The Language Sphere

In this post, I want to share the theory that I am developing for my dissertation project and I am so looking forward to suggestions!

It is well-known that South Indian religions are greatly multilingual. However, I have not seen any methodology that deals with South Asian religious multilingualism, in particular. Sheldon Pollock’s binary opposition between Sanskrit and vernaculars (2006) is an influential perspective for South and Southeast Asian multilingualism. Still, it focuses on the political and literary aspects, not the religious domain. 

For my project, I am developing the concept of “the language sphere” or “logosphere,” which can hopefully have widespread utility in South Asian theism and beyond. This concept is informed by the translation theory of Naoki Sakai (1992) and “the language order” of Andrew Ollett (2017). However, my concept aims at overcoming the potential shortcomings of these theories. Let me tell, first, about these scholars and their ground-breaking concepts of languages.

Naoki Sakai proposes that language is a site of hybridity, always context-specific, based on the social and literary evidence from eighteenth-century Japanese context. The notion of a unified language is constructed and has no empirical existence whatsoever. Sakai explains that it is only in translation that a language is presented as “a unity” that always and necessarily differentiates itself from the other language unity. In translation, the two languages unities exist symmetrically and mutually under “the schema of configuration.” Sakai’s theory offers the possibility to view language unity and translation as both conceptually made up. 

Andrew Ollett applies Sakai’s representation of translation to the investigation of languages in premodern India. He argues that Sanskrit and Prakrit, as well as other languages in premodern India, can be viewed under the framework of configuration, in which a language was ordered into patterns and schemas based on its reference to other languages within the same cultural and historical domain. The concept of “language order” that Ollett derives from Sakai’s theory of language and translation offers an interesting model for investigating premodern South Asian multilingualism.

However, both Sakai and Ollett draw our attention to languages and their interactions mainly at a micro-level without much attention to the agent who uses the languages or the geographical and historical fluctuations within a particular linguistic domain. Their concepts also tend to give the impression that languages remain static at a certain point in time. 

To better understand the dynamic interplay of languages, I propose the concept of “the language sphere” or “logosphere” instead of “language unity” or “language order.” The language sphere is a spatial representation of the myriad and fluid movements within a language. Each sphere is connected with many others, and South Asian multilingualism can be considered the historically changing network of different but overlapping logospheres that are in constant interrelations and negotiations, disrupting the language order at times. Specifically, this concept is constructed to comprehend the linguistic transformations in a religious domain by highlighting the three main elements that play a role in theological development and religious identification.

I picture the language sphere as being loosely demarcated by the three elements. In constant reciprocal tension, the three elements hold together to form each angle of a triangle within the language sphere, as I illustrate here.

The Language Sphere

1) Agency – In my project, the agency usually refers to an author of a text and his or her cultural and intellectual background, like the author’s location and education. When the author composes a text, he or she broadens the angle of agency and sets this angle in relation to normativity and expressibility. 

2) Normativity – This indicates both scriptural and theological normativity constructed from scriptures, teachings, and literature. Normativity places an influence and restriction on the author. However, the author can also set a new norm through a new composition.

3) Expressibility – What can be expressed or enunciated in a given language at a given space and time. The expressibility is conditioned by the other two elements, agency and normativity. It can either be expanded or contracted according to those two elements. For example, a certain linguistic domain like English may develop a subset of technical terms, hermeneutical elements, or ideologies that belong specifically to that domain and cannot be found in other linguistic domains. When an author composes a text within this domain, he or she would have to conform to the expressibility here. At the same time, the author can choose to challenge or expand the boundary of expressibility in this domain by introducing new linguistic elements or authorities, borrowing terms and concepts from other languages, or creating a hybrid or multilingual idiom. 

Let us take the case of the Śrīvaiṣṇavas as my paradigmatic example. Within the community, we see the spheres of Sanskrit, Tamil, and Maṇipravāḷa. The early Śrīvaiṣṇavas regarded both the Sanskrit and Tamil Veda as their authoritative scriptures and were engaged with the Sanskrit and Tamil sphere. However, during this time, the Sanskrit sphere and the Tamil one did remain relatively distinct since the Sanskrit sphere did not explicitly include the Tamil scripture. In other words, the Tamil scripture is rarely mentioned in the Sanskrit composition. Then, the Maṇipravāḷa sphere was created when the Śrīvaiṣṇava authors began to use Maṇipravāḷa in the composition. The Śrīvaiṣṇava Maṇipravāḷa is a significant example of the functioning of such language sphere. By bringing in both Sanskrit and Tamil, the author or the agent of the Maṇipravāḷa sphere allows the Sanskrit and Tamil scriptures to coexist and translate their expressibility into the same sphere by blurring their boundaries. The newly created Maṇipravāḷa sphere thus expands both normativity and expressibility of the spheres of Sanskrit and Tamil and manages to transform the sometimes mutually excluding two spheres.

By composing a new text, an author affects the previously existing logosphere by changing, expanding and/or contracting, the boundaries of its three angles, agency, normativity, and expressibility. This concept zooms in on the tensions and changes each text encounters and creates within the sphere in relation to previous texts of a given tradition. Thus, I hope that this concept can better account for the diachronic development of linguistic changes and negotiations in the history of South Asian religions.

Special thanks to Daniele Cuneo for his insight and creativity.


Ollett, Andrew. Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017.

Sakai, Naoki. Voices of the Past: The Status of Language in Eighteenth-Century Japanese Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Sheldon, Pollock. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

3 Replies to “The Language Sphere”

  1. @Manasicha,

    I think what you are doing is really interesting and relevant, for some pretty far-reaching reasons. Expressive power is a concept now emerging in logic, capturing what can be done in a given system. Not much is known about it yet, but it has a huge future.

    Looking back, Schleiermacher had a huge impact in Germany with his theory of translation, and offered an important alternative to Hegel. In that context he actually introduced the concept of complementarity, made famous by Niels Bohr in quantum theory! And had a formative impact on Hermann Grassman, who then made his way from mathematics to Sanskrit!

    Your schema of agents, norms and expressions abstracts very well to operators. constraints, and expressive power in information systems. That will interest people in India, where Sanskrit students are prized in IT, and machine processing of language is a major research interest.

    In time, all that should have a real impact in analytical philosophy, but we don’t know just yet what kind of problem is posed by expressive power. That itself could be philosophically interesting.

    • Dear Orwin,
      Thanks so much for your enthusiasm! I totally agree that the expressivity is the most obscure part and probably not always obvious even to the agent. That is actually the reason I picture the triangle upside down with the expressivity at the bottom. Also, it is very helpful that you mention Schleiermacher. I definitely have his theory in the back of my mind when developing this concept and I will look more into that.
      Thanks again!

  2. Dear Manasicha,
    I’m glad you found that interesting. Schleiermacher on predication as ,”a relation to the world” interests me, as speaking to something in Sanskrit which seems to elude the Western sensibility. Lacking definite articles, there is no prompt to posit individual things: rather matters are left to emerge from the overlapping of such relations. That works down in the holistic way, which the West has never grasped, but now aspires to in the name of emergence.

    Patterns of overlapping have long interested me for problems in classification, and thus systematics. Machine processing brings great new power to such work, but we have yet to realize the potential. Much attention in biology is now focussed on levels 4 and 5 (out of 7) of the classical Natural System, where plants are found adapting to soil types, a matter of central interest in agriculture.

    One can work down by discriminate analysis, but that is sensitive to the definition of axes, and any curvature. And logic stopped short of that with Boole, de Morgan and Venn, leaving Riemann to unleash untold expressive power through curvature, which has never been tamed! It took him into Kantian antinomies, which Schleiermacher followed more thoughtfully than Hegel, and Grassmann after him developed what we have to tame the mathematics.

    I see you now working down by placing discourse by relations, again to trace how discourses ‘ took root’ in specific regions. Your norms fit in where Kant spoke of regulative principles, but thought them not suitable for science. Ken Wilber tried to blaze a trail through there with Kohlberg on moral maturation extending Piaget’s cognitive version of the Natural System, and I’ve been following an endless debate on Frank Visser’s Integral World, where we keep hearing that emergence matters, but we don’t really have a grip on it. and keep falling back into antinomies. That was the most relevant forum I could find.

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