Linguistics has been struggling under the stranglehold of religious beliefs, superstitions, and ethnocentrism for centuries. The role and nature of human languages was perceived through the worldview preached by various religions. There have been claims for the divine origin of certain languages, conferring a special status on their speakers. Greeks, for example, believed that their language was superior to all other languages. It was the language spoken by the Olympian gods. Theirs was the only language with regularity, rules, and meaning; all other languages were arbitrary and meaningless, barburoi, whence the modern English word “barbarian.”
In India, where Panini (sixth century B.C.E.) wrote the first comprehensive grammar of a human language, Sanskrit was believed to be the language of gods and worthy to be studied and used by the high caste of Brahmans only. The low-caste Hindus could not listen to the Sanskrit verses from the holy scriptures, and severe punishments were prescribed for such sacrilegious acts. As late as 1912, the Muslim linguist, Mohammad Shahidullah, was denied admission to the master’s course in Sanskrit at the University of Calcutta. The Hindu professors of Sanskrit were shocked at the possibility that a Muslim could be allowed to read and hence defile the Vedas, the holy scriptures of Hindus. They bitterly opposed his admission!
In the Judaeo-Christian world, too, similar unscientific views persisted until recently. Hebrew was God‘s own language, the language spoken in the heavens, the first language spoken on the earth and therefore the mother of all languages in the world. Wonderly and Nida, discussing the impact of early Christian beliefs on linguistics, admit:
One of the factors which retarded linguistic progress was the belief among early Christian writers and persisting well into the Renaissance era, that all languages were derived from Hebrew.‘
- NON-ISLAMIC LINGUISTICS SECULARIZED
It was toward the eighteenth century that linguistics was secularized and freed from religious influences. This process was accelerated when the European linguists discovered Sanskrit and their Indo-European roots, both racial and linguistic. The secular linguists, with a new zeal and vigor, introduced precision and scientific methodology to the study of language affinities, tracing Proto Indo-European roots and discovering the linguistic structures of various languages. Hebrew and Sanskrit were no longer studied as the mothers of all languages or as divine languages. This opened a vast area for research and scientific investigation.
The secular tradition, developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has made linguistics a respectable science. But it has been made into a tool to be used by colonialists, politicians, missionaries, and ethnocentric interest groups to promote their ideologies and impose their languages and cultural and religious standards. We will restrict ourselves to only two such examples.
The most interesting example is the emergence of Marrism under the patronage of Soviet communism. N.J. Marr (1864-1934), a Georgian by birth, dominated Russian linguistic research and led to what may be called Marrism. This school of linguistics tried to establish the intrinsic superiority of the Russian language and the inherent inadequacies of the other Soviet languages. Languages, according to Marrism, were not national but class phenomena and thus Marrism and Marxism were integrated in the study of languages. This provided a justification for imposing Russian, the “inherently revolutionary language,” on the speakers of other languages in the Soviet Union. Robins says that Marrism will be remembered: “as an awful warning of the extent to which modern tyranny can keep fantasy enthroned in defiance of fact.”