The Konkani Grammar of Thomas Stephens

Fr. Thomas Stephens SJ Image Source:

The Great work of Thomas Stephens opens the issues of the linguistics that guided him and others in their work on native languages. Stephens like other western grammarians working at his time and later with native languages in places like South America, India, China, Japan etc follow what has been called the Greco-Latin model.  This is due to the fact that Latin grammar is said to be the adaptation and narrowing of Greek grammar. As ancient Greek was re-discovered only in the 14th century Europe, several scholars contest the awareness of these grammarians about the Greek linkage with the Latin grammar that they knew.  It is clear that Thomas Stephens relies mainly on the Latin framework when he attempts to compose the grammar of Konkani. He does appear to be aware of the Greek linkage to Latin grammar, although this has to be established with further research. He certainly admired our mother tongue considered it equal to European languages, particularly Latin which was the official language of the Church   in his time.  It is difficult to trace which grammar of Latin was used a model to write the Konkani grammar and remains an issue for further work.  Stephens’s grammar has the standard there parts: (i) the alphabets, (ii) the eight parts of speech (iii) the syntax and hence, that it depended on background of a Latin grammar is beyond any doubt.  There are no indications that grammar of Manuel Alvares was used extensively since we cannot find clear correspondences. 

Thomas Stephens speak of his desire to put his books in the alphabet of the land. It is not very clear which script he was referring when he was expressing this desire. Script of Konkani which was called Kanarin, bramana, Goani, Gomantaki was mainly kandvi introduced by the Kandambas much earlier. The accounts and records of the Ganvkaria might offer us clue as to determine the reigning script of that time. That fact that he could easily cast the sounds of our mother tongue into Latin phonetics is another indication of the linkages of our language with the Indo-European linguistic family.  Things are not so smooth. Konkani then and Konkani now is also having other sounds that have their relationship with Dravidian language and Stephens does expresses his difficulty as he finds that he has to combine  or repeat ( like: l,d t) some of  the twenty hour  alphabets and add accents and other diacritical marks to capture these sounds. This means things were complex bring the genius out of Fr. Thomas Stephens. This suggests that he took utmost care to be faithful to the phonology of Konkani of his time. Hence, we can study the state of Konkani of that time by studying his works. The fact that Stephens extends the system of five vowels of Latin using  adding a alphabet from Greek somehow points that he was influenced by what we called a Greco-Latin model of linguistics as well as his attempt to do full justice to Konkani vowel system.  

Konkani nouns exhibit three gender system. Masculine, feminine and neuter forms the three gender system of Konkani. Along with this gender system, our mother tongue has two declensional classes.  As in other Indo-European languages also called Indo-Aryan there were several layers of case like functions. One is said to be inherited from inflectional material from middle and old Indo-Aryan, second is said to consist agglutinative suffixes or analytic particles and third is said to consist of quasi-analytic elements. The declensional system did not pose any big challenge to Stephens. He indentify six declensions and a class of nouns that he calls indiclinaueis or invariable. He identifies nominative, genitive, dative , accusative, vocative and ablative cases and their two numbers(singular and  plural)  of the declensions in Konkani. In this context his indebtedness to Latin is profoundly clear, Stephens describes the conjugations of the verbs of Konkani in their respective tenses. He begins with active forms of verbs and follows with neuter forms and end with negative forms. Thereafter, he goes on to describe defective and irregular verbs. He points out there is something special about Konkani. The passive are not derived from active means but are formed from other means. Then he draws our attention to causative verbs. 

Thomas Stephens manifest that Konkani syntax has Subject, object and Verb order also called SOV order.  SOV order is a common feature of southern Dravidian languages.  This is might be another important influence of kanada on Konkani. He also deals with how several parts of speech agree in gender and number in Konkani sentence. He indicates the agreement of number and gender of several adjectives and nouns.  He also deals with certain adjectives which govern with certain cases of nouns and postpositions (Preposition).  He also studies the verbal agreement with direct objects of the transitive verb in the syntax of his work. His work exhibits how Konkani has evolved over time.  It gives us a good view of how Konkani was spoken in the 16th and 17th century Goa and surrounding areas.  Today there is a remarkable change that has occurred over the period of time. Thus, for instance,  Cannu has become Konn, Mannus has become Monis , Manu ( respect) has become Man. His work can assist us to study old Konkani and how it evolved over period of time. Besides, the linguistic approach of Thomas Stephen which modelled Konkani to the Greco-Roman model also point to the link of Konkani with Greco-Latin languages.  We do owe our home to the Thomas Stephens who fell in love with our mother tongue, learnt it and composed its grammar. 

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao