Archives at NCBS | Public Lecture Series
57th edition

Monthly talks framed around explorations in and around archives. Discussions by artists, archivists, academics, lawyers, teachers, journalists and others.

Migration and the Making of Language in South Asia

Peggy Mohan

Friday, Aug 18 2023. 5:00pm.
Lecture Hall – 1 (Haapus), NCBS


Abstract: How, and why, do languages mix and merge?

South Asia is a wonderful place to explore these questions. The first place where humans settled after moving on from Africa, South Asia is home to a huge number of languages – all of which have the imprint of the groups who migrated into these lands, brought their old tongues and mixed with the people already settled here.

Except for the very first settlers in India, 65,000 years ago, and the present-day Northeastern tribes, most of the migrants to South Asia have been male: men who settled down with local women and opted to stay on. This has produced a pattern of migrant men passing on new vocabulary, while local women nurture the new generation, passing on the grammars of their earlier languages: the operating system, as it were. The story of these early encounters, and the larger communities that emerged, is preserved in the look of the languages they made.

But why do humans feel the need to migrate? And why are almost all migrants men? How do the first migrants manage to communicate with locals? To see this is to understand ourselves and our history better, and to see how, below the superficial differences in Indian languages, there is an eerie sameness that takes us back to First Indians, and a heritage we all share.


Bio: Peggy Mohan is a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University, Delhi. She began life in Trinidad, West Indies, and earned a PhD in linguistics from the University of Michigan. She has taught linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia, among other centres. She is the author of three novels, and has contributed to reputed publications, such as the Economic and Political Weekly and IIC Quarterly. She has developed educational television programmes for children, and learnt cartoon animation and opera singing.