Suniti Kumar Chatterjee Memorial Lecture



Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s

View of Language and Linguistics

Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s position is unique in the history of Indian Linguistics. On the basis of his publications on general linguistics, Indo-European, historical linguistics, anthropological and ethnological themes, language problems and planning, phonetics and phonology, morphology and grammar and a variety of related topics one can say without any fear of being contradicted that “during the first half of the twentieth century he was indeed one of the greatest authorities on Indo-Aryan Linguistics to be ranked with Jules Bloch and R.L. Turner” [Krishnamurti, 1989, p.2]. What I propose to do in this lecture is to present Chatterji’s views on language and linguistics in general and his perception of language problems in India in particular.

Suniti Kumar Chatterji has never believed in setting up an artificial dichotomy between ‘form’ and ‘function’, between ‘formal linguistics’ and ‘functional linguistics’. He has always attached importance to, what may be called, core linguistics and a data-based system of analysis and making generalizations based on pattern-similarity and insights drawn from historical linguistics with its focus on protoforms. According to Chatterji, ‘A linguistic investigator must… first of all have a very thorough grounding in the principles of General Phonetics, and in addition must acquire a very clear perception of the main trends in Phonology in particular speech which he is studying as well as of the allied speeches” [Chajjerji , 1978, p. 79]. “In the evaluation of a language, we ought to be able to tell from the look of a word when and how it developed the form in which we see it”. [Ibid 1978, p. 77]. Chatterji goes on to say that “In studying the evaluation of at least the outward, formal aspects of words in a language, Phonetics is as indispensable an instrument as the microscope if for Chemistry or Biology or the telescope for Astronomy. Then, he (i.e. a scholar) must have not only a sense of historical development of the language as a whole but at the same time must possess some knowledge of what is known as “Structural Linguistics: — the sense of the particular language inse, without any historical or comparative impediment interfering with the appreciation of its own innate nature the Tat-tva or Thatness of the matter” [Ibid 1978, p. 79]. “The aims of linguistic study”, according to Chatterji [Ibid 1979, p. 315], “are many, but the two most important of these are (i) to learn a language, to be able to use it correctly in writing and speaking – the most immediate and practical of all aims – (ii) to understand language as a human phenomenon, and this partakes of a nature of fundamental research as in the physical sciences. This second aim has various aspects: e.g. to understand language as phenomenon by itself… This is descriptive Linguistics in a broad way. Chatterji feels that the Old and the New in the field of linguistic investigation can reinforce each other. “It has been urged by many senior workers in the field of Linguistics that the two methods can only be complementary to each other—the Old Historical and Comparative One, and the recent ‘Descriptive’ and ‘Structural’ one. The Old still has its use for the New” [1979, p. 327]. Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s Magnum Opus Origin and Development of the Bengali Language (hereafter, ODBL) was published in 1926. It presents a very deep and insightful description of the forces and feature that have gone into the making of the Bengali language. The approach is philological (comparative historical) and descriptive. It is this synthetic approach that prompted Sukumar Sen to remark: “What Tagore did for literature and thought, Chatterji did for linguistics, philology, and culture: they helped to put West and East closer together” [Sen, 1980, p.28]. Chatterji’s Brief Sketch of Bengali Phonetics continues to be used as a source book in the field of Bengali linguistics. Chatterji’s ODBL inspired a number of Indian scholars to produce historical, philological comparative studies of other Indian languages; to name a few of them: Katre’s Formation of Konkani; Kakati’s Assamese, Its formation and Development; U.N. Tiwari’s The Origin and Development of Bhojpuri; Subhadra Jha’s The Formation of Maithili; Mahadev Sastry’s Historical Garmmer of Telugu.

One of Chatterji’s greatest contributions is his focus on linguistic convergence between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. In ODBL he highlights several points of similarity between the two families: retroflex sounds, compound verbs, onomatopoeic formations and echo-words. In this Foreword to Chatterji’s monumental work, George A Grierson says: “Endowed with a thorough familiarity with Bengali, his native language, he has been able to bring together an amount of material which no European could ever hoped to collect; and he has had the further advantage of pursuing his theoretical studies under the guidance of some of the greatest European authorities on Indian Pholology. This work is accordingly the result of a happy combination of proficiency in facts and of familiarity with theory and exhibits a mastery of detail controlled by the sobriety of true scholarship”.

It is clear form Chatterji’s writings that he was much more interested in comprehenseive descriptive comparative analysis of languages than in wrestling with the complexities of metalanguage. His firm faith in a historical and comparative study of languages did not allow him to be carried away by the waves of structuralism. Chatterji views language as an integral part of culture and linguistics as descriptive, historical and comparative study of languages and cultures in interaction. Descriptive grammar, according to him, gives us access to ‘the methods and processes of learning a language’. Historical and comparative grammar in his perception constitute the science of language. Pholosophical and psychological grammars have their focus on the relationship between language and mind on the one hand and language and reality on the other.

Shivendra Verma

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