Wednesday, 5 November 2014

wanderwörter or all the tea in china

Though linguistics had been an acknowledged and structured discipline for quite some time, most scholars believed that noted similarities among families of languages—specifically between the Romance languages, derived from Latin, and the Germanic languages—came about through borrowing and commerce with the Roman Empire.

Albeit the theory was not completely original, as monks and missionaries had suggested the connection before, it was not until hyperglot and Orientalist Sir William Jones came to Calcutta to preside as a magistrate. The United Kingdom did not originally have colonial designs on the sub-continent, content to reap tax revenue from chartered companies to facilitate trade and administer themselves. This arrangement held, in European eyes, attracting healthy competition from other seafaring powers until the fall of the Moghul Empire, who tolerated these franchises. The situation became untenable for the Dutch and other players and soon only Britain and France were vying for dominance in India—still however, only in a commercial capacity, and the two nations raised armies, recruited from the local population, and entered into an expensive, protracted war. The Seven Years War as it was known in Europe and Asia or the French-Indian (Native Americans) as it was known in North American has the distinction of being the first world war, spanning four continents, and not only provided the impetus for Britain to formerly annex India but also led to the American Revolutionary War and the secession of those thirteen colonies. In order for the British East India Company to recover financially from its war with its French counterpart, the UK relaxed tariffs on tea and other goods for export but made up for the losses by transferring the burden to the western reaches of the empire in the form of duties imposed under the Tea Act. In the 1770s, Britain appointed its first governor-general, William Hastings, a fair-minded individual who respected the sub-continent’s cultures and heritage and believed that Indians ought to be allowed to retain their native institutions and Britain should only act as overseers and arbiters with minimal interference. The court system and codices of Hindu and Islamic law presented the highest linguistic and cultural hurdle. As the West had Latin as the static and universal language of academics and legal matters, India too had texts, terms and conventions—a body of Sanskrit writing to draw from.
Officers of the courts were unable to easily reach a middle-ground, lacking not just the language but also the historical context and means for interpretation. English judges had to rely on pandits, translator-advocates and source of the English term punditry, who could be selective with their elucidation in order to skew justice one way or another. Sir Jones’ prodigious love of learning and background made him a prime candidate to sit at the Supreme Court (though his elevation was called into question over sympathies for the rebels in America and relationship with the traitorous Benjamin Franklin) and find a solution to the possible miscarriage of justice. Studying the ancient Sanskrit texts, Jones began to see connections that echoed through the ages and in many tongues. Similarities that were buried and could not be explained by the notion of proximity and borrowing began to show themselves. Root words, disguised by shifting sounds but shared among seemingly disparate languages, pointed to a common ancestry, whereas before thought to have unrelated origins. The English word foot seemed to have a separate etymology from the Latin pod, ped or the Greek pus—since English especially tends to fold back on itself, with footprint, podiatrist (Fußspezialist) and pedestrian (Fußganger), but the words become convergent in Sanskrit, suggesting an undiscovered common-tongue. Jones called this forgotten yet very much thriving hypothetical language Aryan, the denonym of a noble people and as the Roman name for the eastern part of Persia the source of the name of the Iranian nation—though in modern times, linguists are more partial to the term proto-Indo-European language, the word Aryan having been infused with other connotations.