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The Origins of the Konkani Language

by Dr. Krishnanand Kamat
First Online: August 15, 1997
Last updated: April 04, 2014

Introduction

Due to the tumultuous events,  the Konkani community (called the Konkanis henceforth)  has fragmented and spread throughout the west coast of India.  Their language, Konkani had to suffer the same indignation. The Marathi community called it a dialect of Marathi and did not recognize it. The Konkani language did not receive the respect or status it deserved and it resulted in lack of literature or patronage of the language. Only Konkanis are to be blamed for this helplessness. The Konkani writers and scholars who enriched Kannada, Marathi, and English literatures have not done anything for their mother-tongue. (see related topic: Kannada Writers)  Fortunately three events that occurred in recent years seem promising. First, the Central Literary Academy of India has declared that Konkani is an independent language and has set up honors and awards for recognition of works in Konkani. Second, we have recognized Goa as a state and have established Konkani as its official language. Even the government of Karnataka has established an organization for Konkani culture. Third, the ground-breaking discoveries in the Saraswati river valley have rejuvenated interest in Saraswats and their heritage. It is hoped that at least now the Konkani language will find patronage and readership that is long due.

Konkan Belt
Map of Southwest India and the Spread of Konkani Language

The origins of Konkani language from the historic viewpoint are very interesting. The Aryans who migrated to India familiarized themselves in North India and established several languages based on the local influence. Depending on their geographical dispersion you can categorize two distinct groups. Punjabi, Rajasthani, Gujarati, and Hindi evolved from Prakrit of Magadha and Sindhi Maithili, Assamese, Bengali originated from Shouraseni Prakrit. Konkani belongs to the second group, and hence some scholars regard Bengali or Assamese as the mother of Konkani language. However, in reality the three are siblings of the same (now nonexistent) intermediary parent language. The arguments on the matter continue to generate a lot of response among linguists. Some historians argue that it was the language of Aryans who came further south to the Konkan, and hence the name Konkani. The most important point to note here is that Konkani is first seen in the Konkan area. Early adopters used the Brahmi script, but eventually due to the local influence, Nagari  (a.k.a. Devanagari) was used for the benefit of much larger audience.

Sibling Rivalry with Marathi

There has been always sibling rivalry amongst Konkanis and the Marathis.  The Marathis have condemned Konkani as, ".. a branch of Marathi; it has neither script nor literature; it is not a language." But, history has established that even when Konkani language had reached maturity, the Marathi language was not even born. There is an inscription written in Konkani dated 1187 A.D. whereas even the earliest Marathi manuscripts are of 16th century. It is no surprise that when poet Jnaneshwar wanted to create his masterpiece Jnaneshwari, he had to take up study of Konkani which was very prevalent (1209 A.D.) After 16th century both Marathi and Konkani have taken their own developmental course and it is natural that today they appear as two separate languages.

K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Carving at the footstep of Gomateshwara
Carving at the footstep of Gomateshwara
Jain pilgrimage center of Shravanabelagola. The letters are in Devanagari script, but the language has been a dispute of scholars. Is it Marathi or Konkani ?

Persecution of Konkani by the Portuguese

The Konkanis who settled in Goa engaged in creative literature and defined grammar for the language. Meanwhile, the Portuguese were land hungry and had started occupying the Indian west coast. They invaded the land of Parashuram and started harassing the Konkanis. These religious fanatics wanted to fill the entire universe with followers of Jesus Christ and forced their own language, customs, and religion on the residents. They even passed a law banning Konkani. In fact, they burned all the Konkani literature available at the time in 1548 A.D. The Konkanis became cultural orphans. The foreigners burnt alive the Konkanis who did not accept Christianity and forcefully converted the weaker sections of the society. They even changed their names to Christian names. So to preserve their identity the Konkanis had to migrate to different parts. This is the single most reason why Konkani has so many dialects; those who went to different parts of India were influenced by their local languages. In Vengulra, Sawantavadi, and Ratnagiri, they adopted Marathi, and Malavani was formed. In south and north Kanaras, Konkani language was influenced by Kannada, and in Kerala, the Malayalam words were integrated to the language.

In spite of persecution, the Konkanis hung on to their culture and the Portuguese thought it was better for them to learn Konkani in order to convert the Konkanis. They called Konkani the  language of the Brahmins, language of the Kanarese, language of Goan Brahmins, etc. The clergy translated the Christian religious texts to Konkani with the help of the converts and a new form of Konkani literature was born. They used Roman script for the translations. Since they translated word by word, there was no beauty or literary styles. Even the sentence construction and grammar were distorted. In 16th century, this grammar was legalized by publication of a Konkani grammar book. In 17th century in order to popularize Christianity, "Christa-Purana" was published which glorified the God just as the Hindu texts did. Poems, dictionaries, autobiographies of the priests were also published. In 1808 Konkani bible was published and distributed. Even today about 500 books of the period are available for study and research. The Portuguese government started a Konkani school in 1932.

But the Hindus of Goa were devastated from the attack on their tradition and culture, and resisted the forced Christianized Konkani. They preferred the neighboring Marathi, and started creating works in Marathi. Konkanis who migrated to Maharashtra easily took to Marathi. Even the religious heads (Mathadeeshas) also started writing in Marathi. So Konkani language lost ground in its own homeland. However, those who migrated to the south preserved their lifestyle and for this, the Konkanis should be ever grateful to the people of Karnataka.

Timeline

1187 1209 1548 1808 1932 1987
First Konkani inscription Jnaneshwari is written in Konkani Portuguese destroy all Konkani works Konkani Bible is published Portuguese start Konkani school Konkani declared as a National language

If one has to see the diversity of today's Konkani language, one should travel the Indian west coast. In Bombay, they speak in Marathi accent whereas in Konkan, they stretch the words so that no outsider can understand!. The Hindus of Goa liberally use the Portuguese words whereas the Christians use it as if it's a Portuguese dialect. In Karwar and Ankola (locate), they emphasize the syllables, and in Kumta-Honavar, they use consonants in abundance. The Konkani spoken by Nawayatis of Bhatkal is very melodious with smearing of Persian. People of South Kanara do not distinguish between nouns of Kannada and Konkani, and have developed a very business practical language. They sometimes add  Tulu words also. The Konkani of Kerala is drenched with Malayalam, and the Konkanis of north Karnataka add Kannada verbs to Konkani grammar. The city-bred use a plenty of English. To write Konkani,  Kannada, Nagari, Roman, Arabic, and Malayalam scripts are used and this way, Konkanis declare themselves as members of world family (Vishwakutumbi). There is no other language with a possible exception of Sanskrit that a language is written in so many scripts.

There are different names for the different dialects. People of Ratnagiri origin and Konkan Brahmins speak Chitpawani that is influenced by Marathi. People of Konkan speak Malavani and Goans speak Gomantaki. Tippu Sultan arrested the Christians of west coast, and transferred to Mysore as prisoners of war, and forcefully converted them to Islam. Their descendents speak Konkani with a mixture of Urdu in parts of Mysore, Coorg, and Srirangapattanam. In general,  the Konkanis are skilled in multiple languages. They tend to accept other languages into their own rather than be inconvenience to others. This has served the community well as their migration from Goa to Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra was easy. During the Maratha rule, Konkani families who migrated to Madhya Pradesh speak only Hindi. Sometimes I wonder if this is indeed a blessing or a shortcoming. Hindus of Goa are arguing that only works written in Nagari be recognized as Konkani literature  whereas the Christian brethren want acceptance of Konkani works in Roman script. Konkanis of Karnataka consider works of Konkani in Kannada script is most authentic and superior to all others. While Konkanis of Kerala are confused on which script to use, the Konkanis elsewhere are wondering which position to take.

Although originally Konkani was the language of Saraswat Brahmins, millions have adopted it as their mother-tongue. Sonar(Suvarnakar), Serugar, Mestri, Sutar, Vani, Devali, Siddi, Gabeet, Kharvi, Dalji, Samgar, Nawayati, etc. are some of the communities who speak Konkani. It is of great importance that all these people start using one script for unity of the language. I feel that as a language derived from Sanskrit, Nagari (Sanskrit script) is best suited to express the complex pronunciation of the language, and should be used by all Konkanis regardless of the geographical location. It is also important that all  works available in other scripts be rapidly rewritten in Nagari. Only then Konkani will come to be accepted as a national language of India.

See Also:

About the Author

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Dr. Krishnanand Kamat is interested in ethnicity of indigenous people. He has elaborately documented the the various Konkani speaking communities for the Government of Karnataka. This article is English translation of his Kannada article, "Konkani Bhasheya Ugama mattu Belavanige".

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