Monday, July 03, 2006

Ancient Languages Of India

If our school textbooks seriously missed something, it is a chapter (or a few chapters) on the languages of India, its origins and its speakers. This would have at least sensitized people to the languages of their country and brought about an understanding of the origins of other people inhabiting India, which, like it or not, is just a random collection of loosely coupled provinces. What started as a hobby to kill time 8 years ago as a bored graduate student, developed into a full-fledged passion. History, more than linguistics, is such an intoxicating subject. Most of what I have written has been synthesized from various, books, web sites, talking to people. I have linked to popular sources, such as wikepedia, which does provide some partial information on the topic. The rest I have just written from memory. I hope to provide links which discuss many of these theories sometime in the future. There maybe a few errors here and there but given the diversity of sources from which, I culled the information, it has been difficult to reconcile and present information in one coherent story.

India is the home of 2 of the 8 classical languages - Sanskrit and Tamil. What is a classical language? -George L Hart a professor in UC Berkley says - " it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature "

Sanskrit is classified under Indo-European languages. Among the many miscellanious websites and books that I read, some claimed that DNA tests had already established that the Aryan invasion of India as true, and that the aforementioned event led to the arrival of Sanskrit in India. This is however, strongly refuted by many people within India. These people claim that the Indo-European languages originated in India and from Sanskrit. However, most experts on the subject have dismissed this theory as untrue. According to experts, only Dravidian languages, were born in India and Sanskrit shows much similarity towards Indo-Euro languages than dravidian ones. The Indian government ofcourse has no firm official position on anything important and so it is pointless to expect them to have a position on something as mundane as languages and historical origins. The oldest Sanskrit work according to most sources is the Rig Veda, which is dated at around 1250 BC (Atharvana - 800 BC is the most recent). The form of Sanskrit used in the vedas is called Vedic Sanskrit. This over the years led to Classical Sanskrit, which was a refined form of Vedic Sanskrit, refined so by Panini in 5th century BC. His Samskritham (the non-anglicized name for Sanskrit) was not called that until 5th century. It evolved into this name (Samskritham means "refined") because it was a refined form of the many dialects spoken at that time.

The orgin of languages is, obviously closely tied to the origins of civilizations in India. The highly controversial Aryan Invasion, theory, says that the Eastern Iranian invaders, the Arya, were supposed to have come through steppe, a passage from Europe to India. These invaders purpotedly brought their languages and gods with them, when they travelled to India (Incidentally they are also held responsible for arrival of horses & charriots in India). The arrival of these people, coincided with the decline of Indus Valley Civilization, which had been prevalant in India (and modern day Pakistan) before the invasion. Indus valley civilization's decline has been attributed to many causes. Apart from the invading Iranians, natural disasters were also believed to be a factor. What historians refused to believe was a complete erasure of a civilization. The pushback of the Dravidians, who existed in the northern parts of India in 1500 BC to southern parts of India is believed by many to be connected to the decline of Indus Valley Civilization. The whole theory is highly controversial. Indian historians (and a few others) believe this serves to divide the Indian community and more specifically incite dravidians to look at Aryans (N. Indians & Tamil Upper Castes) as invaders and plunderers and consider disengaging from India (which Periyaar briefly demanded in 1920s). Indian historians argue that Indian history was rewritten by prejudiced Western, more specifically Christian, historians. Their version of Indian history served mainly to ensure that Christian tenets, such as Moses and Exodus, was unaffected by the ancientness of Indian civilization. Many believe that DNA tests actually refute the Aryan invasion theory and does not support it. It is their view that Sanksrit and Tamil though are radically different languages, have a common origin. Regardless of the validity of the Aryan Invasion theory - Did the language of the Indus valley civilization become a Dravidian language?

This is where Tamizh, the oldest of the dravidian languages, comes into the picture. Tamizh, given the fact that it is completely independent of Sanskrit, has been having a very interesting tussle with Sanskrit in terms of date and aging. Given that, barring a few villages, Sanskrit is almost dead as a spoken language, Tamizh is the oldest language among the currently spoken Indian languages. The oldest Tamizh works lead up to 750 BC. The discovery in Adichanallur, Tamizh Nadu and in Srilanka etsbalished that Brahmi Script was used to express Tamizh (Brahmi also expressed Sanskrit). The flavor of Brahmi was integrated with the Tamizh spoken in Tamil provinces during 6 BC. Later Grantham script (which still can be seen expressing Tamizh on the temple walls in Thirumala, Thirupathi) was also used to write both Tamizh & Sanskrit. However, the scripts were taken in very carefully by the ancient tamizh people. They weeded out non-Tamizh sounding letters. Fearing adultration, the fiercly territorial Tamizh kingdoms of that time carefully disallowed any prakrit forms of the script (a.k.a Sanskrit) from getting mixed with Tamizh through Brahmi & Grantham. Grantham later led to vettezhuthu and so on... But thats a different story. The origins of Tamizh existing in those kingdoms were however, unclear.

This was however, before the discovery of the century. A school teacher near Mayiladuthurai pushed back Tamizh by many many years, possibly beyond Sanskrit. He found tamil words "murukkan' (possibly meaning 'wrathful killer') inscribed on a Indus Valley artifact and dated around 1500 BC. This makes the language, if not the script, atleast 3500 years ald. Thanjavur has long held the view that Tamizh should be dated back to 2500 BC. Now, it does not sound as far fetched as it sounded before. Folks in Thanjavur have argued, time and again, that many of the literary Tamizh works dates back to much older dates than what historians have credited it for. Just to give an example from my own knowledge - Thirvaimozhi - a very old set of 1000 poems - from the 4000 Prabhandams was discovered by Nathamuni in 6th Century AD. He dated the poem to be 3000 years old (somewhere in 2500 BC). However, historians put the date of the poem as 6 AD - which was the date of his discovery. Same is the case of many such literary works that were dug out during the famous Bhakti movement in 6-7th century. There could many such examples, which can potentially to push Tamizh's date farther and farther away.

In the next article on this topic, I hope to discuss theories on other old indian languages, theories surrounding the connection of Mayan civilization and Tamizh, the theory of 'Mayan' the common evil-dude in both cultures, and the origins of astrology (which could possibly be sourced to Mayans and Tamizhs).

(To Be continued)


Krish said...

David Frawley an expert on the issue has written a book called "The Myth of Aryan Invasion". I highly recommend the book which will clarify/challenge concepts that were pushed down the throats of the gullible public by historians with vested interests (another type of "divide and rule" strategy that has persisted long after the British left India). Here is a link.

Anonymous said...

here is a link from anand's
blog.- thought you'd like to take a look. Nice write up!

Anonymous said...

"Among the many miscellanious websites and books that I read, some claimed that DNA tests had already established that the Aryan invasion of India as true, and that the aforementioned event led to the arrival of Sanskrit in India."

>> as far as i know , dna tests established aryan invasion as NOT being true, not the way u mention it. so i was kind of surprised when i read that.

in fact there was a report some days back in HINDU on this..

I have also read many articles which say that based on dna evidence the first people originated from africa and moved towards asia..this is the point that refuted aryan invasion theory. (i dont hv those links but they can be found easily on the net)


the aryan invasion has been facing a lot of flak in recent times, and i don't think the theory is right..although it seems a bit far fetched when some people claim it to be a british strategy.


Anonymous said...

Aryan Invansion theory has been disproved by the recent DNA tests. Some of the well written blog posts on this subject,

Hawkeye said...

varun & thennavan,

i know and have read what you are saying. hopefully you did not understand that i was subscribing to aryan invasion theory. because that wasnt my intention. in fact the actual intention was to try and date the two oldest languages.

much like varun, i was surprised when i read DNA test proved the theory. and this is why i mentioned it.

Hawkeye said...

thennavan & varun,

also note the link provided that strongly argues for aryan invasion. its provided in the blog

Anonymous said...

i think the work that disproves aryan invasion indirectly is dealt with in a book called The Real Eve. It was based on the work of a Oxford Researcher.

Another good article that i had read sometime back on this topic of aryan invasion and languages was :
which also refers to the above research.

In particular Kak talks abt languages:
"This synthesis of genetic evidence makes it possible to understand the divide between the north and the south Indian languages. It appears that the Dravidian languages are more ancient, and the Aryan languages evolved in India over thousands of years before migrations took them to central Asia and westward to Europe. The proto-Dravidian languages had also, through the ocean route, reached northeast Asia, explaining the connections between the Dravidian family and the Korean and the Japanese."


Anonymous said...

theories surrounding the connection of Mayan civilization and Tamizh
And possibly explain the Anaconda-Tamil connection?

Krish said...

Bharath, I have done the "needful" for the Chennai Metroblog thing (if you are abused and want that comment removed, let me know) :-).

Ravi said...

Wow! A very interesting post Hawkeye. Though I have no grudges against Sanskrit, I feel Tamizh is definitely older. My analysis : The no. of letters in Tamizh is less - maybe least amongst all Indian languages. This goes to show that it originated at a time when vocabulary in Tamizh was not infested by foreign words and also vowels and consonants were not stream lines (as in the Devanagiri script).

The beauty of Tamil is that though many people 'accuse' it of not having different consonants for various sounds (like pa, ba, bha), the sound is determined by the way the consonants are placed. I think wikipedia has a mention of this.

Anonymous said...

Actually none of the pure tamil words have a bha or dha sound in them. Most of those words have found their way into tamil vocabulary from sanskrit. So, I dont think the words pa or tha were meant to sound like bha or dha.

Anonymous said...

Very Informative Post Hawkeye. Thank you.
But I have to agree with Varun in that DNA tests reveal that the Aryan invasion is a myth.

I quickly went through the link below that you pasted ( have to admit not thoroughly and not in great detail..) :

While it does argue credibly for Aryan Invasion, I didn't see a substantion through DNA tests.

Could you please let me/us know on where DNA tests substantiated an invasion as opposed to the contrary.

DNA testing have always disproved the widely conformist notion of an invasion and I beleive they are the most Objective proofs, so it is important to know if there have been any tests that confirms with the invasion.

Hawkeye said...


i am searching for the link. i looked at so many web pages that it is difficult for me to remember my search string or url.

i am still searching. i'll post it as soon as i get it.

A Lateral Mind posting.. said...

I guess this is the link you're looking

Srikanth said...

However, the scripts were taken in very carefully by the ancient tamizh people. They weeded out non-Tamizh sounding letters. Fearing adultration, the fiercly territorial Tamizh kingdoms of that time carefully disallowed any prakrit forms of the script (a.k.a Sanskrit) from getting mixed with Tamizh through Brahmi & Grantham. Grantham later led to vettezhuthu and so on...

This is an interesting fact. Can you provide the reference?

Sarat said...

Very interesting topic. For those interested in tracing human migration using DNA samples, please check out the Atlas of the Human Journey at the Genographic Project, a partnership between National Geographic and IBM.
IMO, the current unpopularity of the AIT is more due to the current lack of respect for linguistic studies as a scientific method. I find the differences between Indo-European and Dravidian languages hard to ignore. Once the brain researchers, evolutionary biologists and linguists get together and agree on when language originated in humans, we should be able to sort out the AIT mess once and for all. Of course, the RSS and DK types may still not agree :)

Hawkeye said...


here is the link and the associated text.

When writing became known to the Tamils, the Brahmi script was adapted and modified to suit the Tamil phonetic system. That is, while the Brahmi script was borrowed, the Prakrit language was not allowed to be imposed along with it from outside. When the Jaina and Buddhist monks entered the Tamil country, they found it expedient to learn Tamil in order to carry on their missionary activities effectively.

Srikanth said...

Thanks for the link!
That was an informative article, on a topic of interest.

Anonymous said...

a no.of website are selling indian books on religion and philosophy.,recently I come acros a blog
the readers can contact them for hindu philosophy books, and back vols.of journals.

Anonymous said...

its a definite fact that sanskrit arrive through iran and was not the original language of india whether the dna test prove the invasion or not.
aryan invasion did occur but it was more language base than dna based.

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