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War of words on the origin of words

August 30, 2012

Professor Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, a scholar and gentleman, and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, breathed his last a fortnight ago. His demise marks the end of an era in the scholarly analysis of Indian languages. His authoritative book “The Dravidian Languages” (Cambridge 2003) clearly set out the origin, development and diversity of the Dravidian languages.

He made me aware of the point made by the geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza that the genetic tree and the linguistic tree have many impressive similarities, and would goad me into thinking more about these putative similarities.

True, DNA is the seed on which the genetic tree has grown, flourished and diversified. Likewise, word is the seed on which languages form, flourish and multiply. Just as genes are sequences of DNA and the collection of genes (the genome) identifies an organism, words, phrases, sentences, and grammar define language.

Just as organisms have evolved from an ancestor, languages too have evolved from an ancestral or “proto” language. Where and how did the ancestor of all Indo-European languages, or the proto-Indo-European, originate and diversify into German, Italian, Russian, Persian and Hindi, is a question on which there has been a controversy or war of words.

In this connection, Professor Krishnamurti would have been interested in a recent paper in the August 24, 2012 issue of Science by Dr. Quentin Atkinson and colleagues of the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Atkinson took the Cavalli-Sforza idea further and used the same statistical methods used in evolutionary biology to the study of the origin of Indo-European languages. In evolutionary biology, we start with sequences of the DNA molecule and analyse how they have changed and diversified to produce newer and individual species in time.

Alternately, and equally effectively, we can start with the DNA contents — the genomes — of a group of, say, mammals, and work back in evolutionary time and see at what point, or origin, they started diverging to produce, say dogs, cattle, apes and humans.

In linguistics we start with root words — actually ‘proto-words’, or cognates. These are the original words from which variations arise. For example the proto-Indo European word ‘mehter’ metamorphosed into ‘maa’ or ‘maata’ in Hindi, ‘ mutter’ in German, ‘mater’ in Latin, ‘mat’ in Russian or ‘mader’ in Persian.

Atkinson started with such cognate words and gave each of them the value of one. When the cognate is replaced by some other word, it got a value of zero. Using such a binary score, he used the same statistical method (called Bayesian phylogeographic approach) that was used earlier to investigate the origin of virus outbreaks from DNA sequence data.

Basic vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages were used to trace their origin or the root from where they diversified. His result: the proto-Indo-European language started in Anatolia, or ‘Asia Minor’, comprising much of Turkey.

Atkinson’s team writes in their Science paper: “we found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin. Both the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000-9500 years ago.”

Note two words in the above quotation, namely, ‘steppe’ and ‘agricultural’. First the latter; the distinguished British archaeologist Colin Renfrew had suggested already in 1987 that agriculture and language dispersal went together.

As hunter-gatherers settled down to become farming communities, a well-knit society was formed with more intimate interactions within and without. And as such communities moved, or formed in several locales, communications became active, and language started developing.

Other evidence suggests the start of agriculture in the Indo-European region to be Anatolia, and just about 9500-10,000 years ago. And farming is believed to have moved from this region, both westward and eastward. As farming communities formed, linguistic diversity did as well.

Not everyone accepts this interpretation. Within hours of the Atkinson paper appearing online, a war of words started through emails and blogs. The other theory is that proto-Indo-European language originated in the Caspian region of West Asia, also termed the “steppe”. This is the treeless, grass-covered regions in South Eastern Europe and Asia.

It covers a vast area of cold central Asia on one hand — Ukraine, Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan (the Silk Route) and the tropical Indian and West Asian region on the other. Current theory about the origin of Indo-European languages is that the ‘proto’ or origin is off the Caspian Sea area. Here too, linguistic analysis is based on cognate words such as the sky god “dyeus” (“deva” here?), horse “ekwos” (“aswa”?), the cow “gwous” (gau?), and the date suggested is more like 6000 years ago. The belief here is that language spread not through farming or agriculture but through conquest — not by seed but by sword, and not by the hoe but by horsemen.

Telugu, spoken widely in Andhra Pradesh, on which the late Prof. B Krishnamurti researched in detail, is part of the Indo-European family. But the origin of Tamil, the language spoken by the southern neighbours, is still unclear.

It seems to have some relationship with, of all languages, Finnish, Hungarian and Basque. And Malayalam, which has commonality with Tamil, has several words common with Finnish; for example the words for basket (vatti in Malayalam, vatin in Finnish), flower (puu, puu), house (kudi, koti). Here then is a puzzle waiting to be resolved by the next generation Krishnamurti on the proto-Tamil/Malayalam language. That would be a fitting tribute to this outstanding scholar.



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