We have a connection with literature that extends way back into our history. From the Epic of Gilgamesh written in 2100 B.C. to the cave paintings in Altamira which date back to 35,000 years ago, stories make us who we are as individuals, as communities, as countries. They are a part of our past, our identity, our futuristic ambitions. In a bid to understand the story behind literature and how words came into existence, I seek out the expertise of Rajendra Nagar, a historian and writer, who has been actively researching and publishing in this field for the past several years.
How do we exactly define literature and how far back in history does it extend?
Etymologically, the word literature originated from the Latin word literatura or litteratura which is writing in the form of letters. So according to the traditional definition of literature, it is a body of written works. However, the way we understand and appreciate literature in the modern context consists of not only written works but oral and unwritten works as well. This understanding pushes the history of literature back to the era when people first started speaking. If we look at the history of human race, we would have to retrace our steps back to the continent of Africa. Humans migrated from here to different regions of the world in search of food, water, security and shelter. But the human race did not travel alone. Along with it travelled its experiences and emotions. In their long journey, they gave birth to various speeches, languages, literature, cultures and civilisations. Thus the unity of human race has gradually transformed into diversity over the millennia.
I know it’s not easy to say with certainty, but when did the first words evolve? And do we know what those words might have been?
From the ancient days when humans learnt to speak, till date, we have produced a huge body of literature, both written and oral. The history of literature will be incomplete without discussing the antiquity of words. In my search to find what these first words might have been I discovered the work of Dr. Bart de Boer, a researcher and professor at the AI-Lab in Belgium who is also an expert on the evolution of speech. According to his recent scientific research, the word ‘doh’ is the oldest word of human speech. There was a time in human history when all objects of the universe were represented by the word doh. Subsequently, it was used specifically to represent water and man. This single word doh is really the linguistic fossil of all the languages of the world. Initially, this word was spoken by a very small group of people who migrated from Africa to India through the coastal sea route around 75,000 years ago. From India they migrated throughout the world and spread to Australia, Asia, Europe, and eventually The Americas. They would go on to one day create the four great, ancient civilisations of the world – Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese civilisations.
So over time, the word doh would become to represent man?
Yes. The Avestan word dah and the Vedic word das have a root in this single word doh. Subsequently the words nag, raksha, yaksha, shakya, kashya and so on began to be used to refer to indigenous Indians. The words dahi for the people of the southern part of the Caspian Sea, russ for the people of northern Caspian Sea and takk for Turks also come from this word. It is the word doh from which the word dohar, which means people relating to ancient doh originated.
From the word dohar several words of very high religious significance like the Persian word ahur, Sumerian word e-kur and Assyrian or Akkadian word asur came into existence. Even the India word esur for god comes from these words.
So a single word breathed life into other words, eventually paving way for the different languages of the world?
Yes, historical and scientific evidence shows that originally people spoke only one language, it is said so in The Bible too. But subsequently as humans migrated to different regions of the world they encountered different climates and this played a significant role in bringing about changes to the colour of their skins, physical structures and the pronunciation of their words. From this, different languages, different cultures and different pieces of literature of the world came into existence.
So the literature of the world, no matter which part of the world it stems from, is really nothing but the story of the entire human race?
The theory of genome declares that all people of the world originated from a single family. Similarly Maha Upanishad and Mundak Upanishad composed during 800 B.C. – 500 B.C. declared the concept of ‘vasudev kutumbakam’ meaning the whole world is one family and ‘vishwa ek needam’ meaning the whole world is like a nest. They all say the same thing that science would say several centuries later. In fact, knowing these facts to be true, the literati of the world has the responsibility to address their readers and audiences to work for global unity and global peace and celebrate the unity in diversity because we all are of one world and ultimately belong to a single human race.
Rajendra Nagar worked for a period of more than three decades in the Indian Revenue Service under the Ministry of Finance, Government of India. He is an archaeologist, historian and a writer and has published many books, papers and academic articles.