The Brahmin of Kerala in Southern India are renowned for their ritual of chanting.

Parts of their chants are not in any human language, and yet they still appear to show patterns. But it’s also been claimed that these chants have remained unchanged for thousands of years, and even predate human language. Is that possible?

Linguist Daniel Midgley gets to the facts in this episode of Talk the Talk.


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I love being able to combine skepticism with linguistics, and that’s what Ben Ainslie and I did on this show. We investigated the chanting of some Brahmin in South Kerala, India. It’s been claimed that part of their chants aren’t in any human language, that they may predate human language, and that their closest analogue is birdsong. How do these claims stand up to the facts?

Also, Ben and I have a contest to see who can recite pi to the most places. Find out who wins!


Show notes

Our subject matter comes from the very first episode of “The Story of India”.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DHhPvbaV68

Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning, by Frits Staal on Google Books.
http://books.google.com.au/books?id=CKLxjjXqAsQC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=MAntras%20and%20Bird%20songs&f=false

Straight Dope thread on this topic. Always good.
http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=616213

Crank alert: This is what fundamentalists think about Sanskrit. Really nutty stuff.
http://www.encyclopediaofauthentichinduism.org/articles/29_the_eternal_perfection.htm

Another crazy page. Did I say Sanskrit started a billion years ago? Silly me. It was closer to two billion. That’s right, about half the age of the earth. Needless to say, there wasn’t any language then.
http://satyavidya.com/aryadharma.htm

Michael Wood admits that perhaps the amazingness of the chant overtook the factuality.
http://www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia/ask/answers_2.html#q3

Some Spanish explorers claimed the New World inhabitants spoke Hebrew.
http://uncpress.unc.edu/browse/page/372


Show tunes

‘Brahminy Kite’ by Caribou
from the album The Milk of Human Kindness

‘The Bird Call and the Sensitive Flame’ by Nick Duffy and the Lilac Time
from the album Sapphire Stylus