Retroflexion in IA

George Thompson thompson at JLC.NET
Thu Jun 25 19:08:42 UTC 1998

In response to the recent post of Vidhyanath Rao:
>A basic methodological question is how to pick the null hypothesis?
>After all, change happens all the time. Should we look for external
>causes every time?

Of course not. Nobody claims that retroflexion in Amer. English, in Eastern
Norwegian, or in Sardinian, arose from contact with Dravidian speakers [add
a smiley-face here]. But, seriously, if speakers of language A begin to
adopt a set of phonological features which is also found in contiguous
language B, and if there is enough lexical and syntactical evidence as well
to suggest contact, then I think that it is reasonable to conclude that
retroflexion in lang. A was triggered by contact with lang. B [I'm happy to
call this convergence, with Hock, rather than subversion].
>Another question is the mechanism of how contact produced retroflexion.
>Mispronounciation by Dravidian speakers has to meet some serious
>objections (Hock mentions one, another which I have mentioned before
>is the preservation of voiced/voiceless and aspirated/unaspirated
>distinctions). Are are any others? At least Hock gives a potential
>mechanism in internal evolution, one which has similarities to
>what has happened elsewhere.

Contact could have produced retroflexion in this way:

IA clan is initially in minimal contact with Dravidian clan; there is
exchange of various sorts, including wives; there must be an initial period
where a pidgin is used for such interactions; children, and in particular
sons, are born of these unions; the sons of the IA clans at the appropriate
age are taught the familiy traditions, including the recitation of the
songs of the earlier poet-seers [pUrva RSi-s].

Now at this point the child is a bilingual speaker of IA [Vedic] and
Dravidian. Recitation requiring extensive memorization and minimal
comprehension is exactly the sort of activity where a little bit of
retroflexion might creep in [this retroflexion will be allophonic -- not
yet phonemic [e.g., inherited is`'ta becomes iSTa]. The teachers of course
correct this retroflexion when they do notice [but they do not always
ntoice, I think]. But since Dravidian is now fairly common, even in the
home, at the domestic fireplace, there will be a certain amount of
[unconscious, if not conscious] tolerance for it.

So you have two distinct phonological systems operating within a single
person, a bilingual person. I see no problem with a certain amount of
convergence between both systems. Palaniappan's post shows that within
Tamil itself there is a certain amount of slippage between dentals,
alveolars, and retroflexes. So why not the same in a case of convergence?

>George Thompson wrote:
>>Hock also seems inconsistent when he insists upon the relevance of
>>retroflexion in Norwegian and Sicilian, etc.[where retroflexion seems
>>allophonic rather than structural, as Jacob Baltuch has observed ], whereas
>>he balks at the relevance of Dravidian retroflexion with regard to IA
>>retroflexion, because Dravidian makes a three-fold distinction between
>>dental-alveolar-retroflex, in contrast to the IA two-fold distinction
>>between dental-retroflex. Could someone explain to me why a proto-Dravidian
>>language with such a three-fold distinction COULD NOT HAVE INFLUENCED early
>>IA in such a way as to induce a dental-retroflex distinction?
>I have no idea of what Hock had/has in mind. But to me he seems to be
>criticizing two claims that have been made in the past.
>The first is that retroflexes are so bizarre, so alien to IE that they
>cannot arise by internal development and can only be due to substratum
>influence. [Perhaps nobody will openly admit to believing this in this
>extreme form. But, IMHO, the remnants of this are not completely dead.
>For example, I don't know why anyone should cringe at retroflexed
>pronunciation of -rt- etc in AE. I wonder how much of this cringing is
>due to how one was taught English pronunciation, or class distinctions
>inferred from such a pronunciation in India.]

In light of recent list discussion, I would think that the 'bizarreness' of
retroflexes is now a dead issue. As for cringing, I'll leave it to Srini
[is this 'cringing' a ref. to his post?] to explain that. But in the USA at
least retroflexion is an easily recognizable *sign* of 'Indian-ness', as
any number of examples from pop culture clearly shows.
>Second is the claim that retroflexes are due to Dravidians
>mispronouncing alveolars. People do not confuse sounds which belong to
>distinct phonemes in their primary language. There are other objections
>to this theory which I have mentioned before. [Anyway, where were t/d/dh
>produced in PIE/PIIr? At the alveolar ridge, at the `roots of the teeth'
>as said by some praati"sakhyas, or at the middle/edge of the teeth?]

No, it is not a matter of mispronunciation of Dravidians; it is the
'mispronunciation' of bilinguals. Conservative Brahmins might not have
liked it but there it was all the same. Recall the passage from Ait. Ar.
which Deshpande made so much of. At this relatively late point in Vedic,
Brahmins were still disputing about the correctness of [retrofex] *Na* and
*Sa*, as opposed to [dental] *na* and *sa*. Even if one believes, with
Kuiper, that this dispute is merely about the correctness of the saMhitA
text, as opposed to the padapATha [*mo Su NaH* vs. pp. *mo iti su naH*],
the dispute is still explicit.

Vidhyanath Rao has raised a number of other points in his preceptive post,
but perhaps this post is too long already.

Admittedly the scenario that I have painted is just a 'likely story' [or
perhaps a 'not so likely story'] that is not capable of proof. The reality
was surely more complicated -- by the likely presence, for example, of
Munda and other unknown languages.

The process by means of which IA retroflexes developed from mere allophones
to independent phonemes still needs to be illuminated. Surely it can be,
and I hope will be, illuminated by the list's ziSTas [now, say that fast
three times...].

George Thompson

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