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’.

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