Monday, July 11, 2016

Pāṇini was illiterate! How marvelous!

I have long known that the first grammarian was a 4th century BCE Indian named Pāṇini. I'd tacitly assumed that he was literate and that, consequently, he produced written texts. I've just learned that that is not so. This is from a Language Log post by Geoff Pullum:
...the finest and most detailed phonological description of any language was done about 3,000 years ago for Sanskrit by an ancient Indian known to us as Panini (sticklers note: the first "n" should have a dot under it to indicate retroflexion). If language was not "prominent" for Panini and his devoted circle of followers, successors, and commentators, I don't know what it would mean for language to be "prominent". But Panini was not literate: his phonological description was cast in the form of a dense oral recitation rather like a kind of epic poem, and designed to be memorized and repeated orally. The wonderful Devanagari writing system had yet to be developed. (When it was, naturally it was beautifully designed for Indic languages, because it had the insight of a phonological genius underpinning it.)
I am astounded. Think about it. How'd they do it – Pāṇini and his students?


  1. Grumpy polemic is somewhat wearily of the moment in the U.K.

    No escape it would seem from angry stick waving at the evil other. It has become our national past- time.

    Fascinating but I would be cautious as it is essentially pre-historic, the history here is retro, I would suspect open to interpretation and potentially subject to dramatic revision.

    Panini also looks like a potential flag waver in a modern identity dispute. I would suspect the subject may have a wide inflection range depending on who is waving the stick.

    "When it was, naturally it was beautifully designed for Indic languages, because it had the insight of a phonological genius underpinning it."

    I find that almost as fascinating, it's very similar to an argument deployed in late 17th century Edinburgh. Surprising to see it deployed in 21 st century Edinburgh devoid of its problematic past (late 17th century identity politics).

    It is fascinating but my gut says potentially problematic messy history.

    1. So where are you on Brexit?

      Of course lots of history is problematically messy.

  2. So where are you on Brexit?

    An unknown legal and legislative nightmare, overseen by a class of incompetent right-wing idealists.

    Serious troubles ahead. I suspect some fudge will be attempted but the political system here seems utterly busted.

    1. "... the political system here seems utterly busted."

      Same here.

  3. You have yet to have the use of significant legislative reform which makes political elites look like they are in control.

    I would be worried as for someone like a Trump judicial reform would be the way to go. Its often the case when mars attacks.

    "Political control during the initial period of colonial occupation is invariably more symbolic than real. Severely limited in budget and personnel, the alien power has no option but to leave most of the traditional structure of control intact. Political dominance, at best, is demonstrated by sporadic intervention in those instances where acts of personal violence or public unrest are felt to compromise directly the claims of the colonial superstructure. Yet through such irregular action, the premise, if not the reality, of colonial control is maintained at a time when the colonial power could not hope to impose sustained political supervision."

    British in Africa frequently reformed local legal frameworks to directly prosecute cases of witchcraft through a series of witchcraft ordinances (you can claim to be upholding traditional values of it does not work).

    Hopefully America will detect Trump as the alien invader rather than Muslims or Mexicans and reject him at the ballot box.