“Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages” by Peggy Mohan

Child learning Brahmi Alphabets, terracotta 3rd century BCE (National Museum, New Delhi) Child learning Brahmi Alphabets, terracotta 3rd century BCE (National Museum, New Delhi)

Whether or not an explicit counter to current attempts to define a Hindu nationalist version of Indian identity, recent books for the general reader that present a nuanced multi-millennium, multi-everything story of Indian history are a welcome trend. While Tony Joseph deployed recent genetics research in Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From and Namit Arora visited a carefully-curated selection of ancient sites in Indians: A Brief History of A Civilization, Peggy Mohan’s vehicle is linguistics, which she uses to tell—as goes the subtitle of her recent book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants—“the story of India through its languages”.

This is not quite as accessible a book, at least to non-Indians, as the other two, for Indian languages can be quite impenetrable to those with no knowledge of them, and the underlying linguistics is not as easy to grasp as, say, genetics. Mohan makes only a somewhat conversational attempt to explain the basic principles of historical linguistics (for this, one is better served by Steven Pinker or John McWhorter (whose excellent podcast “Lexicon Valley” provides useful background to a number of the linguistic issues raised in Mohan’s book).


Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through Its Languages, Peggy Mohan (India Viking, April 2021)
Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through Its Languages, Peggy Mohan (India Viking, April 2021)

Mohan argues that the structure of various Indian languages, ancient and modern, says something about the social history of the peoples that spoke them. Her reasoning is not limited to Indian languages; in fact, she develops the outline of her thesis using the languages and, in particular, the creoles of the Caribbean where she grew up.

Analogies are often drawn, as Mahon does here, between linguistics and genetics: over time, a language mutates and populations split up and move about. Without ongoing intercourse (as it were),  dialects spoken by these groups end up diverging to the point of mutual incomprehensibility. Thus Latin became French, Spanish and Italian; earlier, something now called “proto Indo-European” divided into the Greek, Latin, Germanic, Slavic, Persian, Sanskrit and other related families. A language will often borrow words from other languages, but the base language—the way it “works”—remains. Thus English remains a Germanic language, despite all the French and Latin loanwords. Sanskrit similarly became Hindi, Bengali, and (almost) all of the languages of the northern part of the Subcontinent. These linguistic narratives map onto historical ones: the language is a stand-in for the people. France, Spain and Portugal speak Romance languages because the Romans conquered the area. England was conquered by the Normans, but the plucky English managed to hang on to their language. And Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, the language of Aryan horsemen and heroes. Or so the stories go.

The flies in the narrative ointment as far as Sanskrit is concerned are the “retroflex” consonants. These are pronounced with the tongue against the roof of the mouth rather than on the teeth (as in Spanish) or just behind (as in English). Sanskrit and the vast majority of modern and historical Indian languages have them; it is the retroflex consonants that give the archetypal “Indian accent”.

The linguistic “problem” is that the bulk of India’s many languages fall into two unrelated families: the Davidian languages of, roughly, the south, and the Indo-Aryan languages derived from Sanskrit; the latter are related to other Indo-European languages from Spanish and Swedish to Russian and Farsi, in which retroflex consonants are vanishly rare. It would seem that Sanskrit adopted these consonants from the Dravidian languages that were already there; the highly improbable alternative is that all Indo-Europeans originally had them but all except those in India lost them. The latter coincidence is all the more improbable when one takes into account that Indian languages that belong to neither group—in particular, Munda languages which are related to Southeast Asian languages—also have retroflex consonants.

Mohan notes that Indian linguistics has long accepted that Sanskrit, and the Sanskrit of the original Vedas, did not originally have retroflex consonants; the question is how they got there. Mohan argues that the Vedic newcomers were mostly men, while the wives were mostly local who, when they spoke the language of their menfolk, would do so imperfectly, with a locally-inflected accent and quite possibly grammatical features of their own languages. Once picked up by the children, these new forms would eventually become standard.

Mohan’s discussion is considerably more involved than that, including a discussion of the development and transmission of the Vedas down the centuries before they came to be written down, and drawing of analogies to creoles. Creoles, well-known in the Caribbean, may sound (based on vocabulary) as though they are derived from English, French, Portuguese or Dutch but, upon study, in fact make use of grammatical structures of some other language: in the Caribbean case, usually an African language. Mohan herself grew up with an Indian creole in Trinidad.

Mohan elaborates the narrative with other examples, from the prevalence of Sanskrit words in Malayalam to the Austroasiatic Munda language family. This is all interesting for its own sake, but implies that Sanskrit has much of the DNA (as Mohan puts it) of the languages of the sedentary people that were there before, a hybridization that was even more evident in the vernacular languages (known as prakits). And if classical and modern Indo-Aryan languages are these hybrids, what about Latin and the Romance languages whose history, she argues, seems analogous. What indeed? Mohan suggests that the Romance languages are also creoles.

Mohan ends with a discussion of Indian English, which shows many of the same features: retroflex consonants and grammatical structures which reflect Indian languages. She concludes with the perhaps discomfiting suggestion that English, like Sanskrit before it, may proved to be the be the necessary language:


Ironically, then, Independence was the great watershed moment for Indian English. Up until then, English had been just a second language for a few Indians: the only people who knew it natively were the British and the Anglo-Indians, and they were now out of power. But with Indian children who were still picking up their first language poised to get their primary schooling in English medium, English started to grow from a mere second language that ‘knew its place’ to become an adjunct first language for the most empowered section of the Indian population…. There will be no turning back now. English will continue to be the holy grail for India’s elite and for its aspirational classes who badly need the electricity and running water that English gives them.


My own linguistics dates mostly from the late 1970s, and so I’d perhaps best leave any debate to others more au courant with the field. But I can pick out one place where Mohan’s breezy style leads her a bit astray:


There are English-based creoles, French-based creoles, Portuguese-based creoles and Dutch-based creoles. But there are no Spanish-based creoles, despite all the  Spanish-speaking territories in the New World … What made all the difference was the presence of large numbers of poor migrants from Spain who were accessible to Africans.


But in an exception that literally proves the rule, Chavacano is a collection of Spanish creoles in the Philippines: there never were very many Spaniards in the Philippines.

Linguistics, while fascinating and not hugely difficult to understand, can be counter-intuitive and requires a certain working through of the basics. This thought-provoking book—very much a companion to the volumes by Joseph  and Arora—suffers slightly from an attempt to be more conversational that its relatively wonky subject matter permits, something that manifests itself most visibly in a surfeit of exclamation marks. Those who know some Indian languages can probably work through Wanderers, Kings, Merchants, as can those with some knowledge of linguistics; readers without either will likely need to keep Wikipedia open while reading.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.