal) vowels in some words, there is no pronounced difference, and a receptive reader can even absorb a rich vocabulary!

A Distant Past and The Near Future

There is an observation that Dr Katre has made in his famed work, ‘The Formation of Konkani’. While dealing with cases, he observes that some Konkani plural forms of the type phal-am can be traced back only to Vedic neutral plural forms; the Rigveda containing such forms in abundance in comparison to the less frequent -ani form. This should be enough of an indication of the antiquity of this language. The case of desinential vowels too is referred at many junctures in the book, with reference to a variety of phonological peculiarities. The presence of the same in southern Konkani is well established as retention from the original past, as opposed to the argumentation put forth by some of his contemporaries that the same is due to Dravidian influence. Whether pronounced or not, written or not, the presence of that vowel is indeed taken into account in all dialects of Konkani for all grammatical purposes! Moreover, its presence has been clearly found in the 16th century Konkani Mahabharat attributed to Krishnadas Shama. Isn’t it strange that, having allowed the cropping of this vowel of original tradition, some are groping in the dark to differentiate between words that had become similarised in spelling but are yet different in meaning!

Dr Jose Pereira, writing upon phonetics in the year 1971, was to stress that Konkani has, in addition to the normal ‘e’ and ‘o’, the open pronunciation of both those vowels. He gives the examples of ‘Per’ and ‘Mor’. The open and closed pronunciations of ‘e’ and ‘o’ according to him, contribute to a clear change in the meanings of such similarly spelled words. No wonder that such an observation was later to give birth to the demand for some new vowels in Nagari script for the urgent and express benefit of Konkani! But in the southern dialects maintaining the original desinential vowels, these words stand easily differentiated, simply by the presence and the absence of the same. Per (neut.)is the Guava fruit, whereas Peri (fem.)is the Guava tree. Similarly, Moru (masc.sing.)is a lone Peacock, whereas Mor (masc.pl.)means many Peacocks. The slight change in the pronunciation of the initial vowel is something that just occurs due to the presence of a succeeding one.

On another point, Dr Pereira himself has strongly commented about the changes that have been unreasonably burdened upon the language. He writes – ‘where Konkani, like Sanskrit, avoids the use of ‘is’ as a copula, (Devu Boro – God is good) ecclesiastics have sought to ‘remedy’ through that monstrosity - vortota!’ This particular change, in direct contrast with the antique and characteristic originality of the language, has been consistently forced upon it from all sides, even in the southern parts, because of the overwhelming presence of the ‘is’ usage in all the surrounding languages. In Kerala, we casually use the half-words ‘tm’ or ‘atem’! It is no great task to identify such virus or to avoid them. In Kerala, we can very well do without the likes of ‘Paana , Pakshe , Budhimutt , Ishtam , etc.’

The past history of Konkani may not be easy to reconstruct, but its future is indeed in our very hands! Yet, whatever be the changes that it has been subjected to in the past, I really do not see that there would be any going back. At the same time, using the colloquial, everyday speed language of the tongue as such on paper would have to be avoided. No popular language is ever written exactly as it is spoken, for the simple reason that the pronunciation is sure to differ from person to person, even in a single household! We too have to modify our written language to a certain extent, obeying certain basic rules of spelling and grammar that are inherent in the language. Konkanis all over the country have necessarily been quite vociferous in the past, for and on behalf of, their language. Now is the time for them to conscientiously enter the next stage. The call of the language is upon us now, to make the next move. Let us make it in the right direction.

Mr. Shenoi is from Cochin and winner of Kendriya Sahitya Akademi Award for Konkani Literature