Month: September 2012

A AA I II U UU and their role in some ancient #languages

Vowels in Sanskrit are very interesting.  You have long and short forms of the a, i and u vowel sounds, but the e and o sounds come in only one length.

The obvious question is, “Why don’t you see long and short forms of the e and o vowel sounds in Sanskrit (and in Hindi)?”

It turns out that Australian languages have only three vowel sounds – a, i and u.  These sounds appear in both long and short forms.

For example the phonology of the Walpiri language has six vowel sounds:  a, aa, i, ii, u and uu.

In a blog post in 2010 on the similarities between languages in Australia and the languages of South India and Japan, I had mentioned that Old Tamil was believed to have had only a, i and u sounds (in both long and short form), and that the phonology of Tamil (with its five nasals, a retroflex t/r sound and l variants) resembles that of languages like Walpiri very closely.

This possibility of a native Australian substratum for Tamil suggests that a similar process might have occurred in Sanskrit.

It might have acquired the use of long and short vowel sounds from the languages of the people who eventually settled in Australia 60,000 – 80,000 years ago.

But where could the e and o sounds have come from?

I picked up a book on Persian, because Old Persian is very closely related to Sanskrit (words like Asura, Deva, Mitra, Ashwa, Bratr, Pitr and the numbers are shared in the two languages).  But modern Persian turned out to be a very different kettle of fish.  Modern Persian had no long vowels at all.

Then, I examined the phonology of Old Persian.  And when I did so, I was to put it mildly, quite shocked.  Old Persian, it turned out, had only six simple vowel forms.  And there are no prizes for guessing what they are …

a, aa, i, ii, u, uu

And then it turned out that not just Old Persian, but also Classical Arabic, had only six vowel sounds, and they are … yeah … a, aa, i, ii, u and uu.

That was very interesting.

The Arabian peninsula, Persia and India were on the coastal route to Australia from Africa.

So, it may be that Arabic, Persian and Tamil developed similar vowel sounds in their classical forms because of shared 80,000 year old memories.

The e and o sounds entered Persian (Early New Persian) at a later date.  In the case of Tamil, I think (I am not sure about this) that some linguists (I’ve been referred to the works of T P Meenakshi Sundaram but I can’t get hold of his books – they seem to be out of print) think it was the ia sound that became e and the ua sound that became o.

For example, in Tulu, a language related to Tamil, the word that means ‘for me’ is ‘yanku’ whereas in Tamil, it is ‘enakku’.  It is possible that the ya of the Tulu word became e in Tamil.

So, in Early New Persian, you had the sounds a, aa, i, ii, u, uu, e and o … (either by transformation or through borrowing) … and that’s identical to the set of vowel sounds that we have in Sanskrit.

Later, the long forms of Early New Persian – the aa, ii and uu sounds – were lost in the Iranian dialect of Persian (but still exist in the Dari and Tajik dialects).

There’s a matrix showing this transformation in the article on Persian phonology in the Wikipedia.

So, can we conclude from all this that native Australian languages formed the substratum of the oldest languages of the Semitic, Indo-Iranian and South Indian language families?

The reason we can’t make that claim is that there are two other hypotheses which are equally plausible and which can explain the similar vowel vocabulary of these languages: a) that all humans start speaking by making a, i and u sounds mixed with clicks or consonants and b) that these three languages happened to choose to use identical vowel vocabularies entirely by chance and entirely independently.

Until we are able to refute these two hypotheses, we cannot say with any certainty that they had a common ancestor.

But it remains a very tempting hypothesis.

The Process of Change

The progression of vowel sounds in Persian is very interesting.  You had ancient Persian where the vowel sounds were identical to those in Tamil.  Then you had a period where Persian vowel sounds were identical to Sanskrit.  The vowels used in Iranian today are identical to those in English.  How did that come to be?

I just couldn’t help thinking that it might be possible to surmise that there were two forces at work:

a)  The creation/inclusion of sounds (whenever it was necessary to accommodate borrowed words)

b)  The deletion of sounds when maintaining certain distinctions was no longer necessary

The first force enters the picture when new words are encountered by a culture.  Let’s say the original speakers of Indo-European languages (who might have been among the first to tame horses) began to travel farther and farther from their homes in Scythia (the grasslands to the north of Persia) and ran into the people on the coasts who used words comprising a, aa, i, ii, u and uu sounds.

The new language born from this confluence would have had to have all the sounds needed for the Scythian language as well as for the coastal language (the a, aa, i, ii, u and uu sounds).

Could that have led to other vowel sounds in the combined language disappearing completely?

I think it is possible that such a mechanism did exist.

Some of the older words in Sanskrit, the Romance and the Germanic languages exhibit a phenomenon called ‘ablaut’.  Some of the old words could keep their meaning when different vowel sounds were fitted into them (the words are sometimes considered to be ‘irregular’).  An example in English would be the words ‘sing’, ‘sang’, ‘sung’ and ‘song’.  An example in German are the words for  ‘is’ and ‘are’.  In German, the equivalent words are ‘ist‘ and ‘sind‘.  In Spanish, the equivalent words are ‘es‘, ‘son‘.  In Sanskrit, the words are ‘asti’ and ‘santi’.  The constant in all these patterns are the consonants s and n or t.  It seems as if the meaning of ‘to be’ is preserved as vowels are inserted into this pattern of consonants in various ways.  This is somewhat similar to how words in Semitic languages are formed (kitaab, kaatib, maktab are three Arabic words with similar meanings).

So, it is possible that in the early Iranian languages, the consonant patterns were not difficult to fit over the a, aa, i, ii, u and uu vowel patterns of the substrate language.  If that had indeed happened, the other vowel sounds might have fallen into disuse because they might have been not entirely necessary.  This could have happened any time between the domestication of horses some 10,000 years ago and the period of Old Persian some 5,000 years ago.

The next phase in the transformation might have begun when, with the passage of time, the old words of the coastal languages fell into disuse.  As they disappeared, there would no longer have been any need to maintain the distinction between long and short vowels.  That might explain why, in modern Iran, these vowel distinctions have largely disappeared, but not in India (where the close proximity of South Indian languages keeps those old words alive and consequently makes it necessary to continue maintaining the distinction between long and short vowels).


The story I told above posits roving horse-riders.  But it seems such people did exist.  Some vowels in Vedic Sanskrit apparently had tones.  The only languages with tones in Asia are Chinese and South East Asian languages.  Such languages exist outside East Asia only in the Americas and in Africa.  So, it is quite possible that the tonal sounds in Vedic Sanskrit were picked up when some roving horsemen came into contact with people in China.

The more a population of people traveled through lands with different language structures, the more complex their own language would have become.

An interesting story is that of the Kingdom of the Mitanni that existed in what is now the area of Kurdistan (to the north of Iraq and the east of Turkey).  The rulers of that Kingdom just might have had some connection to India.  Here are some excerpt from the Wikipedia:

The names of the Mitanni aristocracy frequently are of Indo-Aryan origin, but it is specifically their deities which show Indo-Aryan roots (Mitra, Varuna, Indra, Nasatya), though some think that they are more immediately related to the Kassites.  The common people’s language, the Hurrian language is neither Indo-European nor Semitic, but a Language Isolate.

Some theonyms, proper names and other terminology of the Mitanni exhibit an Indo-Aryan superstrate, suggesting that an Indo-Aryan elite imposed itself over the Hurrian population in the course of the Indo-Aryan expansion. In a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni, the deities Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and Nasatya (Ashvins) are invoked.

Kikkuli’s horse training text includes technical terms such as aika (eka, one), tera (tri, three), panza (pancha, five), satta (sapta, seven), na (nava, nine), vartana (vartana, turn, round in the horse race). The numeral aika “one” is of particular importance because it places the superstrate in the vicinity of Indo-Aryan proper as opposed to Indo-Iranian or early Iranian (which has “aiva”) in general.

Sanskritic interpretations of Mitanni royal names render Artashumara (artaššumara) as Arta-smara “who thinks of Arta/Ṛta” (Mayrhofer II 780), Biridashva (biridašṷa, biriiašṷa) as Prītāśva “whose horse is dear” (Mayrhofer II 182), Priyamazda (priiamazda) as Priyamedha “whose wisdom is dear” (Mayrhofer II 189, II378), Citrarata as citraratha “whose chariot is shining” (Mayrhofer I 553), Indaruda/Endaruta as Indrota “helped by Indra” (Mayrhofer I 134), Shativaza (šattiṷaza) as Sātivāja “winning the race price” (Mayrhofer II 540, 696), Šubandhu as Subandhu ‘having good relatives” (a name in Palestine, Mayrhofer II 209, 735), Tushratta (tṷišeratta, tušratta, etc.) as *tṷaiašaratha, Vedic Tvastr “whose chariot is vehement” (Mayrhofer, Etym. Wb., I 686, I 736).

Did you notice that the Mitanni names don’t use long vowels?