History in Language, Language in History

By Krishnaswamy, Revathi | CLIO, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

History in Language, Language in History


Krishnaswamy, Revathi, CLIO


"Often where history is utterly dumb concerning the past, language speaks." (1)

Europe's discovery of Sanskrit, "the America of languages," as Raymond Schwab calls it, was perhaps as momentous in its import as that earlier discovery to which Schwab's evocative phrase links it. (2) It not only signals the onset of an "Oriental Renaissance" in Europe, but also marks Europe's colonization of the Old World and its languages/cultures. More specifically, the discovery of Sanskrit indexes the emergence of language as the privileged site of history and the primary locus for the enunciation of Europe's relation to its Others.

The most immediate impact of Europe's discovery of Sanskrit, along with the knowledge that it outdated Hebrew, was to undermine the Christian conception of history. But soon, the discovery of language also led to a rejection of the divine origin theory in favor of the view that language is an entirely natural or human phenomenon. As a result, language was wrested from the grip of theology and philosophy and inexorably annexed to history and science. The research of William Jones, commonly acknowledged as the father of the Indo-European hypothesis, laid the foundations for the development, mainly by German scholars, of comparative philology, the first linguistic discipline to claim the mantle of "science." Although the birth of comparative philology in the early decades of the nineteenth century did not attract the same kind of attention as did the birth of biology or political economy, the discipline nevertheless left an indelible mark on western constructions of history.

The new science operated on the axiom that "language, like every other production of human culture, falls under the general cognizance of history." (3) By comparing and classifying languages in a systematic manner, European philologists believed they could establish the documents, records, and texts by which to reconstruct their own national and supranational history. Max Muller thus declared, "Thanks to the discovery of the ancient language of India, Sanskrit as it is called ... and thanks to the discovery of the close kinship between this language and the idioms of the principal races of Europe, which was established by the genius of Schlegel, Humboldt, Bopp, and many others, a complete revolution has taken place in the method of studying the world's primitive history." (4) The new methods of linguistic analysis not only enabled philologists to establish Europe's relationship to the rest of the world on a linear evaluative scale of progress and decay, but also authorized them to bestow upon their colonized subjects the ultimate gift--a history of their own.

The identification of language as a privileged site of history is one of the most powerful and enduring legacies of nineteenth-century comparative philology, whose major successes include comparative grammar, the reclassification of languages into families, and the reconstruction of the lost protolanguages from which families of extant languages descended. With its claim to scientificity, the new philology, as it was then called, seemed to offer the best hope for the historian who wished to move beyond the narratives of history to a closer and more reliable examination of their materials. Language was seen as a kind of archive "where the discoveries of men are safe from any accidents, archives which are proof against fire, and which cannot be destroyed, but with the total ruin of the people." (5) In fact it seemed that the hermeneut who could not trust the history constructed with words could trust the history in words, for although it is possible to create false historical narratives, language itself could not lie about history since its very being is historical.

Why did language suddenly appear to be such a reliable source of history? How exactly did comparative philology define or construe history? By what methods did philologists make language speak history? …

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