Munda in Early NW India

Gabor Sandi g_sandi at
Fri Mar 30 07:37:10 UTC 2001

I would like to offer my support to your suggestion of a "possibility" that
a Munda substratum might have contributed to the survival of voiced
aspirates in the majority of Indian IE languages.

If you look at the non-IE languages of the Indian subcontinent, you can see
that (1) Dravidian languages lack aspirated stops altogether (unless some
have them in  Sanskrit loanwords); (2) the Tibeto-Burmese languages, if they
have aspirates at all, have only voiceless ones; and (3) in some
Austro-Asiatic (i.e. Munda) languages they have the same set of voiced and
voiceless aspirates and non-aspirates as Sanskrit and Hindi.

>From the library of Indian "tribal language" grammars I accumulated during
my stay in New Delhi, I offer the ff. concrete evidence:

Dravidian: none have aspirates. The reconstructed Proto-Dravidian phonemic
system (see T. Burrow and M. B. Emeneau (1984): "A Dravidian etymological
dictionary") lacks aspirates as well.

Tibeto-Burman: Angami, Hmar and Purki all have voiceless and voiced
unaspirated stops (b/p d/t g/k) as well as voiceless aspirates (ph th kh).
The language Mising is missing (sorry for the pun) aspirated stops.

Austro-Asiatic: Bhumij has p/b/ph/bh t/d/th/dh etc. Mundari, on the other
hand, has no aspirated stops.

So if any substratum contibuted to the continued presence of aspirates, and
in particular, of voiced aspirates, it would have to be an Austro-Asiatic
one. According to Masica (1991): "The Indo-Aryan languages", the
Austro-Asiatic languages had a much stronger presence in eastern India in
relatively recent times - during the 1st millennium AD, much of Bengal and
Orissa would still have been speaking languages belonging to this family,
for example.

The main question, however, in my opinion is the original nature of the
voiced aspirates in IE languages. When IE was introduced into the
subcontinent, it would have had to have a set of stops corresponding to the
Brugmannian set {bh dh gh gwh}, distinct from both {b d g gw} and {p t k kw}
(forgetting about the palatals {k^ etc.} for now). Some linguists do not
like to postulate this voiced aspirate set, mostly on typological grounds
(absence or rarity of the corresponding voiceless set). The question is:
what other reasonable reconstructions can we make? The main authorities on
Greek (Sturtevant and Sihler are the ones I am most familiar with) all agree
that Classical Greek phi, theta and chi represent the voiceless aspirates
/ph th kh/, so simple devoicing of voiced aspirated stops can certainly
account for them. Outside of India there is no evidence of aspiration
elsewhere, but Italic /f f h/ can certainly be derived from the changes *bh
 > *ph > *f etc. Germanic, Celtic and Balto-Slavic all show lack of
aspiration, easily explainable with the changes bh > b etc. (although
Germanic did not merge the unaspirated and aspirated voiced stops, for it
devoiced the unaspirated set first).

To resume: if there were no voiced aspirates in PIE, then what? Voiced
fricatives  (IPA beta, delta, gamma) are one possibility, but if there were
no corresponding voiceless fricatives (IPA phi, theta, chi) at the same
time, the same typological objections can be made as for {bh dh gh}. Other
suggestions, rather outlandish in my opinion, have been made, but they all
depend on postulated changes in later IE that are hard to justify (e.g. *b >
*bh). So, in the end, Occam's razor leads us to keep the PIE set {bh dh gh

Any comments?

Best wishes,

Gabor Sandi
g_sandi at

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