ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

From Verb Conjugation To Pickled Mangoes

There is one feature that makes Malayalam truly stand out among Indian languages: its Verb Conjugation depends ONLY on the tense. There is no dependency whatever on the gender, number, person or whatever of either the subject or the object of the verbs. There are some irregularities in the way the tense affects the verbs but the subject and object never come into the picture. For example, 'poyi' is the past tense for the root verb 'po' (go). This form is unaffected whether it is I, we, you, he, she, it or they who has 'done the going'. Transitive verbs show no dependence on the object either.

Malayalam is said to be a youngish language (dating back to only around 14th century) and has borrowed heavily from Tamil and Sanskrit (and perhaps Kannada) primarily and also plenty of vocabulary from English and a host of other Indian and foreign languages, all this mixing has a given a certain richness and also an under-construction feel to the language. In such a scenario, the above speciality of verb conjugation seems particularly intriguing since none of the primary source languages has anything like it.

A theory I heard attributes this speciality of malayalam to Chinese influence - Chinese apparently has such an 'insensitive' verb conjugation. Prima facie this explanation sounds far-fetched. For languages to have been influenced so fundamentally, there ought to be intimate interaction between peoples. There do not seem to have been any serious Chinese trading posts or 'factories' in Kerala - although their ships did reach south India and even Africa regularly in medieval times - let alone colonization; no hint can be seen in the Malayali physiognomy that could indicate the admixture of Chinese blood - on the other hand, at least scattered Arab and European ancestry shows at least on a few Malayali faces

But there is also some hard evidence of very strong Chinese influence and perhaps even presence in Kerala. Silk, porcelain, frying pans, (a type of) fishing nets, etc..are still referred to as 'Chinese' in Kerala. The word 'samprani' in Malayalam and also Tamil seems to have been an adjective applied to more than one thing of Chinese/East Asian origin, from incense sticks to a special class of sailing vessels (India might have copied the common ritual of burning incense sticks from China). 'samprani' is also an insult in both these languages, a racist slur perhaps! The 'chempavu' strain of rice, a traditional favorite with Keralites is almost certainly the 'champa', first bred in China or probably, Vietnam. And the temple (and residential) architecture of Kerala has almost as much of a Chinese flavor as the 'rest of Indian' (resemblance between Nepal and Kerala temples could be due a shared Chinese influence)....

Yet, the folk memory of Kerala has not preserved much on the visitors from the far east. I vaguely know of only one story - a visiting Chinese merchant leaves a set of sealed 'bharanis' (porcelain jars) for safe-keeping with a poor Kerala family and they turn out to be filled with gold coins (up to this point, the story line is 'universal') and oddly enough one of those jars (it had a slight manufacturing defect and was called the 'kodan bharani') later turns out to impart a uniquely delicious flavor to pickled mangoes (!) stored in it!

Note Added On April 27th 2005:
I know very little about languages such as Tulu, Kodava and Sanketi which are spoken by smallish numbers of people in Karnataka and in particular, whether verb conjugation in these languages is as 'insensitive' as in Malayalam. Tulu especially is said to have some affinity with Malayalam and there is a dialect called Byari spoken by Muslims of Coastal Karnataka which is said to be a mix of Malayalam and Tulu. So, the above claim about Malayalam being 'unique' in its verb conjugation may not quite stand up to facts.

I still think the intensity and importance of the 'Chinese connection' with Kerala and Southern India in general is often not adequately appreciated and THAT has been the main theme of this post.

16 Comments:

  • At 11:15 PM, Blogger Sumesh said…

    Very interesting. The 'pickled mangoes' part was quite funny!

     
  • At 9:49 AM, Blogger ഉമേഷ്::Umesh said…

    Well, since you mentioned the story of "paaNTanpuRaththu kOTan bharaNiyile uppumaangnga" from "aithihyamaala", I assume you are from Kerala. Please check MP Manoj's Kerala blog roll, and send a request to include "anaamika" also. That way we'll know when you have a new post.

    Thanks,

    - Umesh

     
  • At 9:43 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Umesh,

    Yes, I am from Kerala. Shall try to get a listing on the blogroll.

    Nandakumar

     
  • At 11:35 AM, Blogger Shrikaanth K.Murthy said…

    Hi Nandakumar
    No sanketi has clear distictions on basis of gender, number, person etc.The sanketi speakers are in fact very particulaar about these distinctions. It is not at all like mlayAlam in this respect. However there are other similarities.Please read this article of mine in wikippedia.

     
  • At 11:35 AM, Blogger Shrikaanth K.Murthy said…

    Hi Nandakumar
    No sanketi has clear distictions on basis of gender, number, person etc.The sanketi speakers are in fact very particulaar about these distinctions. It is not at all like mlayAlam in this respect. However there are other similarities.Please read this article of mine in wikippedia.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanketi

     
  • At 7:43 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks Shrikanth, for your interest and the link.

     
  • At 2:29 AM, Blogger cullitonholic said…

    Interesting!

    Could the lack of conjugation have come from a Southeast Asian language, rather than Chinese? There were probably closer trading links with Southeast Asia than with China, right?

    Or have you already eliminated Southeast Asian languages like Malay or Thai?

    Your larger point about there not being enough exploration of the connections between China and southern India is also a great point.

     
  • At 4:32 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks Jim,

    I do not know any East Asian language (including Chinese); so no serious elimination of Malay, Thai etc. in favor of Chinese was possible. But it is true that the Chinese were the most sea-faring country in East Asia (and even the World until about 1500), so they are likelier candidates than others.

    Whether the Chinese (or more precisely the East Asian) connection was the reason for the peculiarity of Malayalm verb conjugation is a matter of speculation. And yes, it is only part of a larger picture of cultural exchange that I was trying to get at.

     
  • At 3:20 AM, Blogger Shyam said…

    Nandakumar,
    I have visited China and am indeed amazed at the similarities between Kerala and China.My thought was we gave it across to them.
    There was a lot of trade.Sri Lanka too had a lot of such trade with China.
    And the Chinese Fishing Nets are brought by Prtuguese in th 16th Century.
    Well , verb insensitivity , as you call it , is interesting , but has nothing in relation to Chinese.
    You could have suggested tonal nature of Chinese , but then again , Malayalam and Tamil are not the only tonal languages in India , Kannada too.So that is more of a language feature.
    It does not make a serious difference in meaning in Malayalam/Tamil/Kannada , if you change tone.It does in Chinese.

    Bodhi Dharma was a Keralite royal
    who introduced the Ch'ang school of Buddhism in China.The guy is reputed to have back-answered to the Chinese emperor :- The emperor asks him "What merit have you gained by building monasteries and temples ?".Our man replies "None" (he was to have explained his theory of Buddhism instead of back-answering).The rest is history , he was thrown out of the emperor's court , and he went to Shao-Lin monastery.

    Chinese settlement looks very unlikely in Kerala , though the reverse looks slightly probable (Kerala's Hindus , Biddhists and Muslims as well as Christians have had some form or the other of interaction).

     
  • At 3:20 AM, Blogger Shyam said…

    Nandakumar,
    I have visited China and am indeed amazed at the similarities between Kerala and China.My thought was we gave it across to them.
    There was a lot of trade.Sri Lanka too had a lot of such trade with China.
    And the Chinese Fishing Nets are brought by Prtuguese in th 16th Century.
    Well , verb insensitivity , as you call it , is interesting , but has nothing in relation to Chinese.
    You could have suggested tonal nature of Chinese , but then again , Malayalam and Tamil are not the only tonal languages in India , Kannada too.So that is more of a language feature.
    It does not make a serious difference in meaning in Malayalam/Tamil/Kannada , if you change tone.It does in Chinese.

    Bodhi Dharma was a Keralite royal
    who introduced the Ch'ang school of Buddhism in China.The guy is reputed to have back-answered to the Chinese emperor :- The emperor asks him "What merit have you gained by building monasteries and temples ?".Our man replies "None" (he was to have explained his theory of Buddhism instead of back-answering).The rest is history , he was thrown out of the emperor's court , and he went to Shao-Lin monastery.

    Chinese settlement looks very unlikely in Kerala , though the reverse looks slightly probable (Kerala's Hindus , Biddhists and Muslims as well as Christians have had some form or the other of interaction).

     
  • At 6:26 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    shyam, thanks for visiting.

    thanks for mentioning the 'tonal nature' of chinese. that is a new funda to self. it is surprising that the chinese fishing nets were brought to kerala by the portuguese and not by the chinese themselves - i am not too convinced so let me look up!

    as i said in the main post, the unique 'insensitivity' of verb conjugation in malayalam is only hypothesized to be a by-product of chinese influence.

    bodhidharma being a kerala is a tradition i have heard about - in the context of kalarippayattu influencing kungfu - although i dont know much there.

    btw, amartya sen's new book 'argumentative indian' has a chapter on the give and take between india and china in ancient times - although precious little specifically about the kerala-china connections.

     
  • At 9:58 AM, Blogger Athrappully said…

    'Chechi' meaning Elder Sister is the same in Chinese and Malayalam. So I've heard.

     
  • At 3:15 AM, Blogger Sherin Kuruvilla said…

    If you go to parts of Kunnamkulam, Chalissery close to Guruvayoor, in Kerala, you will find Malayaless with Chinese features. The style of coooking, especially fish, also oddly resembles Chinese.

     
  • At 10:35 AM, Blogger sanon said…

    Hi, I have been wondering about the our roots, history etc. and I am especially interested in our (Kerala) architecture which is similar to Chinese or Japanese architecture. I made a google search on kerala and chinese architecture and came upon your blog. I don't think there is any mention of Chinese influence in any of our history books, I wonder why? Also, some people attribute the unique architecture to vaastu vidya.
    We have 'cheena chatti', 'cheena bharani', and ofcourse the chinese fishing nets and what about 'kanji'(rice porridge) - all these surely are proof of a Chinese influence?
    Thanks for your interesting blog.

     
  • At 4:18 AM, Blogger Anita said…

    I think chinese influence is much more than what you have said. our kozhukatta resembles their rice dumplings, kanji is called conji, our madkkappam where we fill in some coconut and jaggery in a maida dosa is also there for chinese

     
  • At 8:22 PM, Blogger Anta Diop said…

    All this talk of China influencing Kerala is a mistake.Granted the Chinese net and kallappam has Chinese influence ,most likely derive from the visit of the Ming fleet.
    But Kerala architecture influenced China with the arrival of Bodhidharma, a kerala monk to China, 1000yrs before the arrival of the Ming fleet.Look and compare the Vadakkumnathan Temple an example and the Shaolin temple and you will see similarities.Keralite temple style is unchanged for thousands of years before the construction of the Shaolin temple, yet the wooden mortise joints supporting the roof as well as the graceful curves of the roof of both Keralite temples and the Shaolin shows styles imported to China courtesy of Bodhidharma.
    To notice the similarities of Keralite temples and the Shaolin Temple, one have to just look at the White Horse Temple,the first Buddhist temple built in China a few centuries before Shaolin to realise the difference.

     

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