Historical linguistics out in the cold: R. Mathivanan

R. Mathivanan  

Much of the studies done in linguistics are done, based on descriptive linguistics, or without studying the historical origin of different words. Unfortunately, this will not help identify migration of languages, which could give a better understanding of the movements of humanity and also the origins of languages.

Most universities and governments give little importance to the discipline of historical linguistics, which looks at a word with its root and then works towards understanding how that word came to be used, former director of the Tamil Nadu Government’s Tamil Etymological Dictionary Project R. Mathivanan said.

He has been studying the roots of words, which will help to trace history. One of his specialities is the study of linguistic archaeology. “While regular archaeologists will be able to recover artefacts and evidence that dates back to around 4000 odd years, through linguistic archaeology, it is possible to trace the history of mankind, their way of life and their migration patterns,” he told The Hindu in an interview here on Tuesday.

All languages originated from a single language, spoken by the antediluvian man. By studying the words used in modern languages, it is possible to trace its history. By this logic, he says, the languages used in north India came from the south India, not the other way around. The evidence presented to buttress this case has been approved of by several scholars from around the world, he said.

Earliest language

The earliest language did not have any case markers, tense markers or any serious structure. It was simply made of verbs and nouns. Through the study of languages, it is evident that the language, which came from Africa, was brought to the now submerged island of Kumari Kandam. From here, there seems to have been a split, with some people moving to China and the others moving to south India.

The earliest settlers in south India appear to have been the Pandyas, and when they first came in, the Tamil language also did not have structure. It was developed, later on, he said.

Citing an example for the word for old man “Buddhi” in Hindi, he said, the word Buddhi came from the Tamil word for great-grandmother. Explaining the origin, he said father was “Appa” or “Athaan”, which made grandfather “Appaathaan” which, later, became “Paatan”. Paatan’s father was called “Pootan” and his father would be “Pooti.” It is Pootan and Pooti that travelled to north India and became Buddha and Buddhi, he said.

There are a number of words like this, where it can be established that the words went from south India to north India. By understanding these words, it is possible to understand how people migrated in the early days, he said.

Language families

Languages across the world are clubbed into 12 families, according to American linguist Merritt Ruhlen, but what is surprising is that there are, at least, 70 basic words in all of these language families that are similar to one another, he said.

Understanding the origins of languages, and thereby, of the mankind, is only possible through historical linguistics and linguistic archaeology. Unfortunately since there is very little funding either by universities or by governments for this kind of research, it is now very difficult to pursue these fields, he said.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 10:48:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/puducherry/historical-linguistics-out-in-the-cold-r-mathivanan/article5680531.ece

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