Languages in Konkan

Curious ways in which language became a barrier as well as a saviour during my fieldwork, made me ponder over linguistics. Spoiler alert: I am no linguist (my sister is). As I went about my field-day collecting oral narratives, engaging in pleasantries and often being a keen listener to “off the record” local gossip, the nuances of local languages gripped me.

Konkan coast is a multi-faith, multi-cultural region, with its unique syncretic identity. The predominant language, Konkani, with its many dialects (Malwani, Chitrapur, Chitpavani, Sangmeshwari and so on) colors the experiences along the Konkan coast. In my stay at Naringre in Sindhudurg district, I was the “guest” and was spoken to in Marathi. But my host family, their neighbours and others would converse among themselves in Malwani. Nothing was lost in translation, as far as daily activities were concerned. However, I felt a sense of deprivation sitting amid a throng, gazing at an episode of possession where the mediator and the possessed spoke Malwani.

When I met Mr. Nagaokar in Konkan, he resembled his self from three years ago, but his broken Marathi translation was now replaced with textbook perfect Marathi. He no longer lingered on Hebrew words and tried to supplement alternate Hindi or Arabic words when speaking of congregation and feasts of the Bene Israel community. His sojourn in Pune had transformed his vocabulary. I yearned for Mr. Nagaokar’s storytelling sessions in broken Konkani with relic Hebrew words. He, like many others in the Bene Israel community in Konkan, used Marathi, Hindi for regular communication, and Hebrew vocabulary made its appearance as relic forms in connection to religious practices and performances. This time we met, he reported that he already had his “Namaz” for the day. I was slightly confused whether he meant the Jewish prayer or Islamic one. Later he clarified that he said “namaz” so that I am not left guessing what “Amidah” is.

Shivu, speaking about his lost boat-building business in Konkan, peppered each sentence with Arabic words. It was not deliberate – or to throw me off – but, it was connected with the years of trade. Some Arabic terms in Konkan continue to be a part of the boat-building and trading vocabulary as a result of Arabic sailors and the contact with communities joined by the Arabian Sea. Similarly, some relic words form Swahili such as “ngoma” (meaning: song), continue to be used by the Siddi community in their traditional performances. What we see among a locale is a constellation of shared vocabularies, borrowed words, and some relics.

A graphic chart showing languages recorded in Konkan during the documentation of oral narratives. The size of the shape denotes the percentage of individuals using words from the particular language family (Slide from a talk on “Linguistics in Anthropological Research” delivered remotely in June 2020 on invitation by the Department of Linguistics at the M S University of Baroda, India)

The manuals and booklets for ritual performances, as well as the chanting and incantation continues in local language, with sporadic insertion of Sanskrit, Arabic or Hebrew words depending on the tradition. An overemphasis on Sanskrit language for the perpetuation of Hinduism as pushed in certain sections of the society may have jaundiced our view to look at the multi-linguistic space and undercurrents. Kristav Konkani for the Sunday mass, Konkani with some prayers in Arabic, and Marathi religious discourse for public gatherings, is second nature to the performative sphere in Konkan. As I took down copious notes on the narartives – both etic and emic – concerning the local landscape, generous serving of complex linguistic associations began to emerge.

And this opened my eyes to involve a nuanced attention (and note-taking) for the linguistic axis in the anthropological research. It was natural that I scratch the surface of Linguistic Anthropology to understand “meaning-making” through language in Konkan. A dedicated stream of study “Historical Linguistics” brings forth the development of a language along with its interaction with other languages. “Sociolinguistics” taps into the social and kin relationship in the production of a common code – language. Diglossia, as it is called formally, was pronounced in the communities across Konkan and outside (myself included). Diglossia pertains to the use of one language for regular use, and another (dialect or language) for special contexts such as education, ritual, etc. This was the entry point into uncovering the layers of anthropology and language for me.

My dear colleague, Salwa Kazi, a linguist herself, was kind to paraphrase some of the points from my talk on linguistics and anthropological fieldwork on her professional Twitter. You may give that a quick read here.

22 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”


Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy around the world

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