Posted by: cochinblogger | July 16, 2012

India and Lithuania: Linked by Language

It was the late 1950s, and my father had just arrived at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, to pursue a PhD in mathematics. In the university cafeteria, he spotted an American sitting alone at a table and joined him. As they got talking, my father soon learned that his table mate had recently fled Lithuania as a refugee from communism. My father had assumed that Lithuanians were Slavs, like Russians, and was astonished when his table mate said that is not true. Lithuanian is not a Slavic language. In fact, he continued, the European language that most closely resembles Sanskrit is Lithuanian.

My father was stunned. Later, he read about this link between Lithuanian and Sanskrit in Nehru’s Discovery of India.

My father had studied Sanskrit in college, and later investigated some of the similarities between the two languages. Here is one. Most languages have just singular and plural numbers, but Sanskrit goes one step further: it has singular, dual (for exactly two), and plural (for more than two) numbers. Lithuanian too had the dual number, but it was later dropped, probably during a modernization drive, as being unnecessarily complex.

As it happened, my brother was recently in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, for a conference. The taxi driver taking him to the hotel from the airport obviously recognized him as an Indian because he conveyed to my brother, in broken English, that the European language that most closely resembles Sanskrit is Lithuanian!

This was a curious coincidence, a strange inter-generational mirroring effect spanning decades.

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