How Languages evolved

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    Pradeep Kumar

    Hare Krishna,

    I have question on how Languages evolved? We can understand broadly that based on type of mentality that there are western and eastern languages to express the concepts in mind effectively. But how do we understand highly evolved Indian Languages (eg: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada etc) which are not necessarily offshoots of Sanskrit and are completely different to one another and they are able to express similar devotional sentiments/ideas/analogies etc. It is difficult for me to understand this – How the native person thinks in that language and how vocabulary of the language influences the thinking capabilities of individuals. Is there influence of demigods in this? Your valuable insights are appreciated. Thank you.

    Ashish Dalela

    I can provide a high-level answer to this question. Everything is a combination of the three modes of nature. All sounds are also produced from the combination of the three modes. All meanings are also produced by a combination of the three modes. Therefore, when a particular sound is used to represent a certain meaning, it is the expression of the meaning. That meaning is almost never the same as the meaning in another language denoted by a different word. So, the meaning of a word in one language is almost never precisely translated into the meaning in other languages, unless, of course, the languages are very closely related in terms of the sound words they employ.

    For example, in English, you can say “time was spent” which means that there is a presupposition that time is like money. But this view of time doesn’t exist in all languages; in other languages, we might say that “time passed” or “time progressed”. However, in Sanskrit, time is neither passing, nor progressing, nor being spent. Rather, the term kāla-antara is used, which means “difference of time”. Time has a quality and that quality changes. That change of quality manifests the qualities in people and things. So, what people call passing, progressing, or spending is called “difference” in Sanskrit. Hence, you might think that time and kāla mean the same thing, but they don’t. And this difference becomes apparent when we look at all the phrases in which the word is used.

    Due to these differences, it is very difficult to perfectly translate the meanings in one language into another. Even if translations are done, due to the absence of the exact same meanings in different languages, generally many more words, examples, iterations, and repetitions are required to express the alternative meaning. Even by these attempts, the precise meaning is grasped very slowly.

    Sanskrit is said to be the origin of all languages in a very technical sense that it contains all the unique atomic sounds possible. Which of these sounds are produced by the combination of which modes is a detailed subject that requires a deeper understanding of the modes of material nature. But the basic principle is that there are some unique atomic combinations of qualities, and these atomic combinations are repeated endlessly in nature; hence they are treated as phonemes.

    There is a thesis called phonosemantics in which the sounds embody meanings. You are thinking that the relation between word and meaning is arbitrary, but that is not true. Some people have analyzed languages and grouped the sounds in them based on their meanings, and arrived at some surprising conclusions, namely, that the mapping between sound and meaning is not arbitrary.

    For example, the sound str is used in words such as strip, strap, straw, stretch, string, stream, streak, strait, strand, street, straight, etc. All these words denote something that is “long and thin” so the sound str has to be associated with “long and thin”. This is an example of the mapping between sound and meaning. Some people have analyzed complete dictionaries and grouped words by sounds, and found similarities in their meaning. There is a potential for such research, but due to prevalent dogma that the relation between sound and meaning is arbitrary, it is not done.

    There is also a famous experiment in which random people were asked to guess the meaning of two words, namely, Bouba and Kiki, and a very large number of people identified Bouba as denoting something round and bulbous, while Kiki as denoting something thin, sharp, and angular. All these studies have shown that there is a very strong relationship between sound and meaning. But there isn’t anything definitive at present that answers the questions of variety in languages. This is because we don’t have a good understanding of the modes of nature and how sounds are created by their combination. Hence, there is no good foundation for linguistic studies at the present.

    It is commonly accepted that the Russian language sounds aggressive even if you don’t know what they are saying. Likewise, French sounds very sensual, even to those who don’t know the language. German sounds are dry and rigorous. And English sounds like a salesman doing some business. Likewise, in Indian languages, some languages naturally sound very sweet, while others sound very aggressive. You can look deeper into their culture and society, and you will find many cultural differences that reflect this linguistic difference. Therefore, the various languages have evolved because of the domination of different modes of nature in different societies and cultures.

    Another good example is music. It is not necessary to know the vocabulary of rāga to know whether some song is sad, or happy, or lamenting, or celebrating; just by the sound you can figure out the time of the day such as morning, evening, afternoon, or night; or even the occasion such as marriage, or death, or birth, etc. Practically everyone recognizes the universalism of musical language.

    Then, there have been empirical studies on guessing people’s names by looking at their faces. In these studies, people are shown a face and given a multiple-choice alternative for guessing their names. If there are five alternatives, the correctness of the guess should only be 20% on average. But research shows that people can guess people’s names based on faces far more accurately. Again, there is empirical evidence of the mapping between the qualities or guna and their sound names. Of course, in India, there is already a system of giving a child name based on their horoscopes. Astrologers can assess a person’s guna and karma and give them names appropriate to their nature.

    Then, the science of the chanting of mantras is based on the precise relationship between sound and meaning. It is not necessary to know the Sanskrit language to get the benefits of mantra chanting. One just has to utter the sounds precisely, and the effects will automatically be there. So, sound has causal effects and that is because of the precise relation between sound and meaning. One time, someone asked Prabhupāda about the meaning of Rāma; they were wondering if this word means Lord Rāmachandra or Lord Balarāma. And Prabhupada responded by saying that it doesn’t matter whether you think it means Lord Rāmachandra or Lord Balarāma or Lord Paraśurāma. Just chant the sound and there will be effects. Of course, he also explained that it means Lord Balarāma, but that doesn’t mean that you need to know what it means to chant the mantra and get its benefits. If there wasn’t a precise relationship between sound and meaning, then mantras would be useless.

    The study of linguistics constitutes the science of ākāśa or what people call the “ether”. Everybody (including Vedic scholars) thinks that this “ether” is just like the “ether” conceived as space in Western thinking because they don’t know that matter is meaning and the first sense perception of sound words embodies meaning. Every sound has a precise meaning. So linguistic meaning is also objective, based on sound. But because we don’t know this science, we think it is arbitrary. Factually, the study of ākāśa is the study of linguistics, or how sound generally represents meanings. And what we call “space” is the domain of all possible meanings. Many of my books discuss this idea.

    You say that other languages are not offshoots of Sanskrit, but it is not correct. You are thinking that the diversity of sounds denote the same meaning, but that is also not true. The general principle is that when a different sound is used, the meaning is also different, even though you think it is the same. There are connotations, contextual uses, and relations between the words that are not precisely mapped to their counterpart words in other languages. We have to understand the meaning of a word by all the relations it holds to other words, not just the word in isolation. When we do that, we realize that what we think means the same thing actually means something quite different.

    Finally, I’m not ruling out the possibility that people create words over time, and give them personal meanings. English is a language for example in which about 1000 words are added every year, and as a result, another 1000 words go out of fashion. Oxford dictionary maintainers have a tough time keeping up with this change; they have to keep adding and removing words from the dictionary. This problem also exists in other languages that create new words. However, we have to go deeper to understand this problem: Why did the person who came up with a new word choose that precise sound to denote a meaning? He could have potentially chosen another word for the same meaning. So, why this word and not another word? People don’t ask that question, but the answer is that the precise sound of that word means something precise to the person who originated the word.

    This type of meaning is based on the contextuality of sound. The meaning is not just universal. It can also be contextual and individual. In short, based on my guna, some sounds can mean something to me, but not to others. Likewise, some sounds can mean something to a group of people, not to others. This contextuality and individuality are also the results of mode interactions. This means that if I am conditioned in a certain way, then some sounds will have unique meanings for me. Likewise, some societies or cultures will have unique meanings for certain sounds. Even this individuality and contextuality is however based on the universality of the science of mode interactions. If we know the guna of the culture, society, and individuals, then we can precisely map the sound to the meaning experienced by them. All linguistic variety is the result of mode combinations.

    So, when you say we can express the same devotional mood through different languages, that is not entirely accurate. Whatever you call devotional mood is some material emotion triggered by a sound that makes sense to you based on your cultural, social, and individual guna. But the problem is that these guna are always changing. So, today you can sing a bhajan in Kannada, Tamil, or Telugu, and after some years, that bhajan will stop evoking the same feeling in you. You are looking at things from a short-term perspective right now. But take a long-term perspective, and you will find that many things stop being meaningful and new things become meaningful. This is because whatever you call “meaning” is an interaction between the guna of the mind and the guna of the sound. If our guna is purified, then many sounds become meaningless and many become distasteful.

    Then, if we truly want to understand how this meaning is created, we have to go back to the science of three qualities and their interaction. That science can explain both relativity of our meaning and the absolute nature of meaning. In summary, don’t just analyze language sounds; we have to analyze the culture, the biases of society, and then understand the differences in their sound words.

    Pradeep Kumar

    Thank you for the detailed explanation, that makes perfect sense. There are two followup questions.

    1) We see the time tested songs of great devotee Acharya’s like Sri Annamacharya in Telugu, Sri Purandara Dasa in Kannada, Tiruppavai in Tamil are composed in Vernacular expressing similar devotional sentiments/feelings. Are these are absolute words from Spiritual world? We understand that Sanskrit works like Srimad Bhagavatam are absolute sound of Language of the soul (aprakrita), but what about the above mentioned great composed in Vernacular? Does soul has Language and is it Sanskrit?

    2) Does a change in subtle body entails change in language? For example, if I am attracted to the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya and enter into them, my subtle body will change to automatically understand Bengali Language/cultural nuances etc. Is Bengali a Language of Spiritual World where pastimes of Lord Chaitanya are going on?

    Ashish Dalela

    I always try to give people the thinking tools by which they can answer their questions on their own, but time and again I realize that people don’t want those thinking tools. They just want readymade answers. In this case, you have neglected all that I said about the scientific nature of the problem of language, and you want some blanket yes or no answers, which I’m afraid, do not exist. So, strain your mind again and try to understand what I’m saying if you want the answers in any case.

    I will rephrase the problem in a different way. There is a space of meaning; it is universal and objective. Then there is a coordinate system of language in which that meaning can be expressed. Finally, based on the universal and objective space, and the individual coordinate system, you can convert the universal meaning into a language-specific representation. Conversely, you can take the language-specific representation, compare it to the coordinate system, and then get the location in space. This is what I was saying above too: There is a universal space of guna which embodies meaning; then there are individual or culture-specific ways of representing that meaning which constitutes the particular language, which is also guna. Then the sound produced by the conversion of the universal location into a coordinate-specific representation is also guna. The points in space can be called A, B, C. The coordinate system axes can be called X, Y, Z. And the values resulting from converting the location into a coordinate system representation can be called M, N, P.

    A, B, C, are guna. X, Y, Z, are guna. And M, N, P are guna. By the interaction of any two of these, you can get the third. So, it is like an equation; you can move things from one side of the equation to another. Because there is a rigid relationship between the objective meaning, the vocabulary of linguistic representation, and the words of representation, therefore, these things cannot be arbitrary. If this science is understood, then all the other questions would be naturally answered.

    But, let’s go through them anyway. What is Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, etc.? They are coordinate systems. Can they be used to express the locations in the absolute space of meaning? Surely they can. But are these languages ideally suited for the deeply technical and philosophical aspects of the nature of reality? I highly doubt it. All these are vernacular languages and not philosophical or technical languages. So, right at the outset, there is a serious issue, namely, whatever bhakti will be talked of, will be lacking in the discussion of the nature of reality. This type of bhakti is not recommended for a serious practitioner trying to pursue spiritual perfection, but it may be practiced by those who are already perfect. In short, those who are perfect, only talk about God and His pastimes, but what they say is not understood by most people. You can understand this idea by examining Srimad Bhagavatam; it is not just about Sanskrit; it is also that the initial discussion is about the nature of the material world, then about the principles of devotional practice, and finally, there is a discussion about God’s pastimes. If we cannot discuss the first two perfectly, then the third will never happen, although it is possible to read, recite, study, and talk about such things.

    You are talking about these devotional recitations about God and His pastimes. But have we understood what God is? Have we understood what soul is? Do we know what perception is? Do we understand how God incarnates in this world? Or, how He can incarnate in our mind? If we don’t know the nature of God, soul, and perception, and we talk about the result of that perception, then the linguistic expression may not be false, but we cannot understand what it means. For example, we can say that God’s form is the form of knowledge. Do we understand what it means? Or that the universe is situated inside God’s belly. Do we understand how that is possible? Or that everything is moving automatically by the will of the Lord. Do we understand what this truly means?

    The Vedic system has a certain approach to spiritual perfection, namely, first philosophy, then practice, then perfection. Don’t talk about perfection unless you understand the practice, and don’t try to practice unless you understand the philosophy. But, you can look around all over India, the first step of philosophy is mostly neglected. Then the second step of practice is whatever a person wants to do. Someone will do some puja, then another person will do some bhajan, then another person will chant some mantras, etc. Some people also make up their own mantras and sing whatever they like. People are making up their own process for attaining perfection. In this system of absent philosophy and randomly chosen practice, there is no question of attaining perfection, even though there can be statements about the perfection of realizing God made by great Acharyas.

    In simple terms, if someone is singing bhajans about God, but cannot explain the nature of the soul, God, and this world, then will not spend my time listening to what they are saying, or following what they are doing. I cannot stop anyone else, but will not be following that system. We cannot jump to deep aspects of devotion without going step-by-step through the logical process. This type of devotion is considered mundane and sometimes called sahajiya or the “easy path”, followed by the mentally lazy. It is not different than the people in other religions who talk about devotion to God, but have no scientific understanding of God, soul, or the world, and their relationships.

    I’m not qualified to comment on specific personalities, nor do I want to do that. I can only describe the general principles, and you can learn about them and try to apply them in your life.

    Finally, you ask if the spiritual world also has a language. Certainly, it does. In fact, different spiritual planets can speak different languages. This is because each language is ideally suited for a certain purpose, and each coordinate system is ideally suited for solving different kinds of problems. When something is ideally suited, then it is preferred. It is not because the same meaning cannot be expressed in other languages, but that a certain language is ideally suited for a purpose.

    Around the same time that Lord Chaitanya appeared nearly 500 years ago, there was a movement of bhakti ongoing all over India. There are many poets in India who composed texts and bhajans, such as Tulsidas, Sur Das, Mira Bai, Kabir Das, etc. I have read their poetry when I was a boy; many of them express deep emotions too. But that emotionality has nothing to do with a spiritual feeling.

    Simply feeling pathetic is not bhakti. We can mentally imagine that Krishna is our child and talk to Him mentally like He was sitting next to us. This imagination is also not bhakti. Real bhakti is that in which the feeling of pathos comes after one has transcended the state of sattva-guna. What is sattva-guna? It means zero desire, zero sadness, zero dependence on the world, and complete self-satisfaction. Then in this self-satisfied state, a new type of feeling develops which is completely different from the ordinary emotions. There is the self-realization that I’m a soul, which is pure sattva-guna. And then there is a deeper realization that my existence as a soul is meaningless without God. Without realizing that one is different from the mind and body, the feeling of emotions about God is not considered spiritual. They are instead called sahajiya. In this sahajiya state, there is no austerity, no attempt at philosophy, no understanding of the material world. Just some songs and dance, and expression of some emotions which are mind-nature, not the soul-nature.

    Are some of the people you are talking about meeting the criteria set in the Vedic texts? I don’t know, and I cannot comment on those individual personalities. But you can decide based on the above.

    Pradeep Kumar

    Thank again for elaborated reply. Although We can venture into the deep philosophy (which is strikingly similar to Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy) of songs of Sri Annamacharya (who is in disciplic succession in Sri Sampradaya, wrote around 30,000 songs teaching philosophy and tattva and Lila’s of Lord Venkateshwara and of the meaning of human life, for the sake of common people, not in a highly systematic way though), I don’t want to do that as I am not representing his works in any capacity, neither I have time or interest to do that. You are correct that the songs are not very well understood by common people or scholars, not to the extent Srila Prabhupada’s books are understood . I just wondered how same philosophy is presented in different languages with some minor differences (with more or less details) and you have clarified on that. Thank you.

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