A 103-year-old lexicographer has spent a century thinking about one of India’s oldest languages

103 and counting
103 and counting
Image: Quartz/Nikhil Sonnad
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Bengaluru, India

Every few years, I spend 24 hours traveling to rural Karnataka, a state in southern India, to visit my father. The trip takes me far from home both geographically and linguistically. I grew up in Michigan, in an English-speaking household. Though I speak Mandarin and Spanish, I never learned Kannada—the dominant language of Karnataka, spoken by 40 million people and one of India’s oldest languages—and the one my father speaks with his family and friends.

On my most recent trip to Karnataka, my dad and I set out to discover the origins of the language I never learned, and how it has changed over time. We took the 13-hour overnight train from my dad’s small town to Bengaluru, the state capital in the southeast. There we discussed Kannada with Ganjam Venkatasubbaiah, a scholar who, born in 1913, has been observing and writing about the language for nearly all of the 20th century and beyond.

GV, as Venkatasubbaiah is known, was instrumental in producing the first authoritative and comprehensive Kannada dictionary, a project that took 54 years to complete. He has been a prolific literary critic and translator for decades. He is a fluent reader of Sanskrit, and speaks English with more precision than most native speakers. GV is 103; my dad is a spritely 76.

When I decided I wanted to meet GV, I had no idea how to get a hold of him—most 103-year-olds don’t use email. I sent a WhatsApp message to my dad, who has a mysteriously robust political network, asking for for help. “I have left feelers all over Karnataka,” he responded a few days later. “Still no door has opened yet.”

My father eventually succeeded by calling in a series of favors that reached his friend’s friend’s friend’s friend, who happens to know GV personally.

We were told that GV’s advanced age may lead to a sudden cancellation of the interview. He may be too tired from his other engagements. We may have to interview him for a bit on Monday, and then a bit more on Tuesday. But when my dad’s friend four times removed led us to GV’s humble home in an alley behind a hip city street, he spoke to us for 90 minutes straight, with all the vim of a 76-year-old. GV continues to be an active scholar. His hundreds have been spent trying to revise his authoritative, but now out-of-date, Kannada dictionary.

Changes to a language are gradual. The casual observer may spot new words or usage here and there, but it’s hard to notice the kinds of fundamental differences that distinguish, for example, the English of 2017 from that of 1917. By observing language for nearly 100 years, GV is a rare expert who can explain these broad changes based on firsthand experience. He told us about the linguistic landscape of South India in the early 1900s, and how the language has changed in his lifetime. He explained how he and his colleagues spent a decade reading ancient texts to collect over a million unique words for the first comprehensive Kannada dictionary. And he warned us about the threat English poses to the language he grew up speaking.

GV spoke to my dad and I—slowly, with few wasted words—in his living room full of old DVDs and old books, underneath an illustration of Mahatma Gandhi looking somber, hung on a pastel blue wall. After the interview, his son served us watermelon juice. The following is edited for length and clarity.

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Me: When you were a young boy, what languages did you use?

GV: My mother tongue was Kannada, and “New Kannada” which is a century old. But after the 19th century, we have “Modern Kannada.” There is a lot of difference between the century-old language and the present one. My father was a great scholar in Sanskrit. And automatically I learned plenty of Sanskrit. Sanskrit influenced Kannada so much, in percentage of words, about 80% of words are Sanskrit words. I’m equally good at the two languages. Only you cannot speak Sanskrit.

Me: You said there is a lot of difference between Kannada when you were young and Kannada today. What changes have you seen in Kannada over your lifetime?

GV: When I was a young boy, grammatical construction was very important. Spoken language differed from written language. That is true today, but what is happening is, the spoken language is being written now. More and more spoken language is being used in newspapers. It is mixed.

Kannada is very different now. That kind of language is forgotten. There is a lot of difference. New words have come into being, and for example, even the English words are being dumped into Kannada, so much so that they have become Kannada. English words have become Kannada. So they use it completely. The English word “Newspaper” is a Kannada word now. “News” is a Kannada word now.

[My dad interjects here with the actual Kannada word for “newspaper,” patrike, and adds, “nobody says that now.” GV nods in agreement.]

Me: How has the emphasis on English over Kannada affected the development of the language?

My dad, left, GV, right
My dad, left, GV, right
Image: Nikhil Sonnad

GV: You see, when you have to express, and there is only one language, automatically there is development. But when another language comes in between, development of the original language is limited. That’s how it happens.

We had a professor called BM Srikantaiah. He was a great scholar in English, a professor of English. He saw that the Kannada language was not developing. It was lagging behind. Therefore, he started a renaissance. He translated English poems into Kannada. And then he said, this is the way you must develop. You must be able to write this way. So he went showing how the English language was developing.

From then on, people began to write poems in Kannada, and slowly people began to take interest in writing different forms of literature—drama, essays, poems, short stories—all these forms of literature in Kannada started with BM Srikantaiah’s influence. By about 1926, his book of translated poems was published. That became a handbook for all people to follow. And people began to write poetry in Kannada. That became modern Kannada. The language developed very well.

Me: Will so much emphasis on English education in India restrict the development of Kannada?

GV: The medium of instruction in India has become English at the college level. Even at the high-school level there are both English-medium classes and Kannada-medium classes. At the lowest level, there is only Kannada. But now there is an eagerness being shown to introduce English even from the first classes. Even people who are less educated want their children to speak English. They want them to be admitted to an English school. This should not be done.

Teaching a language is different from using it as the medium of instruction. If English becomes the medium, people learn more English than Kannada. If Kannada is used, they learn more Kannada. I believe that at the high-school level also, Kannada should be used. English must be taught as a language. But what is happening is, English is used as a medium at the lower levels, at the high-school level. That is the trouble.

People prefer English schools. It is this difference that is making it difficult for Kannada. English is a killer language. But at present English cannot kill Kannada, because nearly all of the words that can come from English to Kannada already have. At present, Kannada is a fully developed language.

Me: Why are you working on a Kannada dictionary?

GV: I am a lexicographer. There were old dictionaries in Kannada. Those dictionaries are in a poetic form. But they were not being used. There was no definite, authoritative dictionary in Kannada. We did not have something like the Oxford English Dictionary. One Christian preacher who specialized in dictionary-making in Germany, he had published a Kannada-English dictionary. That was necessary for them to translate the Bible into Kannada, and then preach in Kannada.

In 1943, a professor of Kannada spoke at a conference and said that a special monolingual dictionary, on the basis of the OED, must be prepared. But there was no linguistic survey in Kannada. Therefore, to start a dictionary, we had to collect words. Some 80 scholars joined hands to read old books and collect words in slips. For each word, there was a slip. A slip was a reference to where the word is used, the date it was written, and the name of the book it was found in, et cetera. All of this would be written for the main word. We went on collecting slips in this way. There were about 1.5 million slips in the end.

Me: What do you do if you find a word that you don’t know the meaning of?

GV: The meaning is very clear in a sentence. So that is written down. That is then checked with the spoken meaning. Sometimes when a word has several meanings, those are also written. We collected words for about 10 years. And then for another 2 years, we arranged the slips in alphabetical order. A small committee was formed to discuss every entry and the final meaning. This is how the OED has done it. In the same way, the committee discussed and finalized it. It is only then that it becomes authoritative.

In this form, eight volumes of dictionaries have been published. It took nearly 54 years from the day we started collecting words to the day the book was published. Some 50 years. I was the chief editor for 25 years.

GV’s revision to the Kannada dictionary.
GV’s revision to the Kannada dictionary.
Image: Nikhil Sonnad

Me: What state is the dictionary in now?

GV: Now it must be revised. That is because more new words have come into being, and more meanings have been attached to them. Only after it is revised does it become modern. At present the government is not taking interest in it. Some universities must take responsibility, but the universities are poor. Dictionary making requires a lot of money. And modern scholars with linguistic equipment are necessary.

But in Kannada, as I said, to revise it, we must first form a committee of scholars, linguistic scholars, who are able to do a survey of the modern language over the whole spoken area. A linguistic survey. And then, as usual, collect words and different meanings, as the old method did. You will see language changes. So we must do a survey over the whole area. Then we can have a perfect, modern dictionary.