Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What to do about Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana?

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I am in a moral quandary over what to do about Chandre Dharmawardana. Should I look askance at this professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Montreal, shuddering with horrified wonder as if he is a mutant worm or should I use the situation to cultivate equanimity? The arguments for both courses of action are equally strong in my mind. For looking askance, he has shown himself fundamentally clueless about the history of languages in Sri Lanka. It is pretty shudder-worthy when a person who claims a degree of expertise in the historical development of place names of Sri Lanka (, reveals himself to be clueless about the linguistic evolution thereof. This is why I couldn’t stop shuddering when I read the following communication from Dr. Dharmawardana.
“I personally think there were no Damila or Sinhala in the 2nd century BC. The inscriptions are really not Sinhala or Tamil. The Sinhala has an advantage because the Parkrit is close to Pali, but I personally think the ethnic distinctions came up probably after wars of Dutugamunu…”
In favour of cultivating equanimity and dropping the shudder, Dr. Dharmawardana was very cooperative when I asked his permission to use this personal email note sent by him to a third party. I fully expected him to stall, cringe in shame and invoke his right to keep his email communications private. Instead he was breezy; “Of course, you have the permission to use that material. I assumed that the material was already in the public domain! I am glad this is an easy request.” Indeed he was all “Indeed, I am interested in what Darshanie is doing, and would be very willing to help her where ever I can…” and made me cringe that I had shuddered and not possessed the equanimity to see that sometimes, a mistake just deserves correcting.

Mistake could be too light a word however, to describe the yawning chasm that exists between the current knowledge in historical linguistics and Dharmawardana’s personal take on it. Was linguistics in Sri Lanka ever in the simpleton stage conceived by Chandre? A linguist standing in front of the Brahmi lithic records, scratching head and wondering ‘Sinhalese or Tamil hmm? Reads like Pali. So closer to Sinhala? Doesn’t really sound like either to me.’ Even by 1938, there was Wilhelm Geiger making ‘a proper historical analysis of the Sinhala language’ and giving ‘the name Sinhalese Prakrit to the earliest form’ of the Sinhalese language ‘as found in the Brahmi inscriptions.’ Now it’s advanced enough to tell us that the Prakrit, a Middle Indo-Aryan language that came to the island probably around 6th century B.C. underwent changes that made it different from all other Prakrits in India. By the time inscriptions started being written on stone in centuries 3rd /2nd B.C., these changes had already taken place. These changes were the harbingers of the present Sinhala language; hence the language of the Brahmi stone inscriptions of Sri Lanka is named old Sinhala/Sinhalese Prakrit. Historical linguistics in Sri Lanka is advanced enough to trace which change harbingered which characteristic of the present language. ““Furthermore, the lack of diphthongs in Sinhala resulted largely from changes such as ay(a)>e and av(a)>o occurring prior to the earliest inscriptions...”-(Gair:1985 ). It’s also possible for historical linguists to trace the evolutionary journeys taken by the Prakrit called old Sinhala in contradistinction to all other Prakrits of the Indian mainland. “…Sinhala appears to have retained the OIA (Old Indo Aryan) distinction between retro-flex and nonretroflex nasals longer than any other IA language. The distinction was retained in Pali…but they are merged in one direction or the other in latter Prakrits except for old Sinhala. This by itself, of course, points to the relatively early transfer of Sinhala to the island, in time to miss the general merger on the mainland. The distinction was retained in Sinhala until about the eighth century …then it was lost.”- (ibid)

The source of Chandre’s misdirection would be hard to determine without telepathy. Multiple sources could be involved. One of them is sure to be ‘The Evolution…’ by K. Indrapala. This book is strewn with traps to trip the cognitively careless. Nearly always, Indrapala uses the generic name Prakrit for the language of the stone Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka even when the context cries out for the specific name; “The earliest stone inscriptions in Sri Lanka, datable to about the second century BCE are all in Prakrit… The earliest stone inscriptions in Tamil Nadu, also datable to the second century BCE, are in Old Tamil but betray influence of Prakrit”- (p.89). In contrast, he uses Old Tamil and Tamil interchangeably just as Gair in the above quotes uses Sinhala and old Sinhala interchangeably. The term ‘Sinhalese Prakrit.’ is confined to three far apart pages of the book. Page 91, under the heading Sinhalese-Prakrit, carries several references including “The language of the earliest records is a form of Prakrit, often referred to as Sinhalese-Prakrit…”

Page 337 (an end note page) remarkably uses Sinhalese –Prakrit and Old Sinhalese interchangeably. This refers to recent writings by Tamil Nadu scholars appreciating the flow of influences from ancient SL to their region: P. Jeyakumar- evidence from Tamil Nadu potsherd graffiti ‘showing influences of Sri Lankan Brahmi and Sinhalese-Prakrit.’: Iravatham Mahadevan- ‘among the inscribed potsherds found in Tamil Nadu, a small but significant group’ is in ‘Sinhala-Prakrit language written in the Early Sinhala-Brahmi script’: Some interesting articles by Mahadevan; ‘An Old Sinhalese Inscription from Arikamedu’, ‘Old Sinhalese Inscriptions from Indian Ports…’: S. Iracavelu has read ‘a remarkable graffito in Prakrit from the ancient port of Kaveripattinam’ as ‘a Sinhalese-Brahmi inscription’.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Language problem of the speaking stones

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

                        The Cobra hood cave in Sigiriya donated around 2nd century B.C. by someone called Naguliya

I went to Sigiriya recently. At the entrance to one of the several caves, at the base of the rock, a guide was doing his thing with his group of white tourists. The cave had been an abode of the cave dwelling Buddhist monks of the 2nd, 3rd century B.C. and sported the typical cave inscription proclaiming whose donation to the Sangha it had been. A Department of Archeology plaque nearby gave the reading of the inscription and the background. The guide reeled off the words of the inscription, first in the original language and then in English, looking straight at the cave wall and not at the plaque. “What’s the language of the inscription?” asked one tourist. “Brahmi” replied the guide (pronouncing ‘a’ as a short vowel). “But I thought it was in Sinhalese” protested the tourist. “No, it’s in Brahmi” asserted the guide. At this point, I almost intervened to inform the tourist that Brahmi is a script, not a language and the inscription was in the language known variously as old Sinhalese, proto Sinhalese or Sinhalese Prakrit. But then, I held back because, for one thing the guides’ guild seemed pretty powerful there and for another, I don’t look ‘knowledgeable’.

Chin up guide, you are in venerable company. The number of academics in history and related disciplines together with those in unrelated disciplines but dabbling in history out of keen interest, who do not know what language the cave inscriptions of Lanka are written in, would fill a good sized tourist bus. This is a bold surmise based on three clues uncovered during my personal investigations. The first clue presented itself to my stunned eyes, while looking through some old comment threads in ‘The Lanka Academic’. In the 21st century, some members of that community had sat around in a cyber ambalama and yarned about ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’ by Indrapala and the most voluble fan of the book let out the cat. He uploaded a portion of the Tamil Householder’s (Dameda gahapati) terrace inscription from Lanka (2nd century B.C.), labeled it 200 B.C. Tamil, uploaded a contemporary, but run of the mill inscription without allusions to Dameda, labeled it 200 B.C. Sinhalese, compared the scripts of the two samples and asked throbbing with inter-ethnic fellowship, ‘aren’t these the same?’. It was a ‘duh’ moment, which another blogger used to maximum advantage; brutally pointing out that the Tamil Householder’s inscription is not in Tamil, that the compared scripts were the same because they were the same language. It’s difficult to accuse ‘The Evolution…’ as the source of this misdirection however.

The second clue to the fellowship of the clueless (on the language of the earliest stone inscriptions of Lanka) comes from a higher stratum of academia than a thread on ‘The Lanka Academic’. It’s in a Heidelberg Paper by Michael Roberts. “Older scholarship, including the works of Geiger, deemed the language of these inscriptions to be “Proto-Sinhala” or “Sinhala-Prakrit.” I am not in a position to say whether scholars today would support this conclusion…” – (Blunders in Tigerland: 2007).This is a frank admission of ignorance by a scholar who should nevertheless have done his basic homework in historical linguistics before writing this research paper. This is rather like a scientist saying ‘Even though older scientists like Isaac Newton believed in gravity, I am in no position to know if the present day scientists share that belief’ This lack of fundamental grounding is not beautiful, especially when an entire science, a fertile and vibrant academic discipline called historical linguistics exists, where it’s such a given that the earliest Brahmi stone inscriptions of Lanka are the extant samples of 3rd/2nd century B.C. version of Sinhalese.

Historical linguists tell us that ‘the Indo Aryan and hence Indo-European origin of Sinhala is now a matter of consensus among serious scholars’ (Gair: 1985). One thing they ‘can be sure is that the language was well established on the island by the third century B.C.’(ibid) The reason for this certainty is not only the widespread infestation of a large number of inscriptions ‘in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C.’(Gair:1981) but also the fact that by this time the language had undergone spectacular indigenization (‘by that time the language had already undergone important changes that made it distinct from any of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India’-ibid). The main symptom of this spectacular indigenization is the complete loss of the aspirated consonants. What’s so marvelous about this is ‘To the best of my knowledge, no other IA language has undergone complete deaspiration’ (Gair: 1985). Considering that all other Indo-Aryan languages have held on like leeches to their aspirated consonants, historical linguists marvel at ‘the thoroughgoing and apparently sudden change in Sinhala, apparently following upon its transplantation to the island’ (ibid). What makes them so sure of the chronology of this phenomenon is the language of the earliest Lankan inscriptions, inscribed on stone in the script called Brahmi; “The fact that aspiration was lost in Sinhala somewhere before the third century is attested to by the inscriptional evidence, and particularly by fluctuations and backspellings, such as second century B.C. jhaya ‘wife’… or first century B.C. rajha ‘king…” (ibid)

Friday, December 14, 2012

More understanding and less condemnation

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Ananda Wakkumbura is a man who has recently put behind him a daunting task: translating into Sinhalese ‘Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period’ by Michael Roberts. Here’s the kind of sentence which makes this a daunting task. ‘Secondly he imposes the gemeinschaft/gesellschaft distinction borrowed from Tonnies, in a tautological fashion to assert that these types of community lacked ‘a convergence of interest’ of the gesellschaften kind.’ When I met Wakkumbura recently, in my negligible capacity as an assister of this work, he happened to mention that Dharmasiri Bandaranayake had mailed him my first article on Indrapala. Wakkumbura expressed his reservations about the need to be so harsh on Prof. Indrapala. He was of the opinion that given the ethnically tense situation, in which the book was begotten, more understanding was required than condemnation. And besides, opposite such atrocities as the pogroms against the Tamils; 77, 83, etc. and the Bindunuwewa massacre of LTTE detainees under the aegis of SLFP stalwarts, the whole subject was of such trivial importance.

Stand on Merit

If Indrapala’s ‘The Evolution…’ was meant to be an academic work, it must stand or fall by its own intellectual and analytical merits and not shelter behind circumstances. However, there are those who feel that it is not an academic work, but a circumspect book that makes allowances for the heightened Tamil nationalism, and should be read allowing for the circumstances. More nauseatingly, there are those who feel that all academic work should be circumspect enterprises that make allowances for (either nurture or refrain from challenging) causes of the right sort. The burden of making allowances gets almost unbearable as the Sri Lanka we know is distorted beyond recognition by Indrapala’s speculations.

Early Languages

We have no idea of the languages spoken by the pre-historic Mesolithic people of this country. We have no idea of the language or languages spoken by the people who propagated the Early Iron Age culture in this country (900-300 B.C.). They are pre-literate societies. But when the literate phase dawns in Sri Lanka, at the start of the early historic period (from 300 B.C. conventionally), it spawns this humongous compass that shows us the linguistic and cultural direction of the country. This compass is none other than the infestation(over 1400) of cave inscriptions found all over Sri Lanka (except in the Northernmost part, where there are no caves), in the language, known variously, as proto-Sinhalese, Sinhalese Prakrit or old Sinhalese.

Indrapala of 1969, the objective scholar unhesitatingly calls this language Proto-Sinhalese as in; "We have also the evidence of three Brahmi cave inscriptions datable to about the second century B.C. for the presence of Tamils, presumably traders, in the Island. But here too the impression given by these inscriptions is that these Tamils were foreigners. Although the inscriptions were set up by the Tamils whose names are mentioned in them, the language is Proto-Sinhalese as in the case of all the other inscriptions of the Island at this time. But more important than this is that the recorders have made special mention of the fact that they were Tamils, which would indicate that they considered themselves to be distinct from, if not alien to, the general population just as much as the Sinhalese donors in the pre-Christian cave inscriptions of the Tamil country made known the fact that they were Sinhalese. In later times, too, we get instances of Tamils who made grants to temples outside the Tamil country recording the grants in the language of the area but making mention of the fact that they were Tamils.”

In contrast, Indrapala, 2005, ‘the allowances scholar’ attempts some shilly-shallying to misdirect the reader on the language of the cave inscriptions. He asks on page 90; “Was Hela the same as the language of the Brahmi cave inscriptions?” He answers a few sentences later; "The few scholars who have worked on the early inscriptions have expressed differing views on the language of these records and generally tended to avoid the issue of its connection with Hela."

Old Sinhala

This is in fact one of the clear-cut instances of naked dishonesty manifest in ‘The Evolution…’ Professor James W. Gair, a pre-eminent authority on South Asian linguistics calls it ‘Old Sinhala’ without any shyness in ‘Sinhala, an Indo Aryan Isolate’-(1981). "Sinhala Tradition has it that the group that brought the languages with them arrived on the date of the parinibbana… traditionally 544-543 B.C. As a matter of fact, somewhere around this time does appear to be a reasonable date, since we have inscriptions in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C., and by that time the language had already undergone important changes that made it distinct from any of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India." In fact scholars studying the history of Sinhala phonology and the origins and the influences on that language, use old Sinhala of the cave inscriptions as a the specimen for the second major stage in the evolutionary pathway, that goes as Middle indo-Aryan to old Sinhala to Sinhala.