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Understanding language and linguistics through a philosophical lens - Are you ready for the unconventional?

Upon speculation, the use of language as a vehicle of thought and ideas is revolutionary. It shows us how complex and unique the human brain is. Language acts as an enabler of intentionality in its ability to perfectly describe one’s imagination of events, objects, thoughts and ideas. It is an instrument that allows us to communicate our beliefs and opinions with others. It is also a tool to exchange information, and knowledge, helping us as humans formulate theories, predictions and ideologies. The philosophy of language and linguistics explores the essence and nature of language, the connection between various languages, the users of these languages and the world. 

The philosophy of language in India, commonly seen in Sanskrit texts deals with the questions related to the cognitions of speech. These cognitions are known as ‘sabda-bodha’. Broadly speaking, Indian philosophy is synonymous with commands, requests, injunctions as a theoretical foundation. According to this philosophy, we listen to different commands and carry out their functions and thats how a language is learnt, through the process of inference. The Sanskrit philosophy of language, deals with what contemporary philosophers would associate with epistemology and philosophy of the mind. Thus, rituals and traditions were seen as sources of knowledge. 

The earliest evidence of speculation around language and linguistics in India is found in the Vedas. It includes enlightened arguments on various schools of thought. These discussions encompass speech units and the meanings that are associated with them. One particular view on this discourse, attributes its foundation to an epistemological origin, depicting sounds as an ephemeral entity. This outlook was apparent in the early times, upon close examination of the language that was used in Vedic texts. Indian scholars are accepting of a certain method of attaining knowledge on subject matter, commonly referred to as ‘pramana’. At best, two pramanas are usually welcomed - direct perception (pratyaks) and inference (anumana). There is a third pramana - verbal transmission (sabda agana), that is accepted by Patanjali’s Yoga systematic philosophy, along with others. Adopted by logicians and people who adhere to their rhetoric, upamana which is the method of gaining knowledge through similarity makes up the fourth pramana, that is accepted by the Nyaya philosophy. 

In Vedic literature, one can notice the use of a mystical and ritualistic approach to language. During those times, language was used as an instrument to communicate with deities, invoke their blessings, thus conducting a successful ritual. While the Gods held the power over people, one could look at language as a connecting path to attain a spiritual connection with God. With these observations, language was perceived as an enigmatic power that gave humankind the creativity and divinity to invoke God and form a spiritual relationship. This further resulted in the deification of language, and the appearance of the Goddess of Speech. 


Q1. What are the schools of thought in Indian philosophy that deal with language? 

There are three main schools of thought that deal with the philosophy of language in India, they are - Mimamsaka, that particularly deals with the critical analysis and reflection of Vedic texts, Nyaya which is the Vedic school of logic and Vedanta, the school of thought that deals with the ideas and concepts that have risen from the postulations seen in the Upanishads. 

Q2. What is jnana and how does it play a role in language? 

Jnana is a Sanskrit term that translates to ‘knowledge’. It appears in recent experimental philosophy that helps in the understanding of context and comprehension of language.