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

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Riddle (?) Of The Rainbow

This is on a doubt I have had for most of my life so far.

Just like practically everyone else, I was told very early in life that the rainbow has 7 colors (and learned their names by rote). Whenever I see a rainbow, I try to count. It is far from obvious to the average eye (to the best of my knowledge, my color-vision is pleasantly average) that there are actually seven colors - it could very well be 5 or 6 - especially at the blue end, it is very hard to clearly discern the triplet (violet, indigo, blue). We talk about human color perception here, not the ACTUAL number of colors - scientifically, there is of course, a continuum of visible frequencies in sunlight and in the rainbow.

I don't think in Indian languages, there are even words for 'indigo', 'orange' ... but mysteriously it appears even in ancient India, the rainbow was said to have 7 colors. More mysteries - to self - here: Does Surya's (the Sun God) chariot have actually 7 horses and if so did these 7 represent the colors of the rainbow or something else? More basically, did folks here in India know that the rainbow came from a play of Sunlight (unlikely)?

Is it the case that in some culture, some folk-tradition, the rainbow has a different number of colors?

Note 1: And here is an intriguing bit from the online wikipedia article on the rainbow:

It is commonly thought that indigo was included due to the different religious connotations of the numbers six and seven at the time of Isaac Newton's work on light, despite its lack of scientific significance.

Well, that, if true, thickens the plot quite a bit!

Note 2: Probably, most Indian languages have names only for very few colors. It is more like the same word stands for a whole range of colors - 'Nila' in Sanskrit can be blue or dark-blue-tending-to-black or anything in the middle. Does this skimpy color vocabulary indicate a lack of sensitivity to colors and their nuances? I don't think so, but must say, in view of this limited set of names, it even feels 'realistic' to suspect the Indian tradition originally assigned not 7 but probably only, say, 5 colors to the rainbow ('Panchavarnam')!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

What do 'Malayali' and 'Bengali' have in common?

This (much delayed) post is not about fish and/or communism and/or 'arty' movies. My proposed answer to the above question is: 'Tamil ancestry'.

Well, I only look at 'Malayali' and 'Bengali' as words (and not as types of people) and try to prove that both words are basically from the same language - Tamil.

The following is my understanding of the historical derivation of 'Malayalam'.

(A small note on the pronunciation: the 'a' before the second 'l' in 'Malayali' is an extended one; so is the only 'a' in Bengali. in 'Malayali' the second 'l' is retroflexed)

'Mala' is an old Dravidian (and Tamil) word for 'hill'. 'Aal' ('l' retroflexed) is also a very old Dravidian word for 'person'. The geographical region that is approximately the present day Kerala was known to heartland Tamils as the 'hill country' ie. the 'mala-country'. An inhabitant of this land came to be referred to as 'Malayali' (Mala + Aal in a Tamil-style join). The 'i' ending is fairly common in Tamil - for instance, 'Vil'('bow') + 'Aal' = Villali ('archer') - I don't know which are the contexts in Tamil where this 'i' ending happens, because there are also constructions like: 'Kaal' (foot) + 'aal' = 'Kaalaal' (foot-soldier) - no 'i' ending there.

Anyways, the 'hill country' presumably came to be known as the 'land of the hill people' ie. land of the Malayalis and the (appropriately inflected) word for it came to be 'Malayalam'. Moreover the Dravidian tongue spoken in 'Malayalam' came to be referred to by the same name. Yes, there is a certain loopiness about "the land of the people of the hill land' but then, ...

As for Bengal, it is 'Vanga' + 'Aal'. Anga or Vanga is the old Sanskrit/Prakrit name for that region. A person from Vangadesham, ie. Vanga country will be 'Vangali' in Tamil. It is not even a step now to 'Vangalam' which the land of the 'Vangalis'. All that has happened since then is very superficial - a replacement of 'v' with 'b' and a 'straightening out' of the 'l' (the 'e' of Bengal is seems to be a British 'innovation' and the dropping of the 'am' at the end, a pan-North Indian Persian induced(?) phenomenon). Indeed, the Tamil origin of the word is barely concealed. One may also note a difference here - unlike in the case of Malayalam, the language spoken by the Vangalis came to be known as 'Vangali' itself and did not assume the name of the land. But this does not seem to undermine our general conclusion.

Note 1: The word 'aal' was present, according to some theories, in the (poorly understood Dravidian) language of the ancient Indus valley.

Note 2: The 'm' ending of both 'Malayalam' and 'Vangalam' might just indicate a trace of Sanskrit influence on (even ancient) Tamil.

Note 3: Oddly enough, even among educated modern Bengalis, a confusion seems to prevail - 'Malayali' is believed to be the language of Kerala and a person speaking it is *a* 'Malayalam'!