Thursday, March 14, 2013

An inexact man in an inexact science

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

                        Taking a tracing

“When it comes to ancient history, historical linguistics and such matters, surprisingly little is known in any tangible sense although much is claimed by the practitioners of such studies. ... We are not questioning the importance of such studies. But we insist that where little is known, little is known.”
So says Chandre Dharmawardana that famous emissary from exact sciences arrived on the social sciences scene to explode the ‘pretense of knowledge cultivated by social scientists’ and show that it’s ‘more relevant to emphasize our quasi-total lack of knowledge’. But there’s a problem. When Chandre Dharmawardana insists that little is known, it usually means that little is known by Chandre Dharmawardana. This is usually due to a substandard facility for acquiring knowledge than to an actual lacuna in the body of knowledge. When Chandre signals us to emphasize our quasi-total lack of knowledge, he is really asking us to empathize with his personal lack of knowledge.

It starts from basics, this personal lack of knowledge and continues upwards. The evidence strongly points to Chandre having missed many of the ‘Elementary my dear Watson’s of the ancient period: i.e. Brahmi is not a language, but a script, Prakrit is a Middle Indo Aryan language while Tamil is a Dravidian language and using the oxy-moron Tamil-Prakrit is an obvious way of displaying your ignorance.

I present exhibit A; “…a form of southern Prakrit known as ‘Elu’ seems to have been prevalent in Lanka, and was close to Asokan Brahmi. Another southern Parkrit (sic), called Tamil-Parkrit (sic) by Mahadevan is also close to Elu-prakrit”- (from Regarding Thamilians and Inscriptions: 2012: Chandre writing as ‘Gam Vaesiya’)

First, ‘Elu’ is not the name of any Prakrit but the name given for poetic Sinhala. Between centuries 10th and 15th A.D. written Sinhala “was internally diglossic, employing one “alphabet” for writing Sinhala poetry and one for Sinhala prose. The script was the same for both; the difference between the two was the number of permitted letters (aksaras), prose having fifty-seven, against thirty six for poetry. The alphabet for poetic Sinhala (elu) prevented the use of many Sanskrit loanwords (tatsamas) because it lacked letters for the aspirated consonants of Sanskrit, although Sanskrit loanwords became… common in Sinhala prose …in spoken Sinhala too, as well as in Sinhala Buddhist discourse: the Sanskritic dharmaya (Truth, the Buddha’s Teaching) is far more common than daham or dähäm found in elu…On the other hand, poetic Sinhala frequently privileged the ä vowel (e.g., dähäm) and the half-nasal, which are not found in Sanskrit or Pali…” –(Charles Hallisey, ‘Works and Persons in Sinhala Literary Culture’). Elu is not a Prakrit, but a spawn of the literary tradition that begot the Sigiri poetry (8, 9, 10 centuries A.D.) and eventually became the ideological ancestor of the language affected by the Hela Hawula.

Secondly, a man who boldly goes public with the statement that the prevalent language in Lanka (a Prakrit) was close to a script (Asokan Brahmi) is a man who has taken ‘pretense of knowledge’ to a level that no man has taken it before. Nevertheless, it is education such a man deserves not ridicule. I fought with my baser instincts to keep the ridicule at bay. It was hard, especially when I contemplated Exhibit B; “…it is very unlikely that such ethnic feelings or differences existed in, say, 5th or 6th century BCE. Those days Lanka most probably had its own form of southern Brahmi or Elu- Prakrit, very close to what we know today as ‘Tamil Brahmi’…” –(e mail note from Chandre to Michael Roberts)

Chandre’s Elu, a southern Prakrit is close to Asokan Brahmi. It’s also close to Tamil Prakrit (a fellow southern Prakrit). Even this is not enough closeness for Elu. It’s also very close to Tamil Brahmi. This is a linguistic ‘Bold and the Beautiful’. Elu is the eternally fascinating Brooke, who was recently accidently close to her daughter’s boyfriend, having been close earlier to the said daughter’s father, who was incidentally the husband of an older daughter, whose father she was also close to in the midst of being close to his son.

In reality the ancient languages are not so catholic and follow patterns more conducive to sanity. First it’s important to understand, in order to avoid gaffes like ‘The prevalent language of Lanka was close to Asokan Brahmi’, that Brahmi is an ancient script used to write many of South Asia’s languages before they developed their own vernacular scripts and is therefore considered ‘the ancestor of most of South Asia's modern vernacular scripts’(Coningham et al:96). ‘The earliest accepted examples of this script’ used to be ‘the pillar and rock inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor, Asoka, dating to the middle of the third century BC’. Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi Script’, Coningham et al: 1996, displaced Asokan Brahmi from this pioneer pedestal and announced that “Sherds inscribed with this script, recently found at Anuradhapura, with dates of the beginning of the fourth century BC, now represent its earliest dated examples anywhere in the subcontinent”. It countered the model that cast Sri Lanka as merely ‘the recipient of material culture diffused from more northerly regions’ and suggested that ‘Sri Lanka may have played a pivotal role in the development of Brahmi’ . Have to stop now. More next week.

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