Indic Language Families and Indo-European – 2

The Indian civilization was created by the speakers of many languages but the language of the earliest surviving literary expression was Vedic Sanskrit, that is itself connected to both the North and the South Prakrit languages.

Aryan and Dravidian

It was Bishop Caldwell (1875) who suggested that the South Indian languages of Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu formed the separate Dravidian family of languages. He further suggested that the speakers of the proto-Dravidian language entered India from the northwest. Other scholars argued against this Dravidian invasion theory. Scholars have argued that this attempt to see both the North and the South Indian languages coming to the subcontinent from outside (West Asia) as another example of the preoccupation with the notion of the “Garden of Eden”. In reality, the problem of what constitutes an Aryan or a Dravidian, in the biological or cultural sense in which it is generally posed, is insoluble.

The problem of Aryan and Dravidian is a conflation of many categories. Indian texts do not use the term Arya or Aryan in a linguistic sense, only in terms of culture. There is reference in the Manu Smriti where even the Chinese are termed Aryan, proving that it is not the language that defines this term. The South Indian kings called themselves Aryan as did the South Indian travelers who took the Indian civilization to Southeast Asia.

One may have posed the problem in terms of the anthropological “distinction” between the speaker of the North and the South Indian languages. But the anthropologist tell us that there is no difference. When linguists in the last century insisted that the term “Aryan” be reserved for the North Indian languages alone, it was inevitable confusion would emerge (Kak, 1994). The definition of Aryan and Dravidian are extrapolated from the culture of the speakers of the North and the South Indian languages. But the cultures of the North and the South are the same as far back as we can go. (There is some minor difference in kinship rules.) There is even a mirroring of the sacred geography. The North has Kashi and Mathura; the South has Kanchi and Madurai. Who is to say what was the original? If there is no cultural difference then the use of the term “Aryan” as defining the culture of just the speakers of the North Indian languages is misleading.

This following example puts the absurdity of the terminology in focus. There exist texts that state that Tamilian Hindus came and settled in Kashmir in the early 15th century in the liberal reign of Bada Shah. We don’t know how many people came, but that is the nature of such textual evidence anyway. Now what does that make a Kashmiri? An Aryan or a Dravidian?

Some scholars have claimed a Dravidian substratum for Marathi, but how do we know that prior that Dravidian substratum there was not some other language that was spoken there? And maybe there has been more than one shift back and forth.

Let’s imagine that everyone in India originally spoke Dravidian and then due to some process of “elite dominance” most people in the North started speaking Indo-Aryan and they kept their old traditions and legends. The new speakers will still be culturally Dravidian and certainly they would be so “biologically”, if that could ever mean anything. If this is what happened in India then are the Aryans actually Dravidians and, by implication, are the Dravidians also Aryans? There could be two groups of people speaking two different languages who culturally belong to the same tradition like the modern-day Hungarians and Czechs.

We don’t know who were the authors of the Vedas. They could have been bilinguals who knew “Dravidian’ and “Vedic”; maybe their first language was really Dravidian even though they had Sanskrit names as has been true in South India for much of historical times; or they were purely Sanskrit speaking. No rhetoric or ideology can resolve this question.

The use of a language in literature does not even mean that the speakers are a dominant elite. Let’s consider the use of Urdu in Pakistan. The Punjabi speaking Punjabis are the dominant group but Urdu is used for official work purely due to some historical factors. In fact, the only Urdu-speaking ethnic group in Pakistan, the Mohajirs, feel they are at the bottom of the totem pole.

Indic Language Families and Indo-European North Indian Dravidian

Figure 2: Indo-European and Indic families. The Indic family has the sub-families of North Indian and Dravidian

The texts cannot reveal the ethnic background just as Indians in the US who have adopted American names cannot be identified as ethnically Indian from their writing. The lesson is that the term “Aryan”, misused by so many different parties, should be retired from academic discourse.

Several kinds of families

The Indian linguistic evidence requires the postulation of two kinds of classification. The first is the traditional Indian classification where the whole of India is a single linguistic area of what used to be traditionally called the Prakrit family. Linguists agree that based on certain structural relationships the North and the South Indian languages are closer than Sanskrit and Greek (Emeneau, 1980).

Second, we have a division between the North Indian languages that should really be called North Prakrit (called Indo-Aryan by the linguists) and the South Indian languages that may be called South Prakrit (or Dravidian) (Figure 2). There is also the Indo-European family to which the North Prakrit languages belong. Likewise, Dravidian has been assumed to belong to a larger family of agglutinative languages.

This classification will allow us to get rid of the term Aryan in the classification n of languages which is a good thing because of the racist connotation behind its 19th century use. Its further virtue is that it recognizes that language families cannot be exclusive systems and they should be perceived as overlapping circles that expand and shrink with time.

Back to Ancient India

Some Indologists driven by the old race paradigm have stood facts upside down to force them to fit their theory. We know that the internal evidence of the Indian texts shows that the Vedas precede the Puranas. But since the Puranic themes are shown in the iconography of the Harappan times (2600-1900 BC), the Puranic material is taken to precede the Vedas so that the Vedas could be placed in the second millennium BC.

I think the only logical resolution of all the archaeological and textual evidence is to assume that the Indic area became a single cultural area at least around 5000 BC. The Indian civilization was created by the speakers of many languages but the language of the earliest surviving literary expression was Vedic Sanskrit, that is itself connected to both the North and the South Prakrit languages. This idea is supported not only by the internal evidence that shows that the Indic tradition from 7000 BC onwards is an indigenous affair, but also from the new analysis of ancient art (Kak, in press). For example, David Napier (in press) shows how the forehead markings of the Gorgon and the single-eye of the cyclops in Greek art are Indian elements. Although he suggests that this may have been a byproduct of the interaction with the Indian foot soldiers who fought for the Persian armies, he doesn’t fail to mention the more likely possibility that the influence was through the 2nd millennium BC South Indian traders in Greece. This is supported by the fact that the name of the Mycenaean Greek city Tiryns – the place where the most ancient monuments of Greece are to be found – is the same as that of the most powerful Tamilian sea-faring people called the Tiyarians.

Greece and India

Since the 2nd millennium interaction between Greece and India is becoming clear only now, it is appropriate to ask if their languages were frozen into fixed categories wrongly by the 19th century historical linguists.

Consider the centum/satem divide in which Greek belongs to the centum group and the North Indian languages belong to the satem group. The old tree model is used to divide the PIE into these two sub-classes with the centum group representing the western branch and the satem group representing the eastern branch. The discovery of Tocharian as a centum language was seen as an example of heroic a movement of centum-speaking people from the west. But now the discovery of Bangani, a centum language in India itself has make the whole idea of a tree-like division suspect.

Consider also the question of our knowledge of the vocabulary of various languages. For some languages, this knowledge was primarily obtained in quick field-work done decades ago by scholars who were not native speakers. Could it be that they missed out on vital evidence?

Mallory (1989, page 114) informs us that the word *mori “seems originally to have meant swamp, marsh land or lake, rather than a large body of open water. [I]t is found only in European languages and not in Indo-Iranian other than Ossetic { an Iranian language contiguous to Europe although originating further to the east.” This “fact” has lent itself to endless theorizing. But this “fact” is a result of incomplete surveys. The word mar, a cognate, is a common Kashmiri term for a swamp or even a lake. We see this word in the formation of Kashyapmar from which the word Kashmir is derived. Even Kannada has a cognate.

Also, many Hindi speakers pronounce the word for “hundred” as sainkara rather than saikara, which the field studies tell us. Does that make Hindi a centum language?

Certain assumptions regarding provenance and chronology were used to devise the vocabulary of PIE. The assumptions regarding chronology were shown wrong by the discovery that the Rigveda should be dated prior to at least 1900 BC.

Concluding Remarks

The archaeological findings from India and the discovery of the astronomy of the Vedic period are fatal for the constructions of historical linguistics that arose in the 19th century and are still being followed in schoolbooks in India although textbooks in the West have begun to present the new picture. While the general language categories seem reasonable, the concept of overlapping families seems essential to obtain better conceptual clarity. The Indic family is an example of such overlapping families.

The breakdown of the old paradigm calls for considerable effort to create a new one to take its place. In particular, the emerging chronological framework can be used to examine the relationships between Sanskrit and other ancient Indo-European languages. Etymological dictionaries should be revised to take note of the antiquity of Vedic Sanskrit. If PIE did not exist, can we extrapolate from the earliest layer of Vedic Sanskrit for correlations with life in prehistoric Harappan India?

Notes and References

Caldwell, R. 1875. A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages. 2nd edition. London.

Emeneau, M.B. 1980. Language and Linguistic Area. Stanford University Press.

Feuerstein, G. Kak, S. and Frawley, D. 1995. In Search of the Cradle of Civilization. Wheaton.

Friedrich, P. 1970. Proto-Indo-European Trees. Chicago.

Kak, S. 1994. On the classification of Indic languages. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, 75, 185-195.

Kak, S. in press. Indic ideas in the Graeco-Roman world. Indian Historical Review, in press.

Kramrisch, S. 1981. The Presence of Siva. Princeton University Press.

Mallory, J.P. 1989. In Search of the Indo-Europeans. London: Thames and Hudson.

Napier, D. in press. “Masks and metaphysics in the ancient world: an anthropological view.” To be presented at the International Seminar on Mind, Man and Mask, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, Feb 24-28, 1998.

Olender, M. 1992. The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Panikkar, R. 1977. The Vedic Experience. Berkeley.

Renfrew, C. 1987. Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins. London: Jonathan Cape.

Robb, J. 1993. A social prehistory of European languages. Antiquity, 67, 747-760.

Shaffer, J.G. and Lichtenstein, D.A. 1995. “The concept of `cultural tradition’ and `palaeoethnicity’ in South Asian archaeology.” In The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia., G. Erdosy (ed.). 126-154. Berlin.

Trubetskoy, N.S. 1939. In Renfrew (1987) page 108.

Vernant, J.-P. 1992. In Olender (1992).

This article first appeared in Yavanika, Number 6, 1996, pp. 51-64 and has been republished with permission from the author

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

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Subhash Kak is an Indian American computer scientist notable for his Indological publications on the history of science, the philosophy of science, ancient astronomy, and the history of mathematics.