Linguistics – Sinhala 6000 years ago

by Asiff Hussein 

It would seem surprising to many that the origins of the Sinhala language could be traced back to 6,000 years ago. Surprising but true. Linguistic research pioneered by nineteenth century German linguists like Franz Bopp and August Schleicher have made it possible to connect Sinhala words to words occurring in a good many European, Iranian and Indian languages belonging to what is known as the Indo-European family of languages and to trace them to their earliest forms.

Sinhala 6000 years ago

This science known as comparative linguistics aims at establishing the close relationship that exists between such languages as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Lithuanian, German, French, English, Russian, Persian, Hindi and Sinhala as well as attempting to reconstruct the parent speech of all these related languages which are believed to have shared a common origin in the distant past.

The close connection between these languages is not very apparent at first glance due to the sound changes they have been subjected to throughout the centuries before assuming their present forms. However a closer examination will reveal that all these languages go back to a parent language which German scholars prefer to call the Ursprache or ‘Early Speech’. This Proto- Indo-European language was evidently spoken in Southern Russia around 4500 – 3500 B.C. before its speakers dispersed to the outlying areas of Europe and Asia, taking with them their language, which with time became broken up into dialects, and ultimately distinct languages. The German Linguist August Schleicher was the first scholar to attempt the reconstruction of this Proto-Indo-European language in his epoch-making work, Compendium der Vergleichenden Grammatik der Indogermanischen published in 1861. Schleicher’s method was simple. What he did was to gather around him many of the then known extinct and extant Indo-European languages from which he deduced how the oldest forms would have sounded like. These hypothetical reconstructed forms he denoted with an asterix, a practice which continues to this day. Schleicher also went on to publish a fable composed in this hypothetical language entitled Avis Akvasas Ka (The sheep and the horses) which has however been subject to some revision.

Sound changes

Before we proceed any further, it is thought necessary to give the reader some idea of the sound or phonetic changes that the various Indo-European languages have been subjected to. These differences in sounds or phonetics could be explained on the basis of specific laws through which sound or phonetic changes have taken place. For instance, a major phonetic change characterizing many Indo-European speeches is the change of the PIE *k into sibilants or s sounds.

This change has affected the Indo-Aryan, Iranian, Baltic and Slavic languages while it has left unaffected the Greek, Latin, Celtic and Germanic languages. Consider the case of the Greek kuon and Latin canis ‘dog’ which Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language has turned into shvan. The Germanic languages have on the other hand turned the original PIE *k  into h such as is found in the Gothic hunths. The Germanic languages have also turned the PIE initial *d  to t  (as is evident in Gothic tvai ‘two’ where Sanskrit has dvau and Greek and Latin duo) and the PIE initial *p  into f  (as is seen in the Gothic fotus ‘foot’ where Sanskrit has padas, Greek podos and Latin pedis).

The Sinhala language, being an Aryan speech has undergone two significant phases before assuming its present form, viz. the Old-Indo-Aryan stage represented by Sanskrit (C.2000-800 B.C.) and the Middle-Indo-Aryan stage represented by Prakrit (C. 800 B.C.-400 A.D.) whose best representative is Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures.

Sinhala forms

Take for instance, the Sinhala numeral term hata ‘seven’. This word could be easily shown to have derived from the Sanskritic saptan through the Prakritic satta as found in Pali. Related forms in other Indo-European languages include Latin septem, Greek hepta, Avestan hapta, Persian haft, Lithuanian septyni, French sept and Hindi sat. All these forms go back to the reconstructed PIE hypothetical form *septom. Similarly, Sinhala ata ‘eight’ could be shown to have derived from the Sanskritic ashtau through the Prakritic attha as found in Pali. Cognate forms include Greek okto, Latin octo, Gothic ahtau, Lithuanian asztuni, German acht and Hindi ath. These forms go back to the PIE *oktau.

Now let us consider kinship terminology which is another very important aspect of a people’s vocabulary. Sinhala mava ‘mother’ we know derives from the Sanskritic matr. Here too we find cognate forms such as Latin mater, Greek meter, Russian matu, Lithuanian motina, Persian madar, Dutch moeder, Spanish madre, French mere and Hindi ma. All these forms go back to the PIE *mater which is thought to have originally meant ‘producer’. Sinhala piya ‘father’ is likewise connected to the Sanskrit pit, Persian pedar, Latin pater, Gothic fadar, Dutch vader, German vater, Spanish padre, French père and Panjabī pio, all of which go back to the Proto-Indo-European * pater  meaning ‘provider’ or ‘protector’.

Then take the Sinhala term beya ‘brother’ which derives from the Sanskritic bhratr. Here also we find cognate forms such as Gothic brothar, Persian baradar, German bruder, Russian brat, Lithuanian brolis and Hindi bhai. These forms go back to the PIE *bhrater which seems to have originally meant ‘supporter’. Also consider Sinhala duva ‘daughter’ which is connected to the Sanskrit duhitr, Avestan dugdar, Persian dokhter, Gothic dauhtar, Dutch dochter, Lithuanian dukte and Russian doch. All these forms go back to the PIE *dhughater which seems to have originally meant ‘milker’, either a ‘milkmaid’ or a ‘milkling’ which is to say ‘one who draws milk from her mother’.

Now let us consider some terms denoting body parts. Take for instance the Sinhala term data ‘tooth’ which derives from the Sanskritic danta and is related to such forms as Latin dentis, Lithuanian dantis, French dent, Hindi dat, Dutch tand and German zahn. All these forms are thought to go back to the PIE *dantis. Similarly, the Sinhala nahaya ‘nose’ could be shown to derive from the Sanskritic nasa and related to such forms as the Latin nasus, Russian nos, German nase and Lithuanian nosis. The PIE form seems to have been *nasis. Then take Sinhala ina ‘loins’ which has derived from the Sanskritic shroni and is related to Greek klonis, Latin clunis, Old Norse hlaun and Prussian slaunis. The PIE form seems to have been *klunis.

Common words

Now let us consider some common words which figure in our day to day speech. Take for example the Sinhala nama ‘name’ which could easily be connected with the Sanskrit naman, Hindi nam, Latin nomen,  Gothic namo and French nom. The PIE form was evidently *nom. The Sinhala dora ‘door’ derives from the Sanskritic dvara and is connected to the Gothic daura, Lithuanian durys, Russian dver and Dutch deur. The PIE form was evidently *dwar. Also consider the Sinhala term ginna ‘fire’ which has no doubt derived from the Sanskritic agni and is therefore related to such forms as the Latin ignis, Lithuanian ugnis and Slavonic ogni. The PIE form seems to have been something like *ognis. Finally, let us take the case of the Sinhala taruva ‘star’ which we know derives from the Sanskritic str and is related to such forms as the Greek aster, Latin stella, Gothic stairno, German stern, Dutch ster and Persian sitara. All these forms go back to the PIE root *str meaning ‘to scatter’ and hence applied to the stars as being strewn over the sky or as being scatterers or spreaders of light.

An updated version of August Schleicher’s Proto-Indo-European tale:

Owis ekwoske  (The Sheep and the Horses)

Owis, kesyo wlhna ne est, ekwons espeket, oinom ghegrum woghom weghontm, oinomke megam bhorom, oinomke ghmenm oku bherontm. Owis nu ekwobhos ewewket: kerd aghnutoi moi ekwons agontm manum widntei. Ekwos tu ewewkont:kludhi, owei, kerd aghnutoi nsmei widntbhos: manus, potis, owiom r wlhnam sebhi ghermom westrom krneuti, neghi owiom wlhna esti. Tod kekluwos owis agrom abhuget. The Sheep and the horses

A sheep that had no wool saw horses-one pulling a heavy wagon, another one a great load, and another swiftly carrying a man. The sheep said to the horses: it hurts me seeing a man driving horses. The horses said to the sheep:listen sheep! it hurts us seeing man the master making a warm garment for himself from the wool of a sheep when the sheep has no wool for itself. On hearing this, the sheep fled into the plain.

First Published in the Sunday Observer and since revised by the Author