Monday, October 15, 2007

Yaska and Chomsky

Dynamical Models in Semiotics/Semantics, Instructor: Franson D Manjali
Lecture Three: The Karaka Theory of The Indian Grammarians
It is characteristic of contemporary formal paradigms in Linguistics to choose to ignore all that pertains to cognition and meaning in the grammatical theories that comprise the Indian linguistic tradition. There is near-total neglect of the essential semantic ingredient of the Sanskrit grammar since Panini (1). If at all the semantics in this tradition is paid any attention to it is only in a manner completely divorced from the central grammatical principles and categories. Thus, though Chomsky (1965) claimed the Paninian grammar to his 'generative enterprise' because of the recursive properties manifested by the latter, he paid no attention not only to the metaphysical and epistemological ideas that underlie Indian grammatical system, but also to an entire literature which would fall within the gamut of philosophy of grammar, especially those authored by Patanjali and Bhartrhari.
We shall present here one central concept in the Indian grammatical theory, namely the karakas, and explore the ontological and cognitive bases of its formulations. In the process we will also see how the semantic domain is essentially conceived in dynamic terms, and therefore, the primary end of language is to represent/reveal activity that is ultimately identified with the 'reality' of the world itself. In our view this particular facet of the Indian philosophical tradition represents some sort of 'monist dynamicism' which covers the physical as well as the metaphysical aspects of language, cognition and 'reality'. For the present, we shall mainly concentrate on the views presented in Vakyapadiyam of Bhartrhari (7th century A.D.) who to a great extent relies on the interpretation of the karaka theory given in Patanjali's Mahabhashya, the great commentary on Panini's Asthadhyayi.
It is important to state at the outset that the view that is made explicit in the philosophy of grammar of Bhartrhari is that there is no ontology other than that can be obtained from a study of language. But this is in contrast to a whole fund of metaphysical notions that he presents, which imply an ontology, on the basis of which the form and meaning of language is to be understood. This problem is further complicated by the fact that there is lack of agreement whether the IIIrd chapter (kanda) of Vakyapadiyam, belongs to this work, or it is a separate work authored by Bhartrhari himself. It is in this chapter that issues specific to the karaka theory are discussed (2)...
That verbs primarily convey 'action' is an idea that goes back to Yaska, famous for his etymological studies called the Niruktas. In his words: bhavapradhanam akhyatam, "an action or process is the main meaning of a verb." (See, Subramania Iyer, 1969: 202)
Bhartrhari discusses various possible definitions of 'action', but what he prefers is the following:
"Whenever something, finished or unfinished is presented as something to be accomplished (i.e., sadhya), then it is called 'action' because of its having acquired the form of sequence." ...
We shall give below a passage from Wilhelm Humboldt (died 1835), a prominent Kantian, a Sanskritist, and a philosopher of language of the modern era, which shows an astonishing affinity with the verb-centred linguistics of the Indian grammarians;
"The verb ... differs in a sharply determinate way from the noun, and from other parts of speech that might possibly occur in a simple sentence, in that to it alone is assigned the act of synthetic positing as a grammatical function. Like the declined noun, it arose through such an act, in the fusion of its elements with the stem, but has also received this form in order to have the office and capacity of itself again performing this act with regard to the sentence. Between it and other words of the simple sentence there is therefore a difference which forbids us to count it along with them in the same category. All other words of the sentence are like dead matter lying there for combination; the verb alone is the centre, containing and disseminating life (emphasis added). Through one and the same synthetic act, it conjoins, by being, the predicate with the subject, yet in such a way that being which passes, with an energetic predicate, into an action, becomes attributed to the subject itself, so that what is thought as merely capable of conjunction becomes, in reality a state or process...The thought,... departs, through the verb, from its abode and steps into reality." (Humboldt, 1988 edn.:185)

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