“He who knows only one [language] knows none,” Max Muller -quoted by Dharmadasa in Debate with Uswatte-Aratchi

KNO Dharmadasa, in Island, 8 September 2011

Having read Uswatte-aratchi’s letter to The Island (on 12.08.2011) titled, Have our universities failed to address the language Issue?, I have had some afterthoughts on the issue of multilingualism in Sri Lanka, which I intend to put before the readers. My senior in Peradeniya, Dr. Uswatte-aratchi raises many interesting questions and I am happy that he has done so. Our good friend, again a product of Peradeniya, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera laments often that there is hardly any intellectual discourse in present-day Sri Lanka. And, a few months ago when he launched his Gamanaka Aga, the last in the series of nine novels depicting the saga of modern Sri Lankan society, which he started with Gamanaka Mula, way back in 1984, he was again deploring the intellectual poverty of the society around us today when to his pleasant surprise, he received a personal letter from a friend and admirer, Prof. G. H. Pieris, former Professor of Geography in Peradeniya, in which he had discussed some of the social problems portrayed in Amarasekera’s novel. Moved by the incisive remarks in that letter, Amarasekera got Prof. Pieris’s permission and had it published in the literary supplement of a Sinhala newspaper. Now the economist Uswatte-aratchi raises questions, which should have been posed by a language professor. (I do not intend to ask why that has not happened!) These incidents for me point to a historical fact. That is that our universities or to put it more precisely, our University as it existed in its formative years, did not fail us in producing “educated men and women of the fullest sense of the word who are capable of fulfilling any function in the world that may fall to their lot… citizens of high intelligence, complete moral integrity and possessing energy, initiative and judgment, tact and qualities of leadership.” I am quoting these words from The Student’s Guide to University Education (1949) written by our first Vice Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings. The ‘educated’ people thus produced were such that an economist like Uswatte-aratchi can raise highly intelligent issues regarding language studies and a geographer like Pieris can engage in an intellectual discourse on issues raised in a novel. University education at that time was able to equip a graduate who had specialised in Sinhala studies to become eventually the Principal Collector of Customs or the Secretary to the Treasury. A graduate of Sanskrit Honours could become a Deputy Inspector General of Police and so on. (Here I am narrating historical facts relating to people I know). I hope I am not misunderstood as saying “let us go back to the old university system in which there was a Faculty of Oriental Studies, given primacy of place in the Faculty hierarchy, make everyone study languages and all our problems will be solved.” I am not saying that because that period is no more. The dedicated school teachers, university professors of that era will never come back and the bilingual education that produced those graduates is no longer there. The social values of that era can never be re-established either. I am only stating some historical facts in a narration merely for the serene joy and emotion of those willing to read it.

Six Languages: I agree fully with Uswatte that Magadhi, Sauraseni, Paisachiand Apabramsa are “Prakrits” as we know in the scheme of language diversity that was there in ancient Jambudvipa. I have said in my talk “the six languages as we learn from the texts” were Sanskrit, Prakrit, etc.” The texts I consulted were Rev Pandit Weliwitiye Sorata Nayaka Thero’s Sri Sumangala Sabda Koshaya, Gira SandesaVivaranaya by Munidasa Cumaratunga and Rev. Pandit Bomunuve Sarananda Nayaka Thero’s Selalihini Sandesa Varnanava. They have provided the widely held traditional view in listing the shad bhasha as Sanskrit, Prakrit, Magadhi, Paisachi, Sauraseni and Apabramsa. But in a recent text of the Gira Sandesaya published by the Publications Division of The Department of Education (third reprint of 2009, p.91) the six languages are said to be “Magadhi, Saurashreni, Maharashtri, Paisachi, Apabramsa and Sanskrit.” This appears more acceptable. Unfortunately however, this text does not give the source from which this listing was obtained. Was it an attempt to rationalise the listing in the light of modern knowledge? That has to be investigated because Cumaratunga, whose exegetical studies were very comprehensive, is quoting great Sanskrit authorities such as Rudrata and Vishvanatha (See his Vivaranaya, 2477BE, pp.311-14)

To come back to the question of Prakrit languages, I will give below a brief description of what modern linguists believe the language situation in ancient Indiawas like. People speaking what could be termed Original Indo-European started migrating from their homeland somewhere in North West Asia in the second or third millennium BCE and some went westwards, leading to the origin of western IE languages such as Latin, German, etc., some went southwards leading to the origin of Greek and some went eastwards leading to the origin of Iranian and Sanskrit, and related languages. In Northern Indiathe first form of spoken Indo-European language is termed “Old Indo-Aryan” by linguists. The date its speakers arrived in Northern Indiais taken as about 1,500 BCE. It continued to be used in oral communication and thus evolved during the Mid Indo-Aryan period into several dialects which linguists name as Prakrit. At the same time there was a language form used in the religious rituals, the Vedas as they were called, and this was termed Sanskruta because it was “well formed” and stood above the spoken dialects, which were Prakruta “primal.” The well known Prakrits were Pali, Maharashtri, Shauraseni, Magadhi, Ardha Magadhi, Paisachi and Apabramsa. In about 600 BCE, a scholar named Panini compiled a systematised grammar of Sanskruta and thereafter this standardised form became the literary language of north India. The archaic Sanskruta of the Vedas was identified separately as Vaidika Sanskruta while the Paninian standardised language was being used as literary Sanskruta. Some of the Prakrits too were also depicted in literary works especially Sanskrit dramas; while the higher strata of society were speaking in Sanskrit, the “others” were speaking Prakrits. For example the jester Vidushaka and women were using Shauraseni and foreigners and Jaina monks were using Magadhi (see D. E. Hettiarachchi, Prakruta Sangrahaya, 1947, pages 7-10)

As for Sinhala it is an accepted fact among linguists that its origin is in a Mid Indic Prakrit brought to the island by immigrants coming from North Western India sometime in the 6th century BCE. It was our good fortune that we got isolated in theislandofLankaand thus escaped the awe-inspiring presence of Sanskrit which prevented the other Prakrits from developing into literary languages. Scholars speaking those Prakrits were keen to display their erudition in Sanskrit (“the language of gods” as it was believed to be) and always preferred using that language in their literary works. As I have mentioned in an earlier article, it was again our good fortune that Arahant Maha Mahinda while bringing down the Buddhist scriptures in the Pali original decided to translate the commentaries on them into “the island language” which was original Sinhala (Sinhala Prakruta). That incident of the 3rd Century BCE marks the beginning of Sinhala literature which thus became the oldest literature, apart from Sanskrit, among the Indo-Aryan languages ofSouth Asia.

To come back to Uswatte, he raises the pertinent question whether Sri Rahula Thero knew Tamil. Most probably he did. According to the Gira Sandesaya which describes in detail the seat of learning over which he presided the famous Vijayaba Pirivena, Tamil was one of the subjects studied there. And, as for modern studies about the system of education in Medieval Sri Lanka there is an excellent book by Mr. Abhayaratne Adikari (Sri Lankave Sambhavya Adhyapanaya Saha Maha Sangana, Godage, 1991).

Learning Languages: Uswatte makes a statement which I wonder was what he really intended; “until very recently mastery over several languages was NOT that of a learned man in our society until it was repaced by the new cattle-mark Ph.D.” I believe the “not” is a misprint. Even today a monolingual is a frog in the well. Personally I would never have been a professor of Sinhala if not for my competence in English. Here I disagree totally with Uswatte and would say that for me English was much more than “pretty sunglasses when on vacation.”

In my talk “Celebrating Multilingualism,” I have traced the demise of language learning in our seats of learning and those who were living inSri Lankain the 1970s will agree that it was a forced abandonment of academic disciplines and not a natural drifting away as Uswatte suggests. I am talking with personal experience as I witnessed the transfer of departments of language studies and when even that did not work as intended, warning circulars were sent to undergraduates that following courses in languages and cultural studies will get them nowhere in the job-market.

Finally, as for Uswatte’s suggestion that we professors in Sinhala and Tamil give our minds “to the teaching of first language in schools and universities,” I feel that he is not aware of the fact that the problem lies not so much on the lack of texts and guides to the learning of Sinhala or Tamil. It is elsewhere. In my diagnosis is that there is no motivation to learn one’s own language in present daySri Lanka. Students are baffled by contradicting statements by political and educational authorities on the validity of learning the mother-tongue. Secondly, I believe going along with Friedrich Max Muller that “he who knows only one knows none.” To appreciate and understand the beauty of one’s own language one should know at least one other language. Sinhala or Tamil monolinguals will fail to understand the special features and the beauty of their language. I am sure others will have other diagnoses.

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Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, language policies, life stories, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society

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