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June 30, 2012 / A

Form and meaning

वागर्थाविव संपृक्तौ वागर्थप्रतिपत्तये ।
जगतः पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ ॥

Hail to the parents of the world, the lord supreme and Parvati,
like sound and sense forever bound, that sound and sense they might bestow.[1]

So begins the “Dynasty of Raghu,” one of the महाकाव्यs of the poet Kalidasa. Here more than in any of his other works, the poet laments the immensity of the task before him. And being as slow-witted as I am, I never realized that this self-effacement could be read with a secondary sense in mind: as a meditation on language generally and Sanskrit in particular:

क्व सूर्यप्रभवो वंशः क्व चाल्पविषया मतिः ।
तितीर्षुर्दुस्तरं मोहादुडुपेनास्मि सागरम् ॥
How does the race born of the sun compare to this, my feeble mind?
A fool am I who thinks he’ll cross the ocean on a puny raft!

मन्दः कवियशःप्रार्थी गमिष्याम्युपहास्यताम् ।
प्रांशुलभ्ये फले लोभादुद्बाहुरिव वामनः ॥
This dullard seeks a poet’s fame! I’ll surely go to ridicule
as would the greedy dwarf who longs for fruits meant only for the tall.

अथ वा कृतवाग्द्वारे वंशेऽस्मिन्पूर्वसूरिभिः ।
मणौ वज्रसमुत्कीर्णे सूत्रस्येवास्ति मे गतिः ॥
But still —
I might describe that race through doors limned by the bards of old,
just as a thread might pierce a jewel by following the diamond’s path.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into these verses. But it’s certainly a lovely analogy: the poets and grammarians of old bored a hole through that gem called “language” through the power of their intellect, and poor Kalidasa must follow the सूत्र’s path and study Sanskrit through the Ashtadhyayi.

And superintending this whole analogy are the parents of the world, forever bound like sound and sense.

But if only they were that close. The Indian intellectual tradition has a long history of exploring the relationship between sound and sense, especially as typified by the divide between the etymologists (नौरुक्त) and the grammarians (वैयाकरण). (Here I summarize to the best of my recollection.) The former, as fits their occupation, argued that Sanskrit word derivations always followed predictable semantic rules and were semantically transparent. The latter, as fitting them as well, argued that Sanskrit words could only be understood contextually, both linguistically and culturally.

I recall the counterexample अश्व, from अश् “go.” Etymology can only get as far as specifying अश्व as “a thing that goes.” But we cannot call a chariot by the name अश्व, nor a camel or human or any moving object. Culturally, the word is restricted only to horses.

And as quickly as that, the नैरुक्तs lost.

As the quintessential वैयाकरण Panini’s works show signs of this view of language, especially as regards the उणादि Sutras. These sutras contain miscellaneous suffixes used to create ad-hoc words however they might be needed:

3.3.1 उणादयो बहुलम्
उणादि suffixes appear after roots variously.

Rama Nath Sharma supposes that Panini might have formulated this rule because “it is his way of showing respect to grammarians, such as Yāska or Śākaṭāyana, who believed that all nominals are derived from verbal roots” through the affix system (V.3, p. 467). But the many संज्ञायाम् conditions throughout the Ashtadhyayi strongly imply that Panini did not believe in the eternal marriage of word and meaning.

I brought up this fascinating moment in Indian linguistic thought as a prelude to something more mundane but did not consider that there was so much to say about it. Here I’ll quickly get my banalities in order and bring the post to a close.

Although I’ve long been comfortable with the fluid relationship between word and meaning, I thought certain parts of Sanskrit grammar were still semantically stable. It was comfortable to know that the present tense always denoted present-ish events, that the simple future (लृट्) described near-future events, and that the different noun cases had their meanings according to what I knew of Sanskrit grammar.

But Panini continually separates the spheres of syntax and semantics and dissuades such thoughts about Sanskrit. Thus the विभक्तिs are the morphological forms of the Sanskrit noun cases, but they have no meaning in themselves; instead they convey one of several meanings contextually. These meanings are not always aligned with the कारकs, the semantic roles that concepts can fill. Thus the semantic role कर्मन् “object” can be filled by the nominative (ओदनं पचति), instrumental (ओदनं पच्यते), or the genitive (ओदनस्य पाचकः). The sentences are identical semantically even though morphologically they are totally disjunct. And no matter how sure we might be that कैलासात् invariably means “from Kailasa,” we need only see आ कैलासात् “to Kailasa” to be confused again.

And likewise the verb endings do not have any meaning in themselves. Does the word वसति always mean “he lives”/”he will live” ? No, not quite. All we need to do is pair it with स्म to have वसति स्म, “he lived.” Here the “present tense” suffix लट् has no meaning in itself, although it is commonly associated with present events. In the same way, लृट् can refer to past events when recalling something (3.2.122 अभिज्ञावचने ल्रुट्). And likewise, several other forms have tenses we can’t quite predict.

I suppose this is further proof that I am rather slow-witted. It’s easy enough to see that there is no 1:1 mapping between sounds and meanings; the sound त्र has different morphological (and semantic) qualities in मन्त्र and आतपत्र. But although I knew that to some extent Sanskrit morphology and semantics weren’t strictly connected, my conclusions about the relationship between the two were premature.

All of these new insights, and I’m still only on book 3 of the Ashtadhyayi. I hope the rest of the text can continue to yield such insights, like a jeweled tunnel bored before me.

1. For a more time-tested translation, see the one by Arthur Ryder.


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