Grammar, oh grammar!

Why was Panini ever born? Panini, who, you ask? Well, he was the guy from Kandahar, now in Afghanistan. The time he was born Kandahar did not have the rather notorious reputation as it has now. It was then called Gandhar (गांधार). Panini’s claim to fame, or to infamy, was Ashtadhyayi (अष्टध्याई), his seminal text on Sanskrit grammar. It was written way back in 4th or 5th century BC, no one knows exactly when.  He is known as the father of Sanskrit grammar. I do not know- nor do I care- whether he is the one who prescribed stuff like: Ramah, Ramau, Ramaah, Ramam, Ramau, Ramaan (रामः, रामौ, रामाः; रामम, रामौ, रामान) etc etc. Ending in Hey Ram, He Ramau, Hey Ramaah (हे राम, हे रामौ, हे रामाः). That is called shabd-roop (शब्द-रूप). There is also another devious variant called dhatu roop (धातु-रूप). Pathati, pathatah, pathanti (पठति, पठतः, पठन्ति). And I shall not even mention the multiple lakaars (लकार’s) of the language.. lot lakaar (लोट लकार), lat lakaar(लट लकार), etc. Sanskrit was mandatory for all of us in our sixth and seventh standard will forever be etched in my mind as sheer torture.

Not that it is Sanskrit alone which is strict in grammar. I discovered some ten years later when I took a German language course in my University days that German too was a torture. Declamations like der-die-das, dem-die-dan were most taxing. There is a gender attached to all nouns in the German language. Any “thing” could be masculine, feminine or neuter. So you needed to know exactly which gender something was classified in. For a student it amounted to mugging up stuff, never a pleasant activity! Here is a small sidelight to my brief six month German course. The final exam was two-pronged: hundred marks for theory and fifty for the orals, or viva. I scored 37 marks out of 100 in the written paper, just to clear the pass mark (35%). In my orals, I got more marks, forty or so out of fifty!

My son, who is now in his tenth standard had a choice of Sanskrit or Hindi when he entered the ninth standard. I was not surprised that he chose Hindi though most of the class took Sanskrit as it is a higher scoring subject in the 10th boards. I tried to persuade him to stay with Sanskrit, but he was adamant. And Hindi it is for him!

Poor chap did not realize that the specter of grammar would haunt him in Hindi as well. Like the famous gender stuff. The mysteries of some obviously feminine gender sounding words like jee, ghee, dahi, moti (जी, घी, दही, मोती)being masculine. Aapka jee ghabarati  nahin, ghabarata hai (आपका जी घबराती नहीं, घबराता है). Dahi (दही )is never khatti (खट्टी), but always khatta (खट्टा). And what about this wonder. Moonchh (मूंछ), the singularly unique symbol of masculinity, is feminine gender. Alas! Aapki moonchh hamesha ghani hoti hai( आपकी मूंछ हमेशा घनी होती है), aapka moonchh kabhi ghana nahi hota (आपका मूंछ कभी घना नहीं होता); however lush they are and however masculine you fancy yourself to be! And the struggles with anya purush (अन्य पुरुष), madhyam purush (मध्यम पुरुष) and uttam purush (उत्तम पुरुष). Then there are some other bouncers to be faced; old-timers would recollect mugging up karta nein, karam ko, karan sey, sampradaya ke liye. (कर्ता ने, कर्म को, करन से, संप्रदान के लिए)

Bangla does not have this gender issue, so both men and women say “ami khabo (আমি খাবো)”. Their Hindi belt cousins say either “mein khaaonga (मैं खाऊँगा)” or “mein khaoongi (मैं खाऊंगी )” depending on the gender they belong to. Hence it is pretty common for the Bengali-speaking guy to say stuff like “mein jaayegi (मैं जायेगी )”, “mein khayegi (मैं खाएगी )” etc. There was this curious case of a burly, moustachioed and an altogether macho-looking colleague of mine, telling someone on the phone “Mein Ram bol rahi hoon (मैं राम बोल रही हूँ)”. I can quite imagine the startled look on the face of the person at the other end of the telephone who always thought Ram was a male. I would often take a dig at Ram and ask him, “Ram, kya aapko ling-dosh hai (क्या आपको लिंग-दोष है?)?”. I made this remark as I was sure that he did not know Hindi well. If he did, he would have walloped me soundly for questioning his gender!

This brings me to a language, which I am sure you are familiar with since you have read this post till this point. English. How many of us have struggled with past participles, gerunds, pronouns and prepositions and such like. (I read recently somewhere about pluperfect subjunctive. Goodness!) I do not know if it still in vogue now- but given the hallowed status it had when I was a school student- I am sure it must be. The grammar book of the venerated Wren and Martin. Mercifully I escaped most of this English grammar onslaught. I still do not know my proverbs from pronouns, my participles from past participles. We were required to read English, to speak in English and not worry too much about the grammar. When we spoke, or wrote, the teachers made corrections as we went along. And despite my lack of knowledge of English grammar, I can write passable English.

Which brings me back to Hindi. While Hindi grammar was a must in school, I had read enough Hindi literature on my own that I knew exactly when a particular gender or a turn of the phrase was to be used. I did not have to go through the karta, karam stuff to figure out the correct construction of a Hindi sentence. My reading of Premchand, Nandan, Parag, took care of this automatically. And, of course, I had the advantage of my father being a Hindi professor.

My Bangla is not sound, but whatever I speak is generally OK. I learnt it through my Bangla-speaking friends and neighbours, not in a classroom. Ditto for German, though the friend was replaced by my German teacher, Frau Melise. She never really bothered about the grammar but taught by chatting with all of us in the language. Now you understand why I got more marks in the orals piece of the final exams.

Now back to Sreeman Panini. Despite having said what I have, not knowing Sanskrit has been a big regret in life. I wish I knew the basics as now with age I feel the urge to be able to understand the Sanskrit shlokas I hear in the mornings. And now I know it is not Panini’s mistake at all, in fact he did something noble by putting the Sanskrit grammar together. I wish my Sanskrit teacher in school would have taught me the subject differently. By not focusing on the grammar but on the spoken language itself. Kids can learn a language pretty well if they are taught in a manner which enables them to learn.

Why force grammar on these unsuspecting kids! Oh, why?

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7 Responses to Grammar, oh grammar!

  1. Sanjeev Roy says:

    I am sure there is a more creative and pragmatic approach out there…we just need to find and popularise it…

    • santoshojha says:

      I wish someone would implement it soon. I love languages myself, and I hope the simplification helps children to imbibe more languages, and faster.

  2. Kavita Ojha Tewari says:

    Read your piece on grammar.Why do you feel it is a torture to study grammar?Of course, it should not be imposed on kids.But these days out of choice students have been studying more then one language.Dolly’s elder son preferred taking up 4 languages Latin, German, French and English. Though I too never understood why he took up so many,but he says students in UK prefer studying languages.

    • santoshojha says:

      You know that I too love learning languages. What I do not like is the approach to pedagogy. You can learn a language even without learning grammar first. Grammar can happen a little later too, the way I wrote in my story. So why load a student with such stuff?

      Remember the way you and I learnt Hindi. Manohar Pothi. It did not involve क, ख, ग, घ. but simple lines like “maa, mala laa”.

      I am impressed with Utkarsh’ love for languages.

  3. utkarsh ojha says:

    Hello There, It’s utkarsh. I agree that grammar in any language is a laborious task. I found it quite demanding when I first started. However when I started to learn latin and Greek, it made learing languages an easy task and now I love learning new languages. So my tip to conquering any language is by learning latin, greek (or Sanskrit). I admit that learning grammar is frightening but when one perseveres one finds learning languages fun!

    • santoshojha says:

      Hi Utkarsh,

      I am proud of the fact that you are into so many languages. I have always wanted to learn more and more of them.

      I have arguments only when grammar is thrust down into our throats. Like, are you a cat in maths only if you know the multiplication tables? Or a great Botanist only if you know the Classification of an obscure specimen? Or a music lover only if you know the intricacies of Western Classical Music?

      Btw, please do keep at it, learning languages. It will be immensely inspiring for me.

  4. Debuda says:

    Is grammar the only thing that has to be “thrust down our throats” (as you say)? There are hundreds of other aspects of ‘civilised’ life that humans have to be routinely coerced into right from infancy. Call it education, grooming, disciplining, indoctrination, conditioning or whatever but it is what distinguishes man from animal.

    Learning grammar, fortunately, is a brief one-time activity. It is also far less painful than the many ‘grammars’ of acceptable social behaviour that one is compelled to adhere to in civilised human society.

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