A Coup of Languages

“… form has acquired its own content: tacking back and forth between the vernacular near and the cosmopolitan far, and the vivid sense of commensurability this modulation generates, are the objective correlates of a much larger politics of culture” (Pollock 2009, 335).

Late 9th century marks in Karnataka an important shift in the world of culture, power and languages. It is, according to Sheldon Pollock, the early phase of the usage of Kannada for specific texts and genres that were only conducted in Sanskrit in the previous millennium. But vernacularization, or the taking of power of regional languages, is not simply the appearance of these languages on the scene of inscriptions. Pollock argues that texts in Kannada were available since the 5th century, but the first works of literature are only found after the 9th c., and it is only through this second process that a language could properly acquire a cultural power. This is the difference between literization and literarization in Pollock’s vocabulary, and this constitutes the first feature of vernacularization. Secondly, vernacularization is not simply the production of literature in regional languages, but a process that actually questions, or rather, attests, of a shift in the conceptions of political power. Its main aspect would be the adoption of Kannada – and, respectively, other regional languages – as the “primary code for political communication” (ibid, 337). Third and last major feature of vernacularization: the constitution of a regional literary culture and identity. Not only were works of literature written in Kannada, but works mentioning and reflecting upon the cultural practice of writing in Kannada were created as well. Using Kannada, or other regional languages, would become a marker of identity, in contrast with the languages of neighboring territories, and with the old universalist power-world of Sanskrit, which was, inevitably, entering the last phase of its existence.


Pollock, S. (2009). The language of the gods in the world of men: Sanskrit, culture, and power in premodern India. Berkeley, Calif. London: University of California Press.

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