Technology's Impact on So. Asian linguistics

Prasad Velusamy prasad_velusamy at HOTMAIL.COM
Sun May 9 20:50:07 UTC 1999

Hi Mike,

This is my second example.


Date:         Tue, 5 May 1998 01:37:29 EDT

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

<< 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 here.

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

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 "a".

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 root.)".

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

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 person.

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 losers.


S. Palaniappan

Get Free Email and Do More On The Web. Visit

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list