Life in India/The Language

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The Language.

"Is the Hindu language difficult?" and, "How long does it take to learn to speak it?" are questions frequently addressed to the returned missionary. Such questions are founded on the false notion that India is a single country, and the Hindus a single nation with a common language. It is as if one should ask whether the European language is difficult? At the present day India may be looked upon as an empire; for it is almost in its entire extent subject directly or indirectly to British rule; but until the present day this has not been the case. What we call India, or Hindustan, has never borne this name among its own inhabitants. It has always been composed of a number of states, differing in language as well as in government, although, at times, several of these states may have been subjected to a single conqueror. As on the continent of Europe there are various languages, with a more close relationship between some, as the Portuguese and the Spanish, than between others; so, it should be remembered, are there in India various languages with greatly varying afinities.

India proper is a vast territory, extending from the eighth to the thirty-fifth degree of north latitude, a distance of nineteen hundred miles; and from the Bay of Bengal on the east to the Arabian Sea on the west, a distance of fifteen hundred miles, containing an area of 1,250,000 square miles. In this wide range it embraces climates, scenery, soils, and products varying as greatly as do the languages of the nations that inhabit its different provinces. It will be readily understood that what is said of the Hindus by a writer in one part of India may not be true of the inhabitants of other portions of the country. What is said of the Bengalis may not be true of the inhabitants of Madras or Bombay, and the converse.

All the languages of India have been affected by intercourse with conquering nations, who, pouring down from the north-west, have in successive ages made themselves masters of great portions of the land. In all of them Sanscrit, the sacred and classic language of the Hindus, forms a large element, but in a constantly diminishing proportion as you journey from the north to the south. Persian and Arabic also enter largely into the composition of the languages of the north and north-west.

The most important languages of India may. be briefly mentioned :

The Hindi, and its cognate dialects, composed of Persian, Arabic, and Sanscrit, with an ancient Hindu tongue, is spoken by the inhabitants of a great part of Northern India. Including the several dialects, it is spoken by about 50,000,000 of people.

Bengali is spoken by the 30,000,000 inhabitants of the valley of the Lower Ganges, including Bengal, of which Calcutta is the metropolis. It is almost wholly Sanscrit.

Mahratti is the language of about 10,000,000 of the inhabitants of the Bombay presidency in the west.

Oriyah, spoken in Orissa, south of Bengal, contains much Sanscrit, but less than the Bengali.

South of these again is the Telinga or Telugu, spoken by some 8,000,000 of people.

And still farther to the south is the Tamil, spoken by about 10,000,000.

In the south-west we find Canarese, Malayalim, and other languages of less importance.

It will thus be seen that India must be thought of as a continent rather than as a country; and as an assemblage of nations with certain common features in religion, manners, and character, rather than as a single nation.

The tongue which we were called upon to master, that we might make known the way of life, was the Tamil, the language of the ten millions of souls inhabiting the country stretching from fifty miles north of the city of Madras to Cape Comorin, the most southern point of Hindustan, and embracing the districts of Arcot, Tanjore, Coimbatoor, Madura, Tinnevelly, &c., as well as of the inhabitants of Northern and Eastern Ceylon. This country has been familiarly known as the Carnatic, and the language, though improperly, as the Malabar.

Tamil appears to have been the original language of Southern India, and was highly cultivated before the Brahmins introduced the Sanscrit language into this remote part of India. At present, about one-half the words are derived from Sanscrit roots. This has been a gain to the language, and an assistance to the preacher of the truth; for the Sanscrit is rich in words expressive of such ideas as faith, repentance, sin, holiness, love, sorrow, joy, &c. Although a heathen signification is attached to such terms by the people from long use, so that when the missionary speaks of sin or holiness, they may understand that which he does not mean, yet he can by explanation and example make the Christian idea of these abstract terms to grow around the words. Though Satan has depraved such words, he has not been able to destroy them. It is the work of the missionary, with the blessing of God, to restore to them their proper meaning, and by them to convey to the Hindus the commands and promises of the Bible.

The acquisition of an Oriental tongue is no light task. In the study of French, German, or Spanish, we enter upon languages very closely related to our own. But the languages of India have very little in common with English. It requires an inversion of all former modes of speech, pronunciation, and even of thought. If you would speak in a Tamil channel, you must also think in a Tamil channel. The young missionary must at once plunge in, not resolving never to speak till he can speak well–like the simpleton who would not enter the water until he could swim–or he never will speak at all. He must be willing to make mistakes, to be corrected, and, if needs be, laughed at, and told, as the writer has been more than once, “You had better learn our language before you come to preach to us." He must get new words every day, and use them as fast as he gets them; and he will find, month by month, that it becomes less a task and more a pleasure to make known to these poor dying heathen in their own tongue the way of forgiveness and everlasting life. An interpreter is a miserable substitute for your own tongue, and, to most men, a damper to all enthusiasm. To speak to a strange people in their own language warms and delights the speaker, while it pleases, conciliates, and attracts the hearers. Five words of love from your own lips are worth fifty from those of an interpreter.

The Tamil language has a highly-wrought grammar, is refined and accurate, and possesses a literature which it would take a lifetime to read. Though difficult of acquisition, it is agreeable when acquired, and gives scope for eloquence and pathos in speaking or in prayer. The missionary who speaks it with ease and propriety will always command a crowd of attentive hearers. There are grammars, dictionaries, and other helps now ready for the student; all that is wanting is the response to the cry for preachers in this tongue–“Lord! here am I; send me!”