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)

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