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Tag Archives | Dravidian

In Pragati How old is Proto-Dravidian?

Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

(This article appeared was published in Pragati in Julu 2013. This is an expanded version of an earlier post)

According to linguists, there is a relation between the Sanskrit word satam, Latin centum, Old Saxonhunderod and Lithuanian simtas; these words derived from a common word in an ancestral language named Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The word in this theoretical ancestral language was deduced by listing the daughter terms and applying some linguistic sound change rules to figure out if the daughter terms were cognates of the mother term. Using this technique, a substantial vocabulary has been constructed for PIE, which is assumed to have been spoken between 4000 – 3500 BCE to 2500 BCE.

In India, about 75 percent of the population speaks a language that belongs to the Indo-European family (Hindi, Bengali, Marathi among others and 22 percent speak languages belonging to the Dravidian language family (Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam). While Indo-European languages are spoken mostly in North India, Dravidian languages are spoken in South India. This fact, along with some interpretations that the Indus-Saraswati script is Dravidian, has led to a theory that the Indo-European speakers came from outside India and pushed the Dravidian autochthons to the South of the peninsula. This is a contentious issue even now, popping up in elections speeches by Dravidian politicians who like to split people as ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

In the midst of this Aryan controversy, as it is popularly known, comes a new paper which claims that there existed a super linguistic ancestor, older than Proto-Indo-European, around 15,000 years back. The authors identified a class of words whose sound meaning lasted long enough to retain traces of their ancestry between language families separated by millennia. While half of the words in various languages are replaced by a new word roughly every two to four millennia, the authors argue that there are some ultra-conserved words that live as old as ten to twenty millennia. These words, which include adjectives, pronouns and special adverbs (Thou, Not, To Give, Mother Fire), are spread over such diverse language families as Indo-European and Dravidian.

Another interesting piece of information from the paper is regarding the date when Pro-Dravidian split from the ancestral language and when Proto-Dravidian speakers moved to the subcontinent. One of the first language families to split from this Eurasiatic ancestor was Proto-Dravidian, which was around 14,000 years back, much earlier than Proto-Indo-European. These Proto-Dravidian speakers expanded from Central Asia to South Asia and reached a region at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan from where they were displaced by Indo-European speakers much later. Though the model does not specify when the Dravidian languages evolved from Proto-Dravidian, it is clear that the evolution happened in the subcontinent. There are some who believe that Dravidian speakers lived in the Indus-Saraswati area until the invading Indo-European speakers displaced them and this model augments that theory.

So far there has been no consensus on the origins of Dravidian and only speculation on the time and place of the distinctive origins of its speakers. Some scholars have put their origins around 4000 BCE in Northeastern Iran from where they moved to India. However there have not been any traces of Dravidian languages outside India, which makes the external origins of Dravidian, a challenge to explain. Regarding Proto-Dravidian itself, a date of 3000 BCE was previously suggested which others claimed was in the realm of ‘guesswork’. But the new paper not only suggests a much older time frame for Proto-Dravidian, but also a Central Asian origin which disagrees many previous theories. For example, one theory argues that there was no Dravidian influence in the early Rig Veda; Dravidian lone words appear only in subsequent stages suggesting that Dravidian speakers arrived around the same time as the Indo-European speakers in North-West India.

With the new discovery, does this paper change the chronology of events and change the narrative of Indian history? It is too early to get into the impact of an earlier date for Proto-Dravidian as other linguists have panned the paper; it seems the paper has a “garbage in, garbage out” problem. The semantic looseness with which the reconstructions have been made of Indo-European words has been extreme and does not agree with the consensus. For example, taking one of the reconstructed words, one linguist was able to show that the word had the meaning “with the teeth, biting together” in Greek and “reach, strike” in Sanskrit. The problem was not just with the semantic interpretation; the Sanskrit word that was reconstructed did not match with the word in the Indo-European database. Since there are doubts on some reconstructions, the relationships among such words in different family trees are questionable.

But the bigger problem is this. After five to nine millennia, most words change so much in their meaning that it is hard to figure out other words, which originated from the same ancestor. Sometimes you don’t have to go that far either as words change quite a lot within a couple of millennia. Thus a sentence in one language family would be incomprehensible to a member of another language family even if they derived from the same ancestor as seen from the difference in meaning in Sanskrit and ancient Greek of the same word. Due to all this, critics have mentioned that the paper is of poor academic quality, displayed poor knowledge of linguistic geography and linguistic history. Thus even though this paper claimed a sensational finding, the origins of Proto-Dravidian and Dravidian continues to remain in the realm of guesswork.

References:

  1. Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade. “Ultraconserved Words Point to Deep Language Ancestry Across Eurasia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 6, 2013). doi:10.1073/pnas.1218726110.
  2. Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. 1st ed. Prentice Hall, 2009.
  3. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
  4. Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Reprint. Princeton University Press, 2010.
  5. Ultraconserved words? Really?? by Sally Thomason at Language Log
  6. Do ‘Ultraconserved Words’ Reveal Linguistic Macro-Families?” GeoCurrents.
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How old is Proto-Dravidian?

Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

The discovery of the similarity of Sanskrit with European languages by Sir William Jones led to the theory of that there was originally a Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) from which all the related languages evolved. The Proto-Indo-European linguistic problem then became the Proto-Indo-European biological problem and it morphed into the Aryan Invasion Theory with Aryans invading and displacing Dravidian speakers from the Punjab region. For linguists, one important question is in finding the time frame of this hypothetical language. There must have been a time when PIE originated, stayed alive and then ceased to exist. It is believed by some linguists PIE originated between 4000 – 3500 BCE and died by the start of the Mature Harappan Period (2600 BCE).

Now a new paper suggests that there was an older common ancestor which existed around 15,000 years back. Some of the words used from the ice age have been retained in related forms since that period. The paper uses a genetic study which claims that Dravidians expanded from Central Asia to South Asia much before the migration of the Indo-Europeans and uses that to set a much older date for Proto-Dravidian. The map below show the migration of Dravidians and the arrow seems to point to

PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

This seems like a Dravidian nationalist dream come true. But all is not well with this theory. If you notice the map, you will find that the Dravidian speakers ending up in the Brahui region of Balochistan. While it was believed that they were the remnants of the Dravidian speakers who did not migrate to the South following the arrival of the Indo-European speakers, it is now believed that they migrated from Central India in 1000 CE.

There are other serious issues as well.

There are many variables in the reconstructions, and many the forms themselves often bear little resemblance to mainstream Indo-Europeanists’ reconstructions. The semantic looseness is often extreme. For instance, the database glosses a reconstructed form *(a)den@gh- (where @ = schwa) as `to reach, to seize, to have time’. Among the proposed descendants of this form are a Tocharian B form meaning `rise, raise oneself up’, an “Old Indian” (Sanskrit?!) form meaning `reach, strike’, an “Old Greek” (Ancient Greek?!) form meaning `with the teeth, biting together’, and an Old Irish form meaning `repress, oppress, suppress, crush, put down’. This is typical of the semantic latitude. Formally, too, there are problems. The proposed “Old Indian” descendant of this proto-word is given as daghnoti, possibly on the assumption that the nasal of the reconstructed root metathesized with the gh; but the nasal of the Sanskrit form is a present tense suffix, not part of the root at all. So Sanskrit (by whatever name) doesn’t match the database’s proto-word phonetically.

If the reconstructions used by Pagel et al. for their statistical analyses are not reliable in either form or meaning, then the statistical results of comparing these reconstructions cannot provide any evidence for distant relationships among the seven groups they compare. If the selection procedure for choosing among several candidate proto-words to use for the statistical analysis is flawed, then there may be problems with the statistics as well. But even if there are no statistical flaws, the Pagel et al. paper is yet another sad example of major scientific publications accepting and publishing articles on historical linguistics without bothering to ask any competent historical linguists to review the papers in advance.[Ultraconserved words? Really??]

Here is another criticism of the paper

Pagel and Atkinson’s search for family relationships among languages is set off course at the onset by looking in the wrong place. It has been understood at least since Antoine Meillet’s work a hundred years ago that grammatical properties are more reliable than words as indicators of familial relationships. As Meillet (1908: 126) noted “Les coincidences de vocabulaire n’ont en general qu’une très petite valeur probante” (“Coincidences of vocabulary are in general of very little probative value”). In recent years, the searchlight has been focused—by bone fide linguists, not evolutionary biologists—on abstract syntactic properties, establishing formal grammar as a population science; see, for example, the work of Giuseppe Longobardi and Cristina Guardiano (e.g. Longobardi & Guardiano 2009). Just as the biological classification of species, originally based on externally accessible characteristics, underwent a revolution on the grounds of progress in theoretical biology, namely the rise of molecular genetics, so too progress in the phylogenetic classification of languages must be based on progress in theoretical linguistics. In order to push the research frontier, we linguists need to identify the basic building blocks of language, its “atoms”, in Mark Baker’s memorable metaphor, and examine carefully how they play out in linguistic evolution. Looking for “words that survived since the last Ice Age”, in contrast, is a seductive but ultimately a futile enterprise. [Do “Ultraconserved Words” Reveal Linguistic Macro-Families?]

And finally

In short, “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia” is premised on the notion that cutting-edge research in historical linguistics requires little knowledge of linguistic geography, linguistic history, or even linguistics itself. It is hardly surprising that such a research program would yield inadequate results. [Do “Ultraconserved Words” Reveal Linguistic Macro-Families?]

References:

  1. Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Reprint. Princeton University Press, 2010.
  2. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
  3. Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade. “Ultraconserved Words Point to Deep Language Ancestry Across Eurasia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 6, 2013). doi:10.1073/pnas.1218726110.
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