What do I bring to this debate?


While an active topic of research until a decade ago, the Japanese-Dravidian hypothesis appears to be losing ground, largely because of the inability to sustain interest in this debate among the scholarly community. With the exception of select scholars, such as Prof.Ohno, few engaged in this debate has traveled to South India to observe Tamil culture and study the Tamil people’s ways and customs first hand. In fact, just a year ago, Prof.Ohno, published a volume titled 日本語の源流を求めて(Seeking the origins of the Japanese language), reaffirming his faith in the Dravidian hypothesis. With Prof.Ohno's recent demise, there is an even greater danger of the Japanese-Dravidian hypothesis being ignored, or completely forgotten.

It is actually fairly surprising to me that Tamil scholars who learn Japanese, or even Tamil people who have emigrated into Japan, have not made more of the striking similarities between the two languages and cultures. Having had a keen interest in the origins of the Dravidian people (as well as in a related question, namely the Indo-Aryan homeland controversy), I would like to keep the debate alive by proposing the following hypothesis:

Japanese and an early form of Tamil (maybe before it parted ways with Malayalam, another closely related Dravidian language) were sister languages. That there must have been some kind of significant linguistic and cultural exchange between Japan and Southern India at some point in history (it could have also been a unidirectional, although the direction remains to be shown).

What led me to this hypothesis? I had almost no knowledge of the academic debate going on about this when I started to mull about the similarities between Tamil and Japanese.

1) When I started learning Japanese, I found it much easier/faster to translate a Japanese sentence into Tamil to understand its meaning, even though English has been my medium of learning all through school and college. This is because Japanese and Tamil share surprisingly similar basic grammar and syntax (which is incidentally, very different from English). There are strong correspondences even between the particles (see subsequent sections) such that one can translate a sentence word for word including particles between Japanese and Tamil.

2) While watching anime in Japanese, I noticed that colloquial aizuchi (responses indicating acknowledgement etc in a conversation) in Japanese such as "O~/oho"(acknowledgment), "E~" (mild surprise), "Un" (for yes) and "Unun" (for no), "Ara, ara" (for expressing surprise/dismay), "Yei/Oi" (for casual/familiar beckoning or exclamation) are very similar to their Tamil counterparts (e.g. Tamil speakers colloquially say "O~/oho" (acknowledgement), "E~" when mildly surpised, "um" for yes and "um(h)um" for no, "ada, ada" for surprise/dismay, and "yei, oi" for casual beckoning). Any other languages share similar expressions?

3) Many of the onomatoepic expressions are similar in the two languages. For example:"gaba gaba" [suru] means to gulp down (drink), both in Japanese/Tamil, similarly "koso koso"[suru] means to talk secretively in both languages. However, being sound-derived expressions, I wouldn't stretch this claim. What is surprising though, is that, repetitive, but not necessarily onomatoepic, expressions sound similar e.g. "guru guru" [mawaru] means to spin around and around, "giru giru" means the same in Tamil. I don't know of other languages that share these expressions.

4) When I hear Japanese in anime, the prosody of the language (the pattern of rising and falling intonations that carries affect/emotion content) sounds very close to Tamil. In fact, I believe this is what Prof.Ohno calls the "remarkably similar rhythm" of the two languages [citation sought]. Which is perhaps why I (and other anime-fans) dislike watching English-dubbed anime (vs. English-subbed anime) -- even though the information content is similar, the emotional/affective feel is entirely different.

I hail from a mixed Dravidian-speaking household, my father's side of the family speaks a Tamil dialect strongly mixed with Malayalam, whereas my mother's side speaks fairly "pure" Tamil. When I hear Japanese, translated word for word into Tamil, it sounds a lot like a dialect: not identical with "pure" Tamil but sounds vaguely "familiar" to the Malayalam/Tamil admixture I'm used to hearing at home.

On a related note, when hearing Japanese popular music (J-pop), I have this nagging feeling of familiarity. Perhaps J-pop uses the same minor scales/modes as does Tamil popular music (especially composers like Ilayaraja or A R Rahman). Any musicians/musicologists? Try this link for a popular Japanese group (does this remind you of Tamil light music?).

While the previous points of comparison may sound subjective and somewhat frivolous, I lay down the parallels in greater detail in subsequent sections.

Next section: My theory

5 comments:

  1. Im playing a Japanese RPG game "Dragons dogma" and find some of BG hums very similar to Tamil melodies.

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  2. very intresting....In tamil its called irettai kelavi .....similar usage seems to be there in japanese

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  3. I am a Malayali but I research this topic when I hear jaana for go, ghar for home like hindi. But yasha (forest spirit) seems similar to yakshi in Malayalam

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  4. I felt the similarities with Tamil when I started learning Japanese and when I searched about it on google, I end up on your blog. So I guess I am not the only one. :)

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  5. Tamil is the origin of all languages. It will soon be known to all in next 50 years..

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