Not just Sanskrit, Gujarati owes a lot to Arabic and Persian too

The Hindu literati claimed the purity of the language in the ancient age and its deterioration during the Muslim period.

Updated 28 Aug, 2019 12:42pm

Gujarati is a family of languages. Some of these are written in Arabic script and spoken in both India and Pakistan.

Growing up in Gujarat, I was taught that Gujarati language traces its origin to Sanskrit language. That Gujarati is taught to be written in a variant of Devanagari script today, seemed to me like a natural extension of this origin story.

But this story omits many waves of significant influences that other languages, like Arabic and Persian, have had on Gujarati.

Political choice

We grow up linking the spoken language with a particular script to an extent that, over the years, this link seems ‘natural’. But the popularisation of a particular script over another is a political decision, driven by the context in which the language is standardised.

One striking example is the Turkish language script reform under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1932, when ‘official’ Turkish language ceased to be written in the Ottoman Turkish alphabet (a Perso-Arabic variant) and was replaced instead with Latin alphabet.

One of the goals of this reform was to remove influences of Arabic and Persian languages, both associated with the clergy in the Ottoman Empire.

Sanskritisation, in search of ‘pure’ Gujarati

Like in the case of the Turkish language, Gujarati underwent a process of standardisation. The use of a variant of Devanagari script was made in order to align with the idea of Gujarati as “the accomplished daughter of Sanskrit,” in the words of missionary Joseph Van S. Taylor.

The language reform in Gujarati took place in parallel with that among many other languages in pre-Independence India. During this time, writes Clair Tisdal, "three main varieties" of Gujarati were found: "Hindi Gujarati", "Parsi Gujarati", and "Muhammadan Gujarati".

Both Parsi Gujarati and Muhammadan Gujarati were seen as “corrupt” by the Hindu high-caste intellectuals in that period. These intellectuals (consisting mostly of Brahmins and Baniyas) would go on to determine what constitutes “pure” Gujarati.

Given that there were competing claims as to what constitutes “pure” Gujarati language, the upper-caste intellectuals sought refuge in a constructed past. As Riho Isaka writes, “the Hindu literati claimed the ‘purity’ of their language in the ancient age and its deterioration during the ‘Muslim period’.”

During this standardisation that took place between the 19th and early 20th century, words from ‘foreign’ languages like Arabic, Persian, and English that were commonly used in spoken Gujarati were replaced with those derived from Sanskrit. Gujarati hence underwent a process of Sanskritisation.

Language of Gandhi, Jinnah

The politics of pre-Independence nationalism played an important role in the Sanskritisation of Gujarati, which was the first-language of both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi, the fathers of the two partitioned nations. Their respective relation with the language has a lot to say about the politics of language(s) in the pre- and post-Partition era.

Gandhi played a significant role in the standardisation of Gujarati. Through Gujarat Vidhyapith (an institution he helped set up), Gandhi led the publication of Jodanikosh in 1929. According to V. Sebastian, Jodanikosh “was the first dictionary which sought to standardize Gujarati orthography with a set of 33 rules.”

Over time, multiple updated editions of the dictionary were published and its rules adopted in schools to teach a standardised Gujarati. The standardised orthography was intertwined with Sanskrit to an extent that, as Somabhai Patel writes, “[i]f you want to know Gujarati spelling, then you should know Sanskrit spelling because without Sanskrit knowledge, you are not going to write ‘correct’ Gujarati.”

On the other hand, Muhammad Ali Jinnah came to be associated with Urdu, the language that was linked with Islam because of the use of Nastaliq (Arabic) script and which was to become an official language of Pakistan.

Jinnah was born “Mahomedali Jinnahbhai” and raised in a Gujarati-Ismaili family. According to historian Faisal Devji, “while his knowledge of Urdu, the official language of Muslim nationalism, was poor, Jinnah apparently spoke Gujarati and Kutchi beautifully if never in public.”

Disassociation of Muslims

Today, Gujarati written in Devanagari script is considered a ‘Hindu’ language. The Muslim population of Gujarat is imagined as relying solely on Urdu, and seen as not belonging to Gujarat (or India) because of the myth of all Muslims having arrived in the subcontinent as ‘invaders.’

Yet, Muslim communities in the region have spoken Gujarati for many centuries. Many among them continue to write Gujarati in Arabic script. Lisan ud-Dawat, a language used among the Alawi Bohra and Dawoodi Bohra communities in both India and Pakistan, is one such example.

Both communities belong to the greater Ismaili Shia community that traces itself to Fatimid Ismailis in Egypt and Yemen. Because of the presence of Bohra diaspora communities around the world, including in countries like the United Kingdom, Kenya, and the United States, the language has made its way outside of the region.

Gujarati, beyond Sanskrit

The name ‘Lisan ud-Dawat’ (لسان الدعوة) is derived from Arabic and can be translated as the ‘language of the religious gathering’. It continues to remain the principal language of sermons and religious rituals among the Bohra community, with many of the traditions written in and passed on in this language.

The language is seen as a “bridge” between Gujarati and Arabic (the language of the Holy Quran) and incorporates more Persian and Arabic words than that found in the standardised Gujarati.

Why is it important to know about the existence of the plurality of Gujarati languages? The existence of languages like Lisan ud-Dawat puts to question the myth of Sanskrit as being the only language that influenced Gujarati. Its presence is also a proof of the co-existence of Hindu and Muslim communities in Gujarat prior to the Mughal rule in South Asia.

That myths about the Gujarati language and its history persist is indicative of the politics of assertion of dominance of a religious majority over a religious minority in India.

The article was first published in ThePrint and has been reproduced with permission.


Author Image

Shreya Parikh is a doctoral scholar studying sociology. Her research focuses on the study of race, religion and secularism in France. She speaks Gujarati, Hindi-Urdu, French and Arabic. Find her on Twitter @shreya_parikh

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (46) Closed

Gopal Patel
Aug 27, 2019 05:19pm
Sanskrit is the mother of all languages .
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Nandu, sab ka bandhu
Aug 27, 2019 05:39pm
Even Urdu is a daughter language of Sanskrit
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Aug 27, 2019 05:52pm
@Gopal Patel, The first language is Tamil Sanskrit is the second language but many languages derived from Sanskrit.
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Aug 27, 2019 05:57pm
any person who thinks Arabic and persian pre-date sanskrit must be really out of their minds
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Aug 27, 2019 05:58pm
Arabic or Persian may have had an impact, may be the same as way as English is affecting Hindi and Urdu now a days. Languages keep on evolving with time.
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Aug 27, 2019 06:25pm
The myths we create have a profound influence on our future. Like standard Gujrati, the creation of "Shudh" Hindi has unfortunately alienated most North Indians from their great cultural heritage. The standardization has created a language unintelligible to the common folk. The time has come to give up chauvinism and revert to our common heritage.
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M. Emad
Aug 27, 2019 06:54pm
Bengali (Bangla) is the most developed language in South Asia.
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Aug 27, 2019 07:36pm
@sam, Tamil is older then all langues., google it
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Aug 27, 2019 07:36pm
But you lost ur vedic culture...reaccept it..
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Obsessed People
Aug 27, 2019 09:07pm
Sanskrit is the oldest and the most scientific of all languages. All Indo-European languages owe their existence to Sanskrit. Urdu is derived from Hindi which in turn is derived from Sanskrit.
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Aug 27, 2019 09:42pm
@Gopal Patel, "all languages" - that's quite a lofty claim, any evidence?
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Mohd Ali
Aug 27, 2019 10:06pm
@Gopal Patel Anatolian languages are the oldest indo-european languges we know. They are much older than Sanskrit. A so called "mother of all languages" does not exist because all known languages (also Sanskrit) derived from other different extinct languages.
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abhi mish
Aug 27, 2019 10:11pm
Persian itself is a variant of Sanskrit so there is not much debate about.
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Aug 27, 2019 10:27pm
@abhi mish, You can google it. Sanskrit is the mother of all Indo-European languages.
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Aug 27, 2019 10:27pm
Sanskrit is Indo European language and Sanskrit is a mother of most of the Indian languages. The claim Sanskrit owes to Arabic or Persian is false. Everything from script to words to numerals is different. Infact arabic owed a lot from Sanskrit including numerals.
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Aug 27, 2019 11:54pm
How did you get this upside down theory. Sanskrit is the oldest language. Way before Farsi and Arabic came in to picture.
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Common sense
Aug 28, 2019 12:35am
Misleading title. Where did she hear the "myth" that Sanskrit is the "only" language that influenced Gujarati?! It is nowhere except in this writer's mind. Of Course, every language is influenced by other languages. That doesn't make those other languages her mother.
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Lost cause
Aug 28, 2019 03:52am
Arabic has no connection with Pakistan. So why change the facts.
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Aug 28, 2019 04:04am
@Valiya, how can the first language be Tamil when Tamil has samskritam words?? Both are old languages, but vedic samskritam predates both.
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Dr. Vimla Raje
Aug 28, 2019 04:56am
Surely the author seems to know nothing of languages, Rigvedic-Sanskrit and Avestan-Persian are twin Aryan languages with the common mother proto-Aryan language. Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages nothing to do with Indo-European languages. You seem to be following the Semitic, in this case the Jewish agenda. Note the link between ancient Rigvedic-Sanskrit and Avestan-Persian: Rigvedic-Sanskrit: abade pantha he ashae, visha anyaesham apantham Avestan-Persian: aevo pantao yo ashahe, vispe anyaesham apantam Translation: the one path is that of Asha, all others are not-paths.
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Aug 28, 2019 05:15am
The author has never met enough Gujarati people. Every few hundred kilometres the suspect changes. This article needs to be corrected as it is spreading hatred.
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Aug 28, 2019 05:17am
All languages are rich. Ordhu/Urdu, Italian, Bengali and Telugu are poetic, flowery and sweet. Tamizh as it is pronounced is an ancient language. That Tamizh is the oldest language is a myth and a cliche. Sanskrit and Vedas are eternal, have no birth, no death, hence called "Sanatana" eternal or not bound by time on earth. Simple stuff.
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Aug 28, 2019 05:41am
its amazing how deep is inferiority complex in hindu psyche. always desperately trying to prove they are better, while we all know the reality lies elsewhere.
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Aug 28, 2019 06:29am
Suddenly every one becomes an expert and passes their judgement
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Raja Parekh
Aug 28, 2019 07:12am
Author is trying to please certain community. Whatever.
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Aug 28, 2019 07:54am
It appears that like Arabic, the author must have started reading the history backward. In that sense obviously, Sanskrit is the most recent language compared to Arabic.
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Azhar Shah
Aug 28, 2019 08:39am
man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.
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Aug 28, 2019 09:11am
With no evidence, quoting circumstantial events/incidence will not amount to any thing just a time pass ,
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Asif Ali
Aug 28, 2019 09:18am
The opposite, possibility is, Arabic and Persian are affected by Sanskrit, like urdu half of its words are from Sanskrit.
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Avinash Gauniyal
Aug 28, 2019 09:28am
This article gives a solid ego massage to those pakistani readers who think that they are of Arabian origin. A huge identity crisis my fellow brothers.
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Aug 28, 2019 10:24am
Who cares?
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Aug 28, 2019 11:31am
Is she studying studying sociology in Pakistan...? Then, yes Urdu is grand mother of all languages
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Moiz Mehmood
Aug 28, 2019 12:59pm
Sanskrit is dead, let's move one. There is no point trying to build a pure language that nobody speaks. Languages change and evolve, trying to fight that evolution is a waste of time. Why do people even try...
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Aug 28, 2019 01:11pm
Sanskrit could be the oldest language but Parsi and Arabic have had their influence on it. As the descendants of Arabs, we should make Arabic as our national language
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Aug 28, 2019 01:58pm
Wrong information...sanskrit is the mother of all languages. Pakistanis should not be obsessed with Muguls...
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Aug 28, 2019 03:15pm
India is going in the wrong direction where Indians of Muslim faith are being considered invaders, RSS ideology of a pure India is gaining enourmous ground, Kashmiris are under lockdown and their girls and boys taken without much opposition within the Indian society. Even languages are under this crazy shadow.
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Jamil Soomro, New York City
Aug 28, 2019 06:48pm
@Gopal Patel, Then Europeans would be speaking Sanskrit today?
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Waheed Rehman
Aug 28, 2019 07:00pm
Nothing unique, take the example of the Konkani language of Goa and the Konkan coast. The language is Sanskrit based with the upper caste Hiindus, Catholics and Muslims speaking a slower well pronounced version verses a faster slurred version spoken by the lower castes. Just like the Muslim and Parsi Gujratis, Goan Catholics have Latin words in their Konkani which came from their Roman Catholic religious prayers and services and Goan Muslims have Arabic and Persion in their language. And just like Gujratis, all Goans irrespective of religion have the same caste system, culture and traditions.
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Aug 28, 2019 07:07pm
If this is the level of education and scholarship, one should be shocked.
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Jamil Soomro, New York City
Aug 28, 2019 08:54pm
@Avinash Gauniyal, I fail to understand your comment.The Writer has not mentioned anything on "massage" whether Arabian or not? only Language Issue.
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Ali Kazmi
Aug 28, 2019 09:19pm
@Nandu, sab ka bandhu, 'Even Urdu is a daughter language of Sanskrit' Sanskrit has enough of it's real daughters, why lay claim to a step-daughter?
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Ali Kazmi
Aug 28, 2019 09:32pm
@AtifK, 'any person who thinks Arabic and Persian pre-date Sanskrit must be really out of their minds' All an issue of semantics. Persian and Sanskrit have a common ancestor, if you choose to refer to that common ancestor as 'Sanskrit' then it is true that Sanskrit is older than Persian, but that common ancestor was spoken in Persia and other ancestral Aryan lands, not in India. South Asia is an importer not an exporter of languages.
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Aug 28, 2019 09:47pm
@Gopal Patel, Arabic is the language of humanity.
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Aug 28, 2019 09:48pm
They are running around to purify Gujarati to millinea past but still a million people sleep on streets at night in Mumbai, Calcutta, New Delhi. Talk of right priorities.
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Aug 28, 2019 09:52pm
@Himanshu , when better things come, acquire it, discard the medieval archaic out of date practices.
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Aug 28, 2019 10:33pm
Tamil is the oldest language today. Sanskrit is the parent of all Indo-European language.
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