A couple of years ago, when there was talk of politician ND Tiwari and the result of a certain DNA test, a Kannada newspaper reporting the story found itself unable to come up with a term for “biological son”. It did what writers, translators and students dealing with Kannada-related linguistic crises have done now for decades: it asked Professor G Venkatasubbiah, a man whose name has become synonymous with Kannada usage and lexicography. There wasn’t a precise equivalent, he said, and then went on to suggest a phrase the newspaper could use instead.

Now in his 104th year, GV – known by his initials as teachers often are – is a towering figure in the world of Kannada letters (and, as it happens, words). He’s had a distinguished working life as a college teacher and principal, as an editor, as a translator who has made works by Kabir, Shankaracharya, RL Stevenson and J Krishnamurthi available in Kannada, and as author of a large shelf’s worth of literary history and criticism. His monumental achievement though remains the stewardship of the 54-year-long project which brought into being the Kannada Sahitya Parishat’s Nighanu – an eight-volume, 9,000-page monolingual dictionary.

“It happened this way,” he began, at his austerely appointed home in south Bengaluru. Writers and researchers had long been feeling the need for an authoritative and comprehensive Kannada-Kannada dictionary when the matter came up for discussion in December 1941 at the annual meeting of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat. The Parishat, a non-profit that serves to promote Kannada, resolved to create such a dictionary. Their model was to be the Oxford English Dictionary, in part because the “historical principles” approach, where the evolution of word meanings is traced, was appropriate for a language as old as Kannada. Also because, GV said, “It was the best dictionary. It is still the best dictionary.”

“Unfortunately, no linguistic survey had been done in Kannada,” GV said. Words would have to be gathered from written sources. The editors identified 903 (later expanded to 1,750) works of literature from different periods – the 10th century Pampa and Ranna, the 15th century Kumaravyasa, the 17th century Lakshmisha. They chose works of contemporary stalwarts such as KV Puttappa, Shivaram Karanth and others, making sure that different parts of the state were represented: “We wanted to collect words from Udupi, from Raichur, from Mysore, from Madikeri.” Then, there were words from nearly 10,000 Kannada inscriptions dating from the 4th century to the 18th century, and of course, words from all previously existing Kannada dictionaries.

It took around 10 years to collect words and another three to arrange them in alphabetical order before the writing of the dictionary could begin in earnest.

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