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Redefining the Classics at Harvard

By Mayukha Karnam, Crimson Staff Writer

During my first few days at Harvard, I attended the Advising Fair and wandered into the language section. Thinking I might be interested in Sanskrit, I approached the Classical Languages booth for advice. I was surprised and confused to instead be redirected to the South Asian Studies booth.

Before that moment, I had never actively thought about the qualities of classical languages, nor had I ever truly considered the definition of a classical language. Growing up, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, I had always considered Sanskrit to be a classical language. It only felt like a natural assumption, especially considering that Sanskrit, along with Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Odia, are officially considered classical languages in India.

Although the question of which department a language is taught in might seem trivial to some, I take issue with the exclusion of Sanskrit from Harvard's Department of the Classics for two major reasons.

First, in only including European languagesGreek and Latinthe department's choices reinforce Eurocentrism and prioritize Western culture. The opening line of the description of classical languages in the Languages at Harvard booklet reads “Greek and Latin provide access to the two cultures and literatures that have profoundly influenced the development of Western civilization,” conflating “classical” and “Western civilization.” However, “classical” also refers to the foundations of many cultures outside of Europe that Harvard doesn’t acknowledge in the current study of classical languages. Overlooking non-European classical languages is overlooking those societies on the global stage and the role of their cultures and literatures in the development of civilizations around the world.

Secondly, a classical languages department that contains only Greek and Latin contradicts accepted scholarly definitions of what constitutes a classical language. In an essay advocating that Tamil also be considered a classical language, George L. Hart, Professor Emeritus of Tamil at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that a classical language “should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.”

In a similar vein, Tom McArthur, who served as editor of English Today for 23 years, defined a classical language as follows: “A prestigious, often ancient language, such as Latin or Sanskrit, or a variety of a language, such as classical Greek…. They have traditionally provided models for successor or dependent languages, especially for styles of verse and prose, literary genres, grammatical descriptions, pronouncements on usage, and philosophical and other texts.”

By these formal definitions, there is little doubt that Sanskrit should be considered a “classical language” in linguistic studies. Sanskrit has influenced the vocabulary of languages such as Bengali, Nepali, Konkani, Assamese, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. Sanskrit produced an abundant body of literature including the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are still well known today. Today, scientific innovations and administrative terms often come from Sanskrit, a similar phenomenon to Greek and Latin's influence on medical or scientific terms in western culture.

In addition, Edward Sapir, who was an anthropologist and professor at the University of Chicago and later Yale University, identified classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek and Latin as having “an overwhelming significance as carriers of culture.” In short, it is not just Sanskrit that is excluded from Harvard's designation of classical language. By this definition, those five languages should comprise the classical languages department in Harvard.

In offering a wealth of foreign languages, Harvard has clearly demonstrated its commitment to providing students with a global perspective. However, an exclusively European Department of Classics neglects the global, long lasting contributions of non-European classical societies. In order to align more with scholarly definitions of “classical languages” such as Sapir's and amend a Western bias, Harvard should include all five classical languages in the department. These languages are already taught at Harvard under different departments, making this restructuring possible without having to seek out and hire new professors.

A potential criticism of this change is that it creates a disjointed department with unrelated languages. Although most universities define only Greek and Latin as classical languages, not all do. Under “Classical Languages,” Lebanon Valley College offers elementary Classical Greek, Latin and Sanskrit; the Classics department at Brown University offers courses in Ancient and Modern Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit language and literature. As these institutions show, it is possible to create a cohesive department with the inclusion of non-European languages.

In setting only Greek and Latin apart with the status of “classical language,” Harvard overlooks Arabic, classical Chinese, and Sanskrit, among others, as having significantly contributed to classical societies. If rearranging courses within departments doesn’t seem to be a feasible option, then Harvard should at least re-name the department to more accurately reflect its focus, because “classical” most certainly does not mean just Western.

Mayukha Karnam ‘19, a Crimson staff writer, lives in Hollis Hall.

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