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Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India

Ollett, Andrew Strand

Language of the Snakes is a biography of Prakrit, one of premodern India’s most important and most neglected literary languages. Prakrit was the language of a literary tradition that flourished roughly from the 1st to the 12th century. During this period, it served as a counterpart to Sanskrit, the preeminent language of literature and learning in India. Together, Sanskrit and Prakrit were the foundation for an enduring “language order” that governed the way that people thought of and used language. Language of the Snakes traces the history of this language order through the historical articulations of Prakrit, which are set out here for the first time: its invention and cultivation among the royal courts of central India around the 1st century, its representation in classical Sanskrit and Prakrit texts, the ways it is made into an object of systematic knowledge, and ultimately its displacement from the language practices of literature. Prakrit is shown to have played a critical role in the establishment of the cultural-political formation now called the “Sanskrit cosmopolis,” as shown through a genealogy of its two key practices, courtly literature (kāvya-) and royal eulogy (praśasti-). It played a similarly critical role in the emergence of vernacular textuality, as it provided a model for language practices that diverged from Sanskrit but nevertheless possessed an identity and regularity of their own. Language of the Snakes thus offers a cultural history of Prakrit in contrast to the natural-history framework of previous studies of the language. It uses Prakrit to formulate a theory of literary language as embedded in an ordered set of cultural practices rather than by contrast to spoken language.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Pollock, Sheldon
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 9, 2015
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