The Issues of lexical borrowing for comparative reconstruction throughout Indo-Iranian languages (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

It is usually the case that languages exist in a dialect chain, with high degrees of congruency between adjacent dialects.  This results in replication being so extensive as to cover entire linguistic areas, meaning an entire language area can effectively use the same lexicon, making subgrouping almost impossible.  This is exemplified by the South Asian Language Area, which, at first glance, is more of a language mess.  The entire northern stretch of South Asia, from Assam to Afghanistan, is a dialect continuum without loss of mutual intelligibility from one village to the next.  Replication is often so extensive, that lexical items belonging to open classes along the continuum can be replaced with any other lexical item within a 500 km vicinity of the chosen point in the continuum, and one can still be understood.

With such extensive replications reconstruction of Middle Aryan is virtually obsolete, as each point on the dialect continuum would have a different reconstructed Proto-dialect, essentially meaning linguists would have the fun task of reconstructing another dialect continuum.  Any attempt at subgrouping the historical development of the Indo-Aryan languages would more likely confuse rather than clarify.

The internal history of Indo-Aryan can be divided into three stages: Old Indo-Aryan, from 1500 BC to 600 BC, Middle Indo-Aryan from 600BC to 1000 AD, and New Indo-Aryan, from 1000 AD to the present.  Chatterji has attempted to divide each of these further into Early, Middle and Late, however Masica criticises his work, asserting different linguistic stages were reached at different times in different places.

However the most peculiar nature of Indo-Aryan is that its dialects have not only borrowed so much from each other, but it has also borrowed from itself, at an earlier stage of existence, namely from Sanskrit.  That the Aryans themselves are conscious of this is evident in the Sanskrit terms for traditional analysis of replication in Indo-Aryan: tatsama, tadbhava, deshya, and videshi. A Tatsama (short for Samskṛtatatsama, literally ‘the same as Sanskrit’) is a replication that has the same form (with respect to orthography).  A Tadbhava (Samskṛtatadbhava, literally ‘originating from Sanskrit’) is a replication that has derived from Sanskrit but has undergone phonological change. A Deshiya is an indigenous word that has undergone phonological change, descended directly from Old Indo-Aryan in the traditional sense, leaving Videshi, the foreign loanwords.

There are problems with the tadbhava class for reconstruction.  Since these comparisons were made in the Middle Aryan period, many of the tadbhavas (and tatsamas) have undergone more phonological change in the dialects that borrowed them.  Tatsamas likewise cause problems, in that simple words not having undergone any phonological change all the way from Old Indo-Aryan will be congruent with their respective Sanskrit tatsmas, such as deva ‘deity’, nama ‘name’, ghāsa ‘grass’, and bhara ‘load’.  In Middle Indo-Aryan these were more likely inherited than replicated.  Turner (1960) also pointed out that tatsamas did not distinguish between actual Sanskrit replications and replications from Sanskrit via other Indo-Aryan dialects, namely Hindi.

One of the hypotheses for the reason behind so many such replications is the lexical poverty of New Indo-Aryan due to lack of use of these terms in earlier stages, favouring Sanskrit terms for more ‘serious’ purposes.  Loans from Persian, the historically prestigious language, likewise helped drive out inherited words from the New Indo-Aryan lexicon, examples being the standard tatsamas labh ‘profit’ and krodh ‘anger’ being replaced with Persian loans faida and gussa respectively.  To complicate matters even further, many Persian loans were cognates with the Sanskrit tatsamas, such as Persian band, ‘fastened’, New Indo-Aryan bandh, Persian sta:n, ‘place’, New Indo-Aryan ‘stha:n‘ Persian ja:n ‘soul, life’, New Indo-Aryan ja:n ‘living being’, Persian baccah, ‘child’, New Indo-Aryan ‘bacca‘.’ (Masica, 1991)

Going back further in time, loanwords in Sanskrit from Dravidian, and Austroasiatic families (among others) create problems for earlier reconstructions, as well as for the historic enigma of the geography of Indo-Iranian speakers.  Since the Aryans were a pastoral group, we can be sure that agricultural terms have been replicated from Dravidian and Austroasiatic.  Words in Sanskrit whose origins cannot be traced include: ikʂu ‘sugarcane’; roʈikā ‘bread’; ṡāli ‘rice’; kodrava, ‘Paspalum millet’; sūraɳa, a kind of yam; bhinɖā ‘okra’; kusumbha ‘safflower’; mendhikā ‘henna’; khalla ‘leather’; badara ‘jujube-plum’; tinduka ’round gourd-vegetable’; simha ‘lion’; padma ‘lotus’.’ (Masica, 1991)
Even today, extremely ancient Sanskrit Tatsamas continue to be added to the New Indo-Aryan lexicon, furthering the continuity of the nearly four thousand year old legacy of the Aryans.

Our next problem is that extensive borrowing, lexical, morphological and pattern replication, can deceive people into thinking that two languages belong to a single subgroup.  One fierce debate is that of the Balto-Slavic hypothesis, which states that Baltic and Slavic broke off from Indo-European as one subgroup, later subdividing into Baltic and Slavic.  According to Sussex and Cubberly, ‘there is certainly strong evidence to link Slavic more closely to Baltic than to any other Indo-European language family’ (Sussex and Cubberly, 2009).  Mayer (1981) heavily disagrees with the Balto-Slavic hypothesis, asserting that although the Baltic languages share much of their lexicons, they do not share a single phonological innovation that exists in all of them and not the other Indo-European languages.  According to Mayer, common vocabulary misled linguists into creating the myths of a Common Baltic and a Balto-Slavic.

This issue suggests that language change is never as clean as the tree models portray, since languages are still in contact with each other after having undergone changes, i.e. a dialect chain.  Due to contact with Indo-Iranians circa 2000 BC, some phonological correspondences can be established between them and Slavic. One phonological replication as a result of this contact could be the ‘RUKI rule’, the change of /s/ to /x/ between /r/, /u/, /k/, /i/ and intervocalically.  It has also been speculated that Indo-Aryan, or at least Indo-Iranian has been in a very extensive contact situation with Slavic, Armenian, and the now extinct Tocharian, and even the unrelated Uralic.  Indo-Iranian replications have been found in these languages, as they all were present in and around the Sintashta and Andronovo archaeological expanse on the foothills of the Urals,associated with the Indo-Iranians. (Masica, 1991)

In conclusion, the studying of replication and language contact, with respect to comparative reconstruction and subgrouping is problematic as diachronic analysis is needed.  Using synchronic methods to come up with a diachronic conclusion may result in reconstructing proto-languages that are only hypothetical, and were never actually spoken on the ground.  On the other hand, tracing replications in recipient languages have pointed to trends that can actually help historical linguists trace language origins, thereby being able to postulate likely contact situations, and can even be of use to archaeologists and historians with respect to deducing the history of cultural groups.  The nature of replications in the recipient languages can also tell us about the status of the language and a lot about the language attitudes and institutional support, and whether it was a situation of contact, prestige or domination.  But as many benefits there are, there are an equal amount of obstacles if not more, and reconstruction of proto-languages ought to be done carefully, while respecting the etymologies of their descendants.


Campbell, L. (2013). Historical Linguistics An Introduction (3rd ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.

Crowley, T., & Bowern, C. (2010). An introduction to historical linguistics. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Klimas, A. (1967). Balto-Slavic or Baltic and Slavic? (The Relationship of Baltic and Slavic
Languages). Lituanus Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, 13(2).

Masica, C. P. (1991). The Indo-Aryan languages (Cambridge Language Surveys). Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Matras, Y. (2009). Language Contact. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, H. E. (1981). Two Linguistic Myths: Balto-Slavic and Common Baltic. Lituanus Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, 27(1).

Sussex, R., & Cubberley, P. (2006). The Slavic Languages (Cambridge Language Surveys).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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