Retroflexion in IA

Vidhyanath Rao vidynath at MATH.OHIO-STATE.EDU
Mon Jun 29 18:22:29 UTC 1998

George Thompson wrote:

[I have deleted George Thompson's description of bilingual children
causing the change, so save bandwidth. I have also changed the order to
put what I consider to be the most serious objection first.

How did the bilingual children cause the splitting of `n'? In
Dravidian, dental and alveolar n's are allophones of the same phoneme,
contrasted with the retroflex. To judge by the situation in South
Dravidian languages, dental n occurs word initially and before dental
stops, alveolar n elsewhere. It does not matter whether you posit
bilingual children or pidgins or creoles. Why would they split what is
one phoneme in >both< languages involved, while preserving the dental
where it could not occur in Dravidian?

The same problem applies to the sibilants. Proto-Dravidian has no
sibilant phonemes. Sibilants seem to come only from assibilated stops
or affricates. So why was the sibilant system made >more< complicated
instead of being simplified or at least left alone?

Any theory that does not explain the two thing above is necessarily

Another problem is that the four way distinction based on voicing and
aspiration is preserved in IA, even though no such distinctions existed
in Dravidian. Why was there no effect on this distinction?

``mispronunciation of bilinguals'' ignores the distinction between
early bilinguals and late bilinguals. When not ghettoized, early
bilinguals quickly grow out of any interference between sounds that so
dog late bilinguals. And when contact with speakers of second language
outnumber contact with the speakers of the first language, the former
shows no ill effect whatsoever. And you are suggesting that the
`mispronouncing bilinguals' grew up in IA tribes.

And finally, a practical question: What did the children speak to their
parents? IA to one and Dravidian to another? In such cases, as long as
given person speaks the same language to the child at all times, modern
research indicates that the child will pick up both languages well,
speaking exactly like their model.

Or do you assume that they spoke a pidgin/creole and that Sanskrit was
always a second language? [That is another of those vexed questions
which I do not want to go into unless absolutely neccessary.]

>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?

>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

But many of these features don't appear till much later than RV. On the
other hand, retroflexion goes back much further. In fact, in RV there
is less difference between internal sandhi and external sandhi in this
matter. How do you explain this? [This is also one of Hock's

This is likely to be the explanation for the AA passage mentioned
elsewhere: If the pronunciation mo-Su-NaH was limited to rcs, while in
ordinary speech people said mo-su-naH, then the point would have been to
preserve the original pronunciation instead of using the daily

I have pointed out another possibility before. In Prakrits, the
tendency [contact induced?] is to simplify the sibilant system, into
just one phoneme. Similar thing happened with the nasals, also in Central
and North Dravidian languages. The AA passage may be in reaction to this

>[...] the sons of the IA clans at the appropriate age are taught the
>family traditions, including the recitation of the songs of the earlier
>poet-seers [pUrva RSi-s].

But what did these sons speak when they were two or three? A pidgin
(generation after generation)? A creole (syntactical changes in Vedic,
then Panini's bhaasha, Katyayana's language and that of Pali cannon are
too gradual to consider any of them a creole)? Dravidian languages (if
so, why did everybody switch to IA eventually?)? IA languages (see
above, about line 50-60, for the objection)?

You should not anachronistically transfer what happened much later, when
people spoke Prakrit at home and learned Sanskrit at 8 or after, back
to Vedic times. I had to memorize some of Bharatiyar's songs in school,
but that does not mean that I learned Tamil only at that time.

>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.

Pronouncing w as v is an easily recognizable sign of Germans, at least
in the pop culture. What substratum is that pronunciation due to.

The argument also works in reverse. Pronouncing dentals and retroflexes
as alveolars is, at least in Tamil Nadu, part of the stereotype of
non-South Asians. If all the PIE t/d/dh were alveolars and all alveolars
become retroflex, where did the dentals in Sanskrit come from?

>The process by means of which IA retroflexes developed from mere allophones
>to independent phonemes still needs to be illuminated.

I recall something Dominique Thalliand (sp?) said in March/April when
we at this: The occurance of front rounded vowels in French, German etc
used to be attributed to substratum influence. but now, it is taken to
be the result of internal development. Does this hold any lessons for


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