28 November 2014

Unsaid and Unwritten

To my Hindi Teachers - thank you,

Song : Pancham Se Gara - Anoushka Shankar

After hours of not studying, I decided to do something productive with my day - though I am not sure if this will count as that.

The post is recommended for readers fluent in English and Hindi.

Disclaimer : I am not a linguist. I am not a student of linguistics. These are my observations. They could be wrong. Your opinion would be helpful.


Years ago, in one my Hindi grammar classes in school, my teacher remarked that Hindi was a scientific language. She gave the example of the words भरत (as in Ram's brother) and भारत (as in India). While the two words have different spellings in Hindi, they have the same spelling in English - "Bharat".

On the contrary, no two words in English (with different pronunciations) have the same spelling in Hindi. I never asked my teacher why that was the case (probably a function of my low powers of reasoning and disinterest in the language). Years later, I discovered the reason. I use the word discovered, not in the sense of discovery for humanity, but discovery for the self.

Hindi words are written in the same fashion as they are pronounced (a fancier term would be that they are spelt phonetically). Hindi (to be precise, Devanagari) alphabets are sounds and they produce the same sound when they are used in words. The following example will clear the confusion :

The alphabet "B" is pronounced as "Bee"
In words, "B" is hardly pronounced like that
The word "brother" is rarely pronounced as "bee-rother"
The correct pronunciation is "bruh-dar"
Thus, the alphabet "B" is different from the sound "B"

The above is not true for Hindi
The alphabet "ब" is pronounced as "ब" (as in the sound B, not bee)
There is no difference in the pronunciation of "ब" in words or as an alphabet
Take for example the word "बंदर"

Thus, unique pronunciations have unique spellings in Hindi. The alphabet spells the word according to the pronunciation. This is not true for English, as you saw with the "Bharat" example (there are examples for this in English too - the word "minute" has two pronunciations, two meanings and one spelling)


Along with the above epiphany, came another example. My name is an easier version of the word "रोहण" ; the easier form being "रोहन" (notice the difference in pronunciation). The former is a challenge to spell in English as there is no alphabet to denote the pronunciation of "ण". You may spell my name as Rohand, but I am sure it'll be pronounced as "Ro-hand".

You can see a similar limitation in the words "गणेश" and "गनेश" both of which are written as "Ganesh" in English. Thus, there are some sounds that cannot be spelt in English (without the help of a transliteration table).


My best friend once remarked that there is no "w" in the Hindi language. In translation, both "v" and "w" are denoted by the alphabet "व". In English, the two alphabets have different pronunciations - "w" is more "waaa" and "v" is more "way" (yet sometimes you have horribly similar pronunciations, and different spellings - worse/verse; focus on how the first letter is pronounced).

Anyway, the lack of "w" is of little impact on Hindi. As long as a distinct pronunciation exists, the same can be incorporated in Hindi. However, if the pronunciation is the same and yet there are two spellings, the same cannot be incorporated in Hindi. Thus, "there" and "their" will have the spelling in Hindi (Two spellings, one pronunciation and two meanings sounds like a recipe for confusion and 3 multiple choice questions in an entrance exam).


Hindi has similar sounding alphabets too. "ष" and  "श" are classic examples. While theoretically there is a difference, practically there is none. Thus, for practical purposes "भाषा" and "भाशा" will be pronounced the same, but strictly speaking, there is a difference. "ष" is present mostly in words derived from Sanskrit and is something called "retroflex fricative". So you have to roll your tongue a certain way to pronounce it. Thus, in Hindi there are subtle differences in matters of superficial similarity.


Why bother with spellings and sounds?

If a particular language cannot spell a particular sound, then I think that it can safely be implied, that the said sound does not exist in that language. There must be an alphabet or a combination of alphabets that would represent the sound. If that combination does not exist, then the sound does not exist. The underlying assumption is the one to one mapping between spoken and written language.

Thus when in English you have :
  • One spelling, two pronunciations and two meanings (minute)
  • Two spellings, one pronunciation and two meanings (their/there)

You realise that the written form has a disconnect with the oral form. When the same combination of words can lead to different sounds, then it cannot be said that in English particular alphabets lead to particular sounds. Similarly, when different combination of words lead to the same sound; the previous statement is reenforced.

By abstraction, there is no certain cause and effect relationship between spellings and pronunciation in English.

But there is one in Hindi. And hence the "scientific language"


After my Class X board exams, the joke around town was "Burn your Hindi Books! No more Hindi studies!"

Today, I feel stupid for being a party to that joke.

And glad, that I did not burn them.

Image : http://dreamlandpublications.com/images/81-7301-317-9-img.jpg

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