Solution to the 'sUtra'-'nUl' problem

Palaniappa at Palaniappa at
Sat Mar 29 01:15:45 UTC 1997

We are all concerned about the texts, e-texts, net (internet)  and the web
(sites). But these terms seem to have a more interesting connection in the
Indian ,or at least Dravidian, pre-history. If your curiosity is piqued,
please read on.

For quite some time, I have been puzzled by the similarity of the concepts of
text and thread in Sanskrit and Tamil, the words used being �sUtra� and
�nUl/nuval� in the respective languages. Given the fact, that Sanskrit terms
are occurring much earlier in Sanskrit texts, one would normally expect that
Sanskrit may be the source. But the contextual usage of the relevant word in
Tamil/Dravidian seemed to suggest to me that it was independently derived.
Finally, two days back, I got a breakthrough insight which seemed to clearly
establish the etymology of the Tamil word. The solution is so simple and
elegant that I was quite excited and I did not want to wait until
thecompletion of my paper, but wanted to share my discovery with the list
members. I have to thank Dr. Asko Parpola whose paper sparked the
inspiration. Here is the story. I also should thank Malten and Lehmann for
their index of Classical Tamiln (CT).

In searching for some other word in CT, I came across the word �cilampi�
meaning �spider�. Even though I have noticed that word before, on that day, wh
en I saw that word, I was suddenly reminded of Parpola�s discussion of the
etymology of the word �kinnaram� in his article on the pre-Vedic background
of zrauta rituals. Immediately, everything fell into place. I am giving below
just the conclusions I have reached. I shall reserve the references, etc. for
the paper.

�cilai�, and �cilampu� are related words (DEDR 1574) derived from a
proto-Dravidian root *kil. In CT, �cilai� refers to shouting by warriors,
animal  roars/cries, thunder, sound of drums, sound of a lute, etc., and
�cilampu� is used to refer to the sound of drums, anklets, various sounds
echoing on the hill-side, etc. �cilampi� the spider does not produce any
sound/cry/shout of its own. But, it does produce something else through its
mouth (as believed by Tamils/Dravidians) - �vAy nUl� or (literally �thread of
the mouth�). This realization of the commonness of the source of vocalization
of animal noise as well as �thread� or �cobweb� must have led them to name
the spider as �cilampi� literally meaning �that which �cilampu�s. (I am sure,
the word �cilumpu� (DEDR 2569) meaning �to flow out� �gush out� is also
related to these words in the sense of sound or fluid flowing out of a
source)  From here, the rationale for the same term �nuval� for both thread
and text can be easily understood. (In CT, �nuval� does not occur in the
sense of thead or text. But the presence of Hala Kannada word �nugulu�,
Koraga word �nuglu�, the well-known alternation of �k� or �g� and  �v�
intervocalically in Dravidian, and the presence of �nuval� as part of
�panuval� meaning cotton/cotton thread or text clearly shows that the orginal
form of the word should have been �nuval�.)

�nuval� is a compound of �nu� and �val�. �nu�  in the meaning of �fine� or
�narrow� or �sharp� occurs as a root in many Tamil words.  �val� is a root in
words like �vala� meaning �to encircle, surround, spin as a spider its
thread, plait, weave, string in a series, tie, bind� and the word �valai�
meaning �net� and �web� (See DED 4326). Thus �nuval� is the fine web thread
spun by the spider. One can understand the aptness of using nuval in the case
of the web thread. But how can one explain the extended use of the word
�nuval� in the context of utterance, song, praise, sound of drums, sound of
cuckoo bird, texts, etc.? The answer lies in the arguments for the basic
semantic commonness of the words �cilai�, �cilampu� and �cilampi� that we
discussed earlier. Given the fact, early texts were mostly oral texts, one
can see the semantic expansion from vocalization to songs, text, etc. That
the fine thread of the web is the source for the word for the text will also
explain the hackneyed description of texts as well as threads as being

Any man-made thread is later than the thread of the spider web. In Dravidian,
cognates of �nuval� occur in all the major groups. Compared to �nuval�, the
word �izai� has a much narrower distribution. The use of �nuval� in the
context of spun cotton thread suggests to me the word could even pre-date
weaving or at least to proto-Dravidian stage. Even though, cognates of
�nuval� meaning �song, text� occur only in South Dravidian, the references in
CT suggest that those usages go back considerably earlier.

I have a suspicion that there was probably some alternation or
alternation-cum- semantic specialization between l and L  in some Dravidian
roots (kil vs kiL) at the proto-Dravidian stage as suggested by the following

kiLa - to express clearly, speak  		           cilai - to shout, sound
kiLappu - speech, utterance		                cilampu - sound
kiLampu - to shoot up, sprout, go out	      cilumpu - to flow out, gush out	
kiLappam - rising, swelling  		                cilanti - pimple, small boil

As a result of the retroflexion, one would expect the initial �k� before �i�
to be preserved in Tamil as noted by Dravidian linguists. (In fact, with
respect to entries in DEDR 2017b, DEDR says some Gondi, Konda, Pengo and Kui
words can be considered cognates of either kiLa or cilai.) Since the �kiL-�
forms come directly from proto-Dravidian while �cil-�  forms show
palatalization after the Tamil-Malayalam group separated from South
Dravidian. On the whole, the forms with �kiL� seem to have a semantic range
similar to the semantic range of �cil-� . This means �cilampi� which occurs
in CT, probably dates from proto-Dravidian. In that case, it is possible that
�nuval� could also have the wide semantic range including spider�s thread and
oral compositions.

Coming to the Indo-Aryan (IA) side, the spider is conspicuously absent in
Sanskrit words related to �sUtra� as shown by the Comparative Dictionary of
Indo-Aryan Languages (CDIAL). As for other IA languages, only Marathi has a
word �suterA� meaning �spider, the thread which it spins�. Since Marathi is
the Indo-Aryan lanaguage exhibiting a lot of Dravidian influence, the
influence of  the thread of spider�s web or �net� in creating a word for text
seems to be a Dravidian feature and not Indo-Aryan. IA languages also do not
have 'sUtra' used in connection with animal sounds or musical instruments
like drums.Since, etymological statements across language families is �an act
of faith� as Emeneau said, I defer to Indo-Europeanists to decide on the
history of usage of �sUtra� on the IA side.

In conclusion, as far as Tamil/Dravidian is concerned, in spite of what
earlier grammarians said, the basic metaphor of a text is not �weaving� by
humans using a loom, but the thread of the web (or net) woven by the spider.
 So is  it not a coincidence that after thousands of years, we are still
caught in the �web�.


S. Palaniappan

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