Month: November 2010

An Echo of Voices

A long time ago, on a different blog, I’d written about the grammatical and semantic similarities between Tamil and Japanese (and Korean).

Recently, I read that Tamil bears a striking resemblance to the aboriginal/native languages of Australia.

What I found was (thanks dad for some valuable assistance) that Tamil has or is thought to have had sound patterns that are considered distinguishing features of the languages of Australia.

Before I list the semblances, let me give you a quick overview of some characteristics of Australian languages (most of this information has been gleaned from Wikipedia):

Feature 1

Their languages have four to six ‘n’ sounds, and these sounds are associated with places of articulation (where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth).  So, in the language called Dyirbal, we have the following consonants (I’ve highlighted the nasal sounds):

  Bilabial Alveolar Alveolo-Palatal Retroflex Velar
Plosive p t c   k
Nasal m n ɲ   ŋ
Trill   r      
Flap       ɽ
Approximant central     j   w
lateral   l    

In the languages of the Pama-Nyungan family, we have the following consonant sounds (again I’ve highlighted the nasal sounds):

  Bilabial Apico
alveolar
Apico
postalveolar
Laminal Dorso
velar
Stop p t rt c, cʸ k
Nasal m n rn ñ ng
Lateral   l rl λ  
Rhotic   rr r    
Semivowel w     y  

Feature 2

Australian languages are characterised by an absence of fricatives (hissing/rubbing sounds like ‘s’, ‘h’ and ‘sh’) as you can see from the tables above.

Feature 3

Australian languages have only three vowel sounds: ‘a’, ‘i’, and ‘u’.

Now, you will notice that the above three characteristics of Australian languages are pretty distinctive.  They’re extraordinary, and distinguishing features.

You would probably agree that if any other language had the above features, it might be said to resemble Australian languages in how it sounds.

Now, let me list the characteristics of Tamil that I think can help one make the argument that at the phonetic level, Tamil resembles languages spoken by native Australians:

Feature 1 in Tamil

There are six nasal sounds in Tamil:

Plosives p (b) t̪ (d̪)   ʈ (ɖ) tʃ (dʒ) k (ɡ)
 
Nasals m n ɳ ɲ ŋ

This feature is also found in Malayalam but not in the other languages of South India.

Now for those of you who are surprised by the number of nasals, don’t be.  English has four nasals.  It’s just that the language does not use them to distinguish between different words.

Don’t believe me?  Oh well, here goes!  The first nasal sound in English is ‘m’.  The second is ‘n’ as in ‘bang’.  The third is ‘n’ as in ‘hand’.  There is a fourth (very rare) nasal.  This is the ‘n’ in ‘London’ (when the word is pronounced in a pompous manner, the ‘n’ gets to be more plosive/hard than otherwise).

Ok, I made a mistake.  English does distinguish between ‘m’ and ‘n’.  Notice how the script gives it away.

Feature 2 in Tamil

The Tamil script does not have letters for ‘h’, ‘s’ and ‘sh’.  The lack of the corresponding consonants in the script does evoke suspicions that the sounds were not present and therefore the corresponding characters not needed at the time the early Tamil scripts came into being.

Another interesting observation that supports this hypothesis is that some dialects of Tamil prefer the use of ‘ch’ sounds to the use of the standard Tamil ‘s’ and ‘sh’ sounds.  In these dialects, ‘seri’ becomes ‘cheri’, ‘sAppAdu’ becomes ‘chAppAdu’, and ‘sonnAn’ becomes ‘chonnAn’.

Feature 3 in Tamil

Establishing the third feature in Tamil is a bit difficult.  Modern Tamil has five simple vowel sounds ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘u’, ‘e’, ‘o’ (taught in that order to kids, just like in Japanese -notice how ‘a’, ‘i’ and ‘u’ come before ‘e’ and ‘o’).  However, there is another tentative link.

In a 1960s book, one Dr. T P Meenakshi Sundaram performed a comparative historical linguistic study of Tamil, and he surmised that early forms of Tamil had only three vowel sounds!

According to Dr. Sundaram, those three sounds were … surprise, surprise … ‘a’, ‘i’ and ‘u’!  He said that the sound for ‘e’ was originally composed of ‘i’ and ‘a’ sounds.

This I have personally observed.  In some rural dialects of Tamil/Malayalam, ‘Enna pEchi pEsurAn’ is still pronounced as ‘Yanna PiAchi PiAsurAn’ (come and talk to my grandma!)

Semantics

All the similarities I have listed are at a purely phonological level.

However, I did look at whole words (nouns and verbs) in Australian languages and they did not resemble corresponding Tamil words at all.  But there is another level of similarity – semantic.  Semantics is the way word distinctions are used to convey meaning.

One interesting pattern is the use of words to convey distinctions of importance to prevalent kinship systems.  Let me explain.

Kinship Terms

The Australian languages of the Western Desert have the following words for parents and uncles and aunts (from a post on the Australian Anthropology forum by someone called Laurent Dousset):

I’ll give you an Australian example (Western Desert):

Mother: ngunytju
Mother’s sister: ngunytju
Mother’s brother: kamuru
Father: mama
Father’s brother: mama
Father’s sister: kurntili.

A mama is married to a ngunytju and a kamuru is married to a kurntili. These do not have to be actual kamuru(s) and kurntili(s), but are usually classificatory ones.

Now you will agree that this is very similar to the use of words for parents and their brothers and sisters in Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada.

Now, back to Japanese.  I have a test that I wish to perform to help me determine if Australian languages might really be related to Tamil, and I’m going to turn to Japanese for help.

Deictic References

One feature of Japanese that I found incredibly fascinating was the way words were used to refer to distances.

In Japanese, there are three types of distances [I believe these terms are also called deictic references, so I’m going to call them such, though I’m not really sure] and they are (koko – near the speaker, soko – near the listener, and asoko – far from both).

Such deictic references, it turns out, also used to exist in Tamil.  Sri Lankan Tamil still uses the third kind of deictic reference (ivan – he who is near the speaker, uvan – he who is near the listener, and avan – he who is far from both).

You also notice this distinction in the old saying: ‘ikkara ukkara pachcha’ which means ‘from the shore near me, the shore near you looks green’, and you can also argue that you see a bit of it in ‘unnai’ (you-accusative) and ‘avanai’ (him-accusative).

What I would love to do is find someone from Australia who can tell me if these triple deictic references are also features of Australian languages.

Conclusion

Well, I am not going to comment on the interesting question of what this means/implies.  These similarities could simply mean nothing.  The similarities could have been the result of random language mutations.

But then again, maybe, just maybe, the ancestors of the native inhabitants of Australia stood on these very shores a hundred thousand years ago.  And just maybe, as I listen to my grandmother, I am hearing an echo of voices long gone from this world.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to dad for telling me about the work of T P Meenakshi Sundaram.  Thanks to mom for helping me with the thoughts on deictic references.

Counterargument

One of my friends wrote to me with excellent counterarguments, so I’m adding them to this post, just so you have a complete picture.

The problem he discovered with my logic is as follows.

My main claim is that that the three features (which I’ll refer to as F1, F2 and F3) occurring together is a very very rare event, making their occurring together in two unrelated languages even rarer.  However, for this claim to hold, the joint probability p(F1, F2, F3) would have to be very very low.

My friend pointed out that p(F1,F2,F3) need not be a very low number if the features are strongly interdependent, that is, when you see one such feature, you’re bound to see the others as well.

Now my friend also mentioned that F3 is a universal feature – all language initially started with only three vowels, so if you take any language and drill back in time far enough, you’ll be left with just ‘a’, ‘i’ and ‘u’.  This also implies that F3 is independent of F1 and F2 and p(F3) is 1.

Now, because of the independence of F3, p(F1, F2, F3) can be written as p(F2|F1)p(F1)p(F3).  Since p(F3) == 1, we can take it out of the picture and think of p(F1, F2, F3) as p(F2|F1)p(F1).

Now my friend pointed out that phonological features occur in clusters.  So, a large number of alveolar articulation points in a language would be a good indicator that the language has a paucity of fricatives.  So, p(F2|F1) is also close to 1.  So we’re left with p(F1, F2, F3) = p(F1).  p(F1) is not likely to be low enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the two languages are interrelated.

In order to complete my case, I’d still have to do all of the following:

a)  find more such features
b)  show that p(F) is low
c)  show that the conditional probabilities are low (high feature independence)

Thanks Dr. M___ C___ for pointing this out!

Now the traditional methods of comparative historical linguistics use features of languages called cognates (similar sounding words).  In doing so, they are biased in how they assign languages to language families.  Using cognates alone, Japanese would be assigned to the same language family as Chinese, but not if we looked at the syntactic, semantic and phonological features of Japanese.  So, I feel that the comparative methodology is incomplete and would need to be supplemented by some other features at the semantic/syntactic levels maybe wrapped into some kind of probabilistic framework.