War of words on the origin of words

Professor Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, a scholar and gentleman, and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, breathed his last a fortnight ago. His demise marks the end of an era in the scholarly analysis of Indian languages. His authoritative book “The Dravidian Languages” (Cambridge 2003) clearly set out the origin, development and diversity of the Dravidian languages.

He made me aware of the point made by the geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza that the genetic tree and the linguistic tree have many impressive similarities, and would goad me into thinking more about these putative similarities.

True, DNA is the seed on which the genetic tree has grown, flourished and diversified. Likewise, word is the seed on which languages form, flourish and multiply. Just as genes are sequences of DNA and the collection of genes (the genome) identifies an organism, words, phrases, sentences, and grammar define language.

Just as organisms have evolved from an ancestor, languages too have evolved from an ancestral or “proto” language. Where and how did the ancestor of all Indo-European languages, or the proto-Indo-European, originate and diversify into German, Italian, Russian, Persian and Hindi, is a question on which there has been a controversy or war of words.

In this connection, Professor Krishnamurti would have been interested in a recent paper in the August 24, 2012 issue of Science by Dr. Quentin Atkinson and colleagues of the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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