Origin of retroflexion in IA

Vidhyanath Rao vidynath at MATH.OHIO-STATE.EDU
Mon Mar 23 16:26:36 UTC 1998

[I was unable to finish editing the following response to Thompson to my
satisfaction due to other demands on my time. I hope that it is not too

I have already said much of what follows when I tried to discuss Hock's
article a little more than a year ago. I am repeating myself to make
sure that these objections do not get passed over.]


It seems to me that it is suspect methodology to discuss the origin of
retroflexion in a piecemeal fashion, limiting ourselves to just RV
and just t/.t etc contrast.

The most serious objection to appeals to a Dravidian substratum has
nothing to do with retroflexs at all. Dravidian does not have aspirated
stops. How come Dravidians, who couldn't tell alveolar nasals from
retroflex nasals, managed to preserve aspirations so well?

Nor can I see how Hock's objections can be answered by studying the RV.
As we all know (or should know :-) proto-Dravidian had a three way
contrast between dental, alveolar and retroflex in non-nasal stops and a
dental/alveolar vs retroflex contrast in nasal stops (or perhaps it was
three way in nasal stops as well). So why should Dravidian speakers
confuse alveolar and retroflex stops?

The only attempts to tackle this explicitly assume that Dravidian
languages in North and Central India must have evolved in such a way
that the sounds were reallocated in such a way that a dental vs
alveolar/retroflex contrast alone remained both in nasal and non-nasal
series. This is ad-hoc, and, in the humble opinion of a mere
mathematician, hard to reconcile with the correspondences given in
DEDR. That is why a few days ago I requested Dravidianologists to give
a brief synopsis of possible evolution of these sounds in North and
Central Dravidian, together with some recent references (I have read
Zvelebil, and am aware of Subramanyam but that I need to get that by ILL).
I was hoping that Professor Krishnamurthy would respond, may be he
will when he finds time.

However some of the comments I have heard/read are easily debunked by a
little spot checking, and makes me wonder about if ``retroflexion is due
to Dravidian substratum'' has not become a dogma, not susceptible to
criticisms. One claim was that the distinction between alveolar and
retroflex nasals is lost in all Dravidian languages. This is a great
shock to my contemporaries who grew up in Madurai. The field-work
reported by Zvelebil in the 50's does not indicate any such loss for
Tamil. Another was the claim that in Tamil people transcribe English n
by the retroflex .n. This is easily disproved by simple checking. A
visit to the Columbus Public Library even produced such transcriptions
as `.tve_n.tifaiv' (in a dialog in a novel). Reports of the death of
alveolar nasal in Tamil are premature.

[A North Indian listening to a Tamilian would be an interesting scene:
When a typical Tamilian attempts to say ``bhavana'', he will say
``bava_na'' (or ``pava_na''). the North Indian will of course hear it as
``bava.na'', and conclude that Tamilians retroflex all nasals. We cannot
base our conclusions on such stereotypes, but that is what some of the
arguments amount to.]


The problem applies with even more force to the sibilants. In many
Prakrits, the sibilants even fall together. This is rather strange if
the distinction between the dental and retroflex sibilants was imported
from Dravidian. We would expect such influences to increase in Prakrits.
This fact is again ignored in most discussions of this topic that I have
seen. Evolutionary trends don't get reversed just like that.


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