Browncast – Episode 9: Conversation on Indo-Aryan linguistics

The latest BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, iTunes and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

The conversation was between Brown Pundits’ contributors Razib, Zach and Slapstik on the evolution of Sanskrit and Indo-Aryan more generally within the Indian subcontinent. The conversation started off from thoughts on the origin of Sanskrit from Proto-Indo-Aryan, the language of the feudal elite of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC).

We spoke of the broad swathe of time from (roughly) 1500-500 BCE wherein this elite planted themselves across the breadth of the Indo-Gangetic plains south of the Himalayas (cf. hima-vanta > himavata). The peculiarities of the obstinately oral culture led to phenomenal developments in grammar (vyAkaraNa) to preserve the fidelity of speech. We also briefly covered some peculiarities of development of prkRta-s which show influence of Dravidian speech, the Indo-Aryan nature of Dardic languages and some comments on Iranic languages.

One of the important questions raised by Zach was on the parallel development of Mitanni-Aryan. Specifically why doesn’t its existence prove an outward diffusion of Indo-Aryan dialects? While I did not want to de-rail the conversation in the podcast with a technical argument (based on the RUKI rule), I think this point does deserve some supplementary explanation here. The basic argument can be set out as follows:

  • Retroflexes in earliest Vedic were almost always phonemic (pUrNa), and it is well established within IA linguistics that retroflexion existed before the loss of voiced sibilants /z/, /ź/ and /Z/ in proto-Vedic. So, we have PIE *misdhom (salary, reward) > *mizdhom (IIr, voiced sibilant) > *miźdhom  (IIr, via satem RUKI sound law) > *miZDham (Proto-Vedic, using sibilant-dental consonant saMdhi)
  • We also know that Proto-Dravidian lacked sibilants and replaced the phonemic voiced-sibilants by their approximants /y/ or /w/, which later merged with the preceding vowel. So, the effect of Dravidian substratum on proto-Vedic *miZDham is given by: *miZDham > *mi(y)Dham > mIDham, and mIDham is attested in Rg Veda as meaning reward or prize of a contest.
  • The same word (meaning payment) is also attested in Mitanni-Aryan as miśta, which seems to be easily derivable from IIr *miźdhom via simple de-voicing of /ź/ and de-aspiration of /dh/. There’s no known rule or precedent of deriving miśta from IA mIDham. Even using the latter-day example of Romany languages, the aspirated retroflex /Dh/ should be approximated by /r/, which is clearly not the case here.

Therefore, the simplest explanation of miśta in Mitanni-Aryan and its cognate mIDha in Vedic is that both terms are derivable using known sound laws from the older Indo-Iranian version of the word, as opposed to one from the other. The same argument also shows how retroflexion existed in oldest Vedic and that the simplest explanation of lack of voiced sibilants in Vedic is the substrate effect of Proto-Dravidian.

For readers more interested in this topic, I would suggest The Horse, The Wheel and Language by David Anthony on the archaeological evidence of steppe Indo-European culture. The book is very strong on archaeology, but it gets some of the linguistics’ arguments wrong. On linguistics itself, Cardona and Jain’s Indo-Aryan Linguistics remains the go-to text. Note that this book is more technical, but very rewarding.


Some thoughts on Ain-i Akbari

I have been going through the Ain-i Akbari recently, the name traditionally given to the third volume of the Akbarnama, commissioned by the Emperor Akbar of the Moghal dynasty and written by his Grand Vizier, Abu’l Fadl Allami by around ~1600 CE. The third volume is by far the most personal account of India, its geography, culture and people by Abu’l Fadl – himself born and brought up in Agra in an immigrant family of Yemeni Arab origin.

There are two extracts from the Ain that I wanted to write about. One related to linguistics, esp. the interesting reaction of an erudite aristocrat of Yemeni Arab extraction when he first encounters saMskRta. And the second description of the movement of the cArvAka-s[*], the free-thinking atheistic strand of Indic culture that was ridiculed and suppressed even as similar movements arose in the West (esp Britain) just under a century later.

Abu’l Fadl pwnage is quite obvious from the above extract, and in fact it is the mark of a truly great man to acknowledge it for posterity. Fadl clearly admits the effort to grasp the complexity of Sanskrit phonetics, morphology, syntax and grammar. However, what’s interesting is that while his account of his intellectual labours is in first-person, he switches to the third when concluding that his prior view of Arabic grammar being peerless is now under question. It is almost as if he stopped short of personally admitting to the pwnage – a little bit of hurt pride maybe – and yet couldn’t stop himself from remarking on the sheer formalism of what he’d just been introduced to. Of course, anyone who knows anything about linguistics would readily admit that pANini‘s Classical Sanskrit grammar, which Fadl describes a mere sliver of above, remained the tour de force in Linguistics from around ~500 BCE to the late 19th century until Saussure.

This brings me to the second extract from the Ain in question, namely the description of the cArvAka-s or nAstika school. To me this passage more than anything else contains the germ of the eventual Moghal ruin. It is amazing and ironic how a fairly erudite gentleman, maybe one of the best educated of his times, could dismiss some of the core ideals of what became known as the European Enlightenment as “unenlightened”. Of course, as it turned out, Isaac Newton, born a mere 50 years after this was written, published the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in the same decade as the English Bill of Rights was passed by the Parliament. A process directly leading to three centuries of unprecedented economic and political growth of Western Europe and to the utter humiliation of the descendants of these same Moghal aristocrats at their hands.

Edit: Since sarpamaugdheya (as “snake charmer” will be known by me henceforth) below questioned whether the original Farsi by Abu’l Fadl speaks of his update of priors in third person, I looked into the original text. And here it is in all its majesty, where the underscored portion states:

پیشتر از آنکه بدین زبان لخت آشنا شود چنان می دانست که ضابطه لغت عرب بیهمتا باشد

Note the third-person verb in “midânest keh zabt-e lughat-e arabi bihamta bâshid”, i.e. he knew/considered the system of grammar of arabic as peerless.

[*] The word literally means sweet (cAri) talker (vAka, cf. Latin vocem).


Muslims and Urdu in India

The plot above shows the % Urdu speakers vs. % Muslim in states where Muslims are 4% or more of the population. The data is from Census 2011 (thanks for Vikram of the language data). There are some interesting trends. Assuming that the vast majority of Urdu speakers are Muslim, it seems that in India the core Urdu-identified region is in the Deccan and to the east of its traditional heartland, in Bihar. In South India, 30% of Muslims in Tamil Nadu may be Urdu-speaking. But in Kerala the fraction is almost zero, while in Gujarat and West Bengal less than 10% of the Muslims are Urdu-speaking.

Below the fold is the table.

Continue reading “Muslims and Urdu in India”