Dissertation: Reconstructing Linguistic History in a Dialect Continuum: The Kamta, Rajbanshi, and Northern Deshi Bangla subgroup of Indo-Aryan

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU
Sun Dec 10 16:30:28 UTC 2006

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Reconstructing Linguistic History in a Dialect Continuum: The Kamta,
Rajbanshi, and Northern Deshi Bangla subgroup of Indo-Aryan

Institution: Australian National University Program: School of Language
Studies, Faculty of Arts Dissertation Status: Completed Degree Date: 2006

Author: Matthew Toulmin

Dissertation Abstract:

This study outlines a methodological framework for reconstructing
linguistic history within a dialect continuum and applies this methodology
to an under-described, controversial, and complex subgroup of New
Indo-Aryan (NIA)the Kamta, Rajbanshi and Northern Deshi Bangla lects
(KRNB). Dialect continua are characterised by non-discrete boundaries
between speech communities, and as a result previously divergent lects may
undergo common innovations; the result is the familiar picture of
overlapping dialectological isoglosses. The sequencing of these
innovations and the historical relations between the lects involved are
often highly ambiguous.  Given the right sociohistorical conditions, a
widespread innovation may be more recent than a localised innovationthe
very opposite sequencing to that implied by the splits in a family tree.

Not surprisingly, discrete application to the NIA continuum of traditional
methodologiesincluding the Comparative Method, etymological reconstruction
and dialect geographyhas yielded unsatisfactory and at times
chronologically distorted results. Historical studies, therefore, have
chosen between: (a) only studying the histories of NIA lects with written
records; (b) reconstructing using the chronology suggested by the shape of
a family tree; or (c) settling for a 'flat', non-historical account of
dialect geography.

Under the approach developed here, the strengths of each of these
traditional methods are synthesised within an overarching framework
provided by a sociohistorical theory of language change. This synthesis
enables the linguistic history of the KRNB lects to be reconstructed with
some detail from the proto-Kamta stage (1250-1550 AD) up to the present
day. Innovations are sequenced based on three types of criteria:
linguistic, textual and sociohistorical. The old Kamta stage, and its
relation to old Bangla and Asamiya, is reconstructed based on linguistic
Propagation Events and Speech Community Eventstwo concepts central to the
methodology. The old Kamta speech community and its language became
divided into western, central and eastern subsections during the middle
KRNB period (1550-1787 AD, dates assigned by attested sociohistorical
events). During the same period, KRNB lects also underwent partial
reintegration with NIA lects further afield by means of more widely
propagated changes. This trend of differentiation at a local level,
concurrent with reintegration at a wider level, also characterises the
modern KRNB period from 1787 AD to the present.

This account of KRNB linguistic history is based on a rigorous
reconstruction of changes in phonology and morphology. The result is not
only a reconstruction of historical changes, but of the proto-Kamta
phoneme inventory, hundreds of words of vocabulary, and specific areas of
nominal and verbal morphology. The reconstruction is based on data
collected in the field for the purposes of this study. Phonological
reconstruction has made use of the WordCorr software program, and the
reconstructed vocabulary is presented in a comparative wordlist in an

The methodology developed and applied in this study has been found highly
successful, though naturally not without its own limitations. This study
has significance for its contribution both to the methodology of
historical linguistic reconstruction and to the light shed on the
linguistic prehistory of KRNB.

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