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more vedic

13th July 2004 permanent link

I’ve been reading a 1999 paper by Michael Witzel, Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages, which comes to some very interesting conclusions about what languages were spoken, when and where in northern India in Vedic times. I have no idea what, if any, reaction to this paper there might have been from linguists; but Witzel is a serious historical linguist, not a biologist with some stats software and a bright idea, so I assume his ideas are at least worth taking seriously.

Witzel believes the vedic scriptures, because of their unbroken tradition of precise oral transmission as sacred texts, are the closest thing we will ever have to a tape recording of an ancient language, far better than any written evidence. Also that even within the earliest group of texts, the Rg Vedas, it is possible to clearly identify a sequence of composition in at least three different periods that also appear to have originated in different areas and with different substrate languages (*).

Very broad-brush summary:

Substrate language = a language that has died out in an area, but left traces in the form of borrowed vocabulary in the language(s) that replaced it.

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