Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Caldwell - Dravidian and Munda Languages

Most Indians think there are two families of languages in India:
1. Indo-Aryan, which are descended from Sanskrit, which in turn may have descended from a proto-Indo-European language
2. Dravidian, which are descended from Tamil, or perhaps a lost proto-Dravidian

But perhaps most don't realize that there are at least two other language families spoken in India: the Munda languages spoken mostly by tribes in Central India, and Tibeto-Burman language of the peoples who live along the Himalayas.

Today is the 200th birth anniversary of  Bishop Robert Caldwell, who in 1856 published a book 'A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages'. In the last few days, some Tamil TV channels have been singing his praises, for the great service of discovering that not only that Tamil was not a daughter language of Sanskrit, but it is the mother of the south Indian family of languages called Dravidian. A statue for Caldwell was erected on the Marina beach in Madras, in 1968, shortly after the DMK formed the Tamilnadu government. Recently, Thomas Trautmann, in a book 'Languages and Nations' has claimed that :

1. The credit for discovering the Dravidian language lies elsewhere
2. The true accomplishment of Caldwell, was not the discovery of the Dravidian family of languages but the determination of its true extent
3. And the fact that it is not the same, as the second non-Indo-European language family of India, the Kolarian or Munda or Austro-Asiatic language family.

Map of Language Families : India
While searching for this language map on Google images, I came across this marvelous map of South Asian languages at a Columbia University website. My first encounter with serious linguistics was in 1999, when I saw the language maps of Africa (Chapter title: How Africa became black) and China (Chapter title: How China became Chinese) in Jared Diamond's marvelous book Guns, Germs and Steel. I reviewed this book last year at Gandhi Centre, Thyagaraya Nagar, covering mainly the section on pre-history of man. My second encounter with serious linguistics was when I attended a series of lectures by Prof Swaminathan, founder of the Tamil Heritage Trust, regarding the Story of Scripts. A titan among us is Iravatham Mahadevan, whose contention that Tamil gave the world the meyyazhuthu, on which line I started an email debate with Prof Swaminathan, which flowered into a friendship and association that have been incomparable.

There were several encounters with languages, linguistics, scripts, epigraphy, etc. in the last few years, which I have found delightful. I will share them in future blogs. Currently running, are such weekly discussions, digressions and indiscretions, in the guise of Sanskrit classes in Kotturpuram.

Map of Language Families : South Asia

1 comment:

  1. You write "Most Indians think .......................
    Dravidian, which are descended from Tamil,"

    Ths is utter falsehood and patent nonsense linguistics. Outside Tamilandu and Tamil fanatics, nobody thinks 'Dravidian' is descended from Tamil. It is nonsense linguistics because no linguist thinks like that. Dravidian is a name for a group of similar languages, in which Tamil is one. Even what we call Tamil has undergone historical evolution for the last 2500 years. For lack of a better word, we call the whole gamut of linguistic evolution in Tamilnadu as Tamil, even though linguists distinguish between Old Tamil, Middle Tamil and Modern Tamil.