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Theories of Language and Navya-Nyaya

D.P. Agrawal & Pankaj Goyal

Email: dpagrawal@lokvigyan.com


‘Language’ is a much misunderstood common term used by us. But most of us do not agree about the correct meaning of this term. Different people have different ideas about it, which has give rise to a variety of concepts. Different concepts of language give rise to different problems and to different theories of language. These problems about the nature of language have not only bothered the modern scholars, but the ancients too. We will discuss below the Navya-Nyaya Theory of language.


Professor Bhatattacharya, the famous philosopher, discusses these interesting issues, and various modern theories of language in relation to the ancient Indian Navya-Nyaya theory in a recent article, “Some Aspects of Navya-Nayaya Theory of Language.” We have summarised his views here.


Some concepts of language that he discusses are:

1.     According to one concept, the language may be defined as man-made sounds with the help of which the humans communicate information or thoughts. But this definition of language includes drum beating, or playing of any instrument, musical or non-musical, as in Morse-code. Among these different forms of language, articulate speech is the most basic form because all the other forms logically depend on it. Similarly, the Morse-code depends logically on the analysis of speech into letters of the alphabet. This concept of language is quite common, but it does not include other types of behaviour that may also be regarded as language in a still more general sense.


2.     According to another concept, any behaviour, not necessarily speech-behaviour that can communicate information or thought, may be termed as language. So one can say that gestures and postures are regarded as forms of basic language. A person in a foreign country generally uses gestures to communicate to others and postures are the natural responses if not to all, at least to higher animals. According to St. Augustine, gestures and other bodily behaviour constitute the natural language of the man, as a result of which, a child learns his first language by observing the behaviour, including the gestures of the elders. As we cannot express all our thoughts or communicate all information by gestures, so some people may argue that gestures constitute a poor language. But this objection is not valid, as like all the other languages, gesture-language has to be learned. The most important feature of all languages is that there must be certain conventions for the use of languages that have to be learned.


3.     The above two concepts of language do not include written language. Some people argue that written sentences are the pictures of reality. On one hand, a picture is directly related to the object of which it is a picture, whereas the written language is not directly related to the object but to the spoken words. Therefore, the spoken language is prior to written language. But Derrida’s theory was just opposite; according to him written language is prior to spoken language. So, it is hard to justify Derrida’s theory. Although, the written language expands the scope of spoken language, still the written language is dependent upon the spoken language.


Concepts of ‘Natural language’ and ‘Artificial language’

We usually distinguish natural from artificial language, but it depends upon what we mean by natural and artificial language. According to St. Augustine, bodily behaviour can be regarded as the natural language of the man. If we believe in this concept then verbal language will be a non-natural language, which will mean artificial language can be learnt by a child only through natural language, which he knows. Therefore, according to this concept natural language does not require to be learnt.


There is also a theory known as Bennett’s theory according to which any pattern of behaviour even when it succeeds in communicating information cannot be called a language if it is instinctive.  This theory gives a different definition of natural and artificial language. In this concept, a natural language is a language of ordinary people used for all purposes, while, artificial language is the language invented by a group of men for a specific purpose.


Navya-Nyaya Theory of Language

The Navya-Nyaya Theory states that spoken language is language in a primary sense, and gestures and written languages are languages only in a derived sense. The commentators of Visvanatha make a distinction between gesture language and written language. They describe the former as language of a different kind (vijatiya) and the latter as of the same kind (sajatiya) as the spoken language. Even though gesture-language and written language are different from each other, both of them are different from spoken language. They are termed as ‘language’ because gestures and written characters ‘suggest’ spoken words that alone constitute language proper.


This Navya-Nyaya Theory is based on the fact that written language depends upon spoken language, even though writing makes possible long and complicated constructions that would have not been possible without writing. If we also admit the fact that the art of writing gives the condition of being permanent or continued existence to speech which can be repeatedly observed, and also makes possible the development of language in the new directions, still the fact remains that written language would have been impossible without spoken language. Thus spoken language is logically prior to written language. Therefore, Navya-Nyaya philosophers regard spoken language alone as primarily significant.


The Navya-Nyaya philosophers also hold the same theory of the primacy of spoken language about the gesture-language too but here this primacy is not apparent; for apparently, gesture-language precedes articulate speech in the process of evolution.


Sanskrit as the Object Language

Sanskrit is a frozen language. It has a very rigorous grammar that includes vowels and consonants, rules of formation of words from the basic elements, rules of formation of sentences and many more. Panini’s grammar stands as one of the best examples of the science of grammar. Still, Sanskrit differs from artificial language in so far as it allows ambiguous words, figures of speech and also some freedom that it gives us to analyse a given expression in a variety of ways. If we deal only with Sanskrit as the language of the study, then it give rise to the problem of explaining the possibility of regional languages and the languages other than Sanskrit.


A theory, supported by Gadadhara, is to treat all expressions of regional languages as really devoid of meaning but used in practice only by mistake or in other words, expressions of regional languages create only an illusion of sense. But many Navya-Nyaya philosophers, like Annambhatta, have not accepted this theory. Annambhatta, in his commentary Uddyotana gives an argument against the theory supported by Gadadhara as explained below.


Words in regional languages also have meanings, as words in Sanskrit. Therefore, there is no way to determine whether Sanskrit words have primary meaning and regional languages have only derived meaning, or conversely. The determinant cannot be equiformity of words in all countries as the meaning of equiformity is indistinguishable and not clear. The equiformity may mean one of the three different things as described below:

(1) ‘Equiformity’ may mean that Sanskrit words are used in all countries, but it cannot be accepted as in some foreign countries there is no trace of Sanskrit. 

(2) ‘Equiformity’ may mean that words that are used in a particular region have a recognizably the same pattern, but this sense also cannot be accepted, as equiformity in this sense is common to all languages.

(3) ‘Equiformity’ may mean absence of usage of regional languages. This sense too cannot be accepted as it violates what has been stated in Bhasya that in many places emphasizes use of different substandard words among people.


According to the philosophers who oppose the theory supported by Gadadhara, God created the world, its objects and their names and the languages, so it cannot be said that God created only Sanskrit and no other languages. When God created the Ionians, he also created their language at the same time. Therefore, it is wrong to say that the other regional languages were originally Sanskrit from which they derived. The modern comparative philologists also attempt to propose and construct a proto-Aryan language from which all the Indo-European languages have evolved. But that also tends to support the theory that God created only one language, just the name of Sanskrit is not there. According to Jagadisa and other Navya-Nyaya philosophers, there is a possibility of developing different theories of meaning for different regional languages; only they are not interested in developing theories, as they are concerned only with Sanskrit as the object-language.


Divine Origin of Language

Indian philosophers of the Nyaya School agree that Sanskrit is a divine language and is created by God. According to these philosophers, as God is the creator of the universe, he is also the creator of all languages, including Sanskrit. The major cause for holding this theory seems to be that language developed naturally and not by convention. God creates both the world of objects and also the language with which to talk about it, but this talking about the world of objects is not possible until there is a relation between language and reality. Navya-Nyaya philosophers think that God did not just create the objects and the sounds, but also instituted a relation of meaning between the sounds and the objects and due to this relation, sounds become expressions of a language.  Spoken words as physical realities are just a type of sound and they become language when they are imbued with the meaning.


Articulate speech is a natural development of a power in man by which he can be distinguished from other animals. In the later stages of development he constructed the language with the help of natural language (language that develops naturally). When these artificial languages are utilized for communication, the relation of meaning between expressions of such languages and elements in the ontology are purely conventional means depending on the will of those who construct those languages. But this amalgamation of natural language into man-made languages gives rise to various difficulties such as no artificial language can be created in a vacuum. The other difficulty is to explain how such conventions could ever be made in the absence of any language whatsoever. These two problems, although in all appearance fundamentally different, are essentially related. A language can not originate without meaning objects, therefore, if the language is man-made, meaning is also man-made for that language, and if it is not man-made, the meaning is also not man-made.


Theories of Language Learning and Theories of Meaning

As the theories of the origin of language determine some elementary aspects of theories of meaning, similarly theories of language learning and theories of meaning are closely associated. Recently, many philosophers like Davidson have argued against philosophical theories of meaning prescribing rules of language learning, yet it is a fact that different theories of meaning do determine at least some aspects of theories of language learning.


The Mimamsakas hold the theory that meaning of the words can be