Was the Japanese language influenced by Tamil? The war goes on


For years I have been watching from the sidelines as the opponents battle it out. For the players this fight will go on and on, and the theater of war is right here.

This is a linguistic war, but it naturally involves archaeology, history, religion and a host of wounded egos. The question to be decided is: What exactly are the origins of the Japanese language?

It has generally been accepted by most scholars that Japanese is an Altaic language, derived from a tongue that originated on the steppes of Asia and migrated in various directions, evolving into Turkish, Mongolian and Korean. Structural similarities among these languages seem to support this.

But there was also migration to Japan from the south, through the islands of the Ryukyu chain. Ryukyuan, in its various forms, is the only language closely related to Japanese. The input from Polynesia into Japanese seems to be evident, particularly in the dominance of vowels and the use of the repetitive plural (yamayama for “mountains,” hitobito for “people,” etc.)

But then Susumu Ohno, a renowned linguist and classicist, came along and popularized the theory that Japanese was overwhelmingly influenced by Dravidian languages, particularly Tamil, brought to these shores some 2,000 years ago during the Yayoi Period (500 B.C. to 300 A.D.), when the Japanese began rice-paddy cultivation.

Ohno made his claim for the predominant influence of Tamil on the Japanese vocabulary nearly 30 years ago. (He was not the first to do this, but soon became the theory’s pre-eminent advocate.) As you can imagine, it was roundly attacked by both traditional Japanese linguists and at least one famous Tamil scholar.

Muneo Tokunaga, the latter, denounced Ohno’s ignorance of Tamil in 1981 and wrote, “I find absolutely no scholarly value in the Ohno theory.”

But Susumu Ohno, now 89 years old, has persisted, last year publishing with Iwanami Shoten his book “Nihongo no Genryu wo Motomete (Seeking the Origins of the Japanese Language).” Ohno claims that many common Japanese words come from Tamil. He concentrates on so-called “Yamato kotoba,” or Japanese words that were in use before the introduction of the Chinese writing system. These words, according to Ohno, lend a depth to the emotional culture and the richness of the nonrational sensibility of the Japanese. He states, by quoting relevant cognates, that the following words are originally from Tamil: tanoshii (pleasant); yasashii (gentle); nikoniko (with a smile); tsuya (luster); sabishii (lonely); kanashii (sad); aware (misery); and even the now ubiquitous kawaii (adorable).

That’s a lot of sensibility in anybody’s book.

Ohno further asserts that some Japanese words for colors are borrowed from Tamil. These include the words for red, blue, black and white. Ordinary verbs such as hanasu (talk), iu (say), and sakebu (scream); the words for “thing,” mono and koto; parts of the body such as atama (head), kao (face) and ha (tooth); illnesses such as boke (dementia) — these apparently have similar sounds in Tamil.

Ohno strengthens his argument with comparisons in grammar, pointing to a similar absence of relative pronouns, a likeness in word order and a striking resemblance in the languages’ rhythms.

Now, one can find a host of similarities in totally unrelated languages. This simply attests to the fact that there are only a certain number of sounds that the human being can produce and that syntactic features are bound to overlap.

Russian has neither a definite nor an indefinite article, just like Japanese. This is merely coincidence. And, though I know no Tamil whatsoever, some of Ohno’s examples do appear stretched. I might take the Japanese word for bath, furo, and explain that in ancient times baths were dug into the ground. The English word “furrow” represents this to a T. Again, coincidence. Some of Ohno’s examples are of this variety. For example, he claims that the Japanese dialectal word maru, indicating urination, derives from the Tamil mal, which means the same. The Tamil word for belly button, pot-u, he believes, gave Japanese its heso.

His argument goes further than language.

“The changes brought about by the introduction of rice-paddy cultivation, the use of iron and the loom occurred in the Yayoi Period,” Ohno writes in “Seeking the Origins of the Japanese Language.” By analyzing words associated with these practices, he claims that they were introduced by Tamils who traveled the 7,000-odd kilometers from their home to Japan during the Yayoi Period two millenniums ago.

He brings up various ancient Japanese customs, such as those connected with planting, religious rituals and even nuptial rites. This is where Ohno, an acknowledged expert on Japanese classical literature, is perhaps on the most stable ground. In ancient times, a man courting a woman would visit her home for three days in a row. On the third day, her offering him a rice cake symbolized official recognition of her acceptance. This is referred to in the 11th-century Japanese classic “The Tale of Genji” as mikka no mochi, or “the rice cake on the third day.”

Ohno points to a similar ancient custom that is practiced in regions of India where Dravidian languages are spoken. Again coincidence? Perhaps. Given that there is no way — and there is likely never to be a way — to prove these things, such intriguing coincidence is all one may have to go on.

Words related to religion display similarities in the two languages as well. Kami (god) and agaru (to step up) are two of these. If Ohno is correct, then the popular notion that the kami meaning “god” derives from the kami meaning “above” is wrong.

Ohno does not dispute the influence of Polynesian languages, but places it earlier than that of Tamil. I am not convinced, however, by his thesis that the soft vowels of the Kansai dialect are the result of this South Seas invasion.

One has to admire Susumu Ohno for sticking to his guns. The Tamil-origin theory of Yamato kotoba is not one subscribed to by many scholars. With this book, he has indicated his desire to prove his theory with a feisty insistence.

But, whether Ohno is right or wrong, “the war of the origins” is bound to go on for a long, long time. Linguists love a good fight, and this one is as good as they get. The fact that there may never be an outcome merely adds to the furious excitement and the schadenfreude that experts derive from it.