Social Inequalities Forum: "What can the modern languages of India tell us about its past? The contribution of linguistics to interpreting ancient Indian history" by J. Peterson (Kiel Uni)

May 11, 2021 from 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM


John Peterson (Kiel University) will give a talk on "What can the modern languages of India tell us about its past? The contribution of linguistics to interpreting ancient Indian history" in the framework of the Social Inequalities Forum.

John Peterson
Abstract: In my talk I will show some of the ways in which linguists can contribute to uncovering various aspects of ancient Indian history. While the traditional comparative method of historical linguistics is well known outside of linguistics, more recent methods generally are not. I will therefore concentrate on these newer developments.

Recent studies have shown that modern Indo-Aryan languages, regardless of their internal genealogical relationships, are clearly split into an eastern and a western group with respect to structural properties, although there are no natural boundaries (e.g., rivers, deserts, mountains, etc.) which could account for this. While the eastern languages share many similarities with neighboring Munda (Austro-Asiatic) and northern/eastern Dravidian languages, the western languages tend to cluster with neighboring southern/western Dravidian languages. This suggests a considerable amount of language contact in earlier times between these different language families and eastern and western Indo-Aryan, respectively.

A closer look at these two groups reveals that eastern Indo-Aryan languages have undergone massive morphological simplification in the past 2,000 – 2,500 years. This suggests that large numbers of speakers of these earlier languages were adult learners using older Indo-Aryan as a lingua franca in inter-ethnic communication, while retaining their home languages for intra-group communication. By contrast, we do not find such drastic simplifications in western Indo-Aryan languages and some languages, such as Konkani on the west coast, may even show signs of increased complexity. This last situation is typical of long-term, stable bilingualism from childhood onward. Taken together, these facts suggest that ca. 2,000 – 2,500 years ago there was a considerably higher level of ethnic and linguistic diversity in eastern India than in the west, similar to what is found today in these parts of the subcontinent.

For more information and the link to the video conference please contact Tim Kerig

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