Telugu history

Palaniappa Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Tue May 5 05:37:29 UTC 1998

In a message dated 98-05-03 16:26:59 EDT, vidynath at MATH.OHIO-STATE.EDU writes:

<< I disagree with what N. Ganesan said, but the correctness or
 acceptability of what he said cannot be determined by his CV,
 or by the length of his publication list or some kind of
 citation count, but by the particular idea itself.

 This particular point has always been what impressed me most about
 modern Western shcolarship, and which I always felt to be welcome
 contrast to the attitude seen in the legends of Ashtavakra, Anglimala
 etc. But what I have seen posted in the last few months makes me wonder
 if Indologists still believe that ideas have to be judged by themselves,
 with no reference to who put it forth. >>

I agree with this whole-heartedly. I wish everyone just responds to the ideas
posted instead of imputing motives to the person posting it. I have always
held that useful information can often come from unlikely sources. Let me give
an example.

A few months back, in a posting entitled "Tamil words in English" Dr. Ganesan,
indicated  that English "koel" is derived from Tamil "kuyil' according to a
source on the internet. Dr. Sarma responded saying that "the word koel in
english is more likely  to be derived from telugu kOyila or hindi koyel rather
than kuyil of tamil from the affinity sounds." In a later posting, Dr. Ganesan
responded, "According to the Oxford dictionary, the word was first used by
Erskine in 1826. There is a Erskine hospital in Madurai. It could have come
from tamil too."  The statements of both Dr. Ganesan and Dr. Sarma seemed
reasonable to me. Considering the different sounds found in the words in the
three languages, one would naturally assign Hindi to be the more likely source
for English "koel". But the possibility of Erskine having lived in the Tamil
region seemed to encourage looking at this further.

On the face of it, among the three languages, the Hindi form quoted by Dr.
Sarma seemed the closest with even the second vowel matching the English form.
On the other hand, according to the Oxford dictionary, the word koel first
occurs in 1826 in Erskine's translation of Baber's Mem. 323 note, "The
koel....has a kind of song, and is the nightingale of HindustAn." The
dictionary lists the Hindi word which was the possible source as  "ko'il".
When this is considered, the significant difference between the Tamil word and
the Hindi word 2 is really the radical vowel, "u" in Tamil vs. "o" in Hindi.
We seemed to have the good old problem of root vowel "u/o" alternation working

Everybody knows that when the English borrowed Indian words into English, the
source was likely to be the spoken form and not the literary form. One can see
that in this process of borrowing, three word forms are at issue: the word as
spoken by the native speaker, the word as heard by the Englishman, and the
word form he transliterated it into. All three need not be identical.

Is there any possibility, then, that what in literary Tamil is "u" is
pronounced by Tamils in some cases in such a way that it finally becomes "o"
in English. (We should also have the following/derivative vowel to be "i".) In
other words, is it possible for a radical "u" to become "o" when followed by a
derivative vowel 'i" in actual spoken Tamil? A cursory examination of data
reveals English Tuticorin < Tamil tUttukkuTi, a port city in Tamilnadu. The
comparison is between the latter parts of the words, i.e., corin and kuTi.
Here we find Ta. "u" > Eng. "o"  when the following vowel is "i". However,
since this word is a compound, I wanted to look at cases where "u" was really
in the root.

Prior to this, I had accepted as given the basic premise of Burrow-
Krishnamurti  model of "u/o" alternation in Dravidian. According to this, in a
word when the second vowel is "i" or "u" or non-existent, and if the original
root vowel was "u", "u" should not change to "o". Based on the case of
Tuticorin, I looked at words with root vowel "i/u" and followed by "zero/i/u"
as the second vowel. What I discovered was very interesting. I found a number
of cases where "u" > "o" even when the second vowel is "i" or "u" or non-

Consider the examples given below. In each one of the following cases, the
vowel change "u"> "o" occurs, independent of the presence of a second vowel

DEDR 4281   Ta. puy, poy - to be pulled out
DED   2211    Ta. curi, cori (from Tamil Lexicon)  - to whirl
DEDR 3728   Ta. nuRukku, noRukku  - to crush
DEDR 3698   Ta. nuGku, noGku  - tender palmyra fruit
DED   1368   Ta. kuccu, koccu -  tassel

( I do not have ready access to DEDR. I have just a few pages from DEDR. So
pardon my mixing up DED and DEDR references.) I have just shown a few examples
of this "u">"o". Similar examples can be given for words with radical "i" also
from Tamil Lexicon/DEDR. Considering the fact that the Tamil Lexicon favors
literary usage, if one were to take a survey of all colloquial forms, I am
sure we will find more examples. For instance, the form Ta. meti  "to tread
on" occurs in Tamil inscriptions. It is not found in the Tamil Lexicon or DED.

One should note that based on Burrow-Krishnamurti approach to "i/e"-"u/o"
alternation,  P. S. Subrahmanyam (Dravidian Comparative Phonology, 1983,
p.203) says, "The following criteria will enable one to discover the original
Proto-Dravidian vowel: (i) related word in which the root contains a short
vowel and is followed by either no derivative element or one that begins with
-i or -u; and (ii) a related word in which the root contains a long vowel or a
double consonant (for this purpose it is immaterial whether or not such a root
is followed by a derivative element beginning with a vowel (including a)
because such a derivative element  can have no influence on this type of

Based on the evidence presented above, these fundamental assumptions in
Burrow-Krishnamurti model of Dravidian "i/e"-"u/o" alternation seem to be

Coming back to English "koel", we can say that depending on the accuracy of
word forms we work with, the word could have come from Hindi, Tamil or Telugu.
Apparently, there was a Governor Erskine in Madras. I do not know if this
Erskine was the same one who translated Baber�s work. If we know more about
the places in India the author, Erskine, spent his time, we can say which
language would more *probably* have been the source for English "koel". May be
people with access to India Office Library can get the information about this

I should note here that I embarked on this investigation because Dr. Ganesan
posted his original note and Dr. Sarma responded to it with a reasonable
argument against it. Considering the fact that a satisfactory interpretation
of this "i/e"-"u/o" alternation was deemed to be an original contribution of
"Telugu Verbal Bases" by Dr. Krishnamurti himself, I think the original
posting by Dr. Ganesan has been very useful. If intellectual inquiry is
stifled because of the presence or absence of publications, we will all be


S. Palaniappan

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