What is this blog?

"Words and sounds carry histories with them. Not only their own histories, but those of people who have uttered those words."- Me aka Yash.
I pay attention to people speaking. Their choice of words, their choice of pronunciation. And whenever I do hear something which I do not use, I feel obliged to attribute this different choice of words or sounds to history.

This blog is a linguistic record of my world, the sounds I hear and the letters I read, from all the languages I come across.

PS: I am a high school student, and not a linguist, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Indian English, What is Different and Why?

Hello Everyone,

In today's Yash's-Lame-Excuses-For-Not-Publishing, we have:
1. School Work
2. School Exams
3. College Applications
And therefore, we must forgive Yash for not publishing for more than a month. Also, it's his birthday today, so we could probably cut him some slack.

So today's post is going to be about the way Indian English pronunciation differs from most of the other accents of English. What I have put here is just two of these differences and the reason I have chosen these two differences is because I have some theories to explain why Indian English is different in these places. Some of these theories make sense, some of them are not quite scientific, but just products of my imagination. Have a look and let me know what you think. 

*I have decided to include a pronunciation guide for this post because I am not using the standardized IPA to describe sounds since most laymen would not be familiar with it. I have tried to use an intuitive system for transcribing the sounds, with most English letters representing the sounds they usually stand for. For vowels, I have used ":" following the vowel to indicate that the vowel is long. "kh", "ph" and "th" - when used to describe pronunciations- are "k", "p" and "t" pronounced with a puff of air. 

To aspire or not to aspire: Let me tell you a thing about aspirated consonants. They are the ones you pronounce with a puff of air.  Speakers of Indian languages may be familiar with these sounds as the ones in 'phal', 'khaanaa' and 'thaa'. Non-Indian English Speakers may know these sounds which occur when 'p', 't' and 'k' begin a word. For example, in most accents of English other than Indian English, 'pig' is pronounced 'phig' ('ph' does NOT sound like 'f'), 'cat' sounds like 'khat' and 'tea' sounds like 'thee' ('th' does NOT sound like the 'th' in 'thin' or 'this'). And that is where Indian English differs from other Englishes. In most accents of English, voiceless stops (p, t, k) at the start of the word are aspirated. But in Indian English, it's not. And now, for the more interesting part: why?
I think this happens because Indian languages make a distinction between the unaspirated and aspirated ('k' and 'kh' for example) whereas in English, these are considered allophones. This means that these can be considered variations of the same sound, which occur in different places in a word. Thus, I like to imagine that one needs to point out to us Indians where to pronounce the consonant with aspiration and where not and since English fails to do that, we pronounce all of them without aspiration. ('th' in thin, thing etc. is not an aspirated stop in non-Indian accents of English, for those wondering; I will do a post on ‘th’ after some time maybe)

One vowel or two: Most of English long vowels are actually not long vowels but what is called diphthongs i.e. two vowels combined together. So for example, long 'i' is roughly pronounced 'a:i' as it 'bite', 'I' and 'mine'. These vowels used to be genuine, long, monophthongs (one vowel) very long back, but they have evolved into diphthongs in Modern English. Except, all of these except long 'i' and 'u' are realized as monophthongs in Indian English. For example, long 'a' in 'gate' is realized as roughly 'ei' ('geit') in most varieties of English, but we Indians go with a long 'e:' (ge:t). Similarly, long 'o' is 'au' or 'ou' (I have generally seen British people go with 'au' and Americans go with 'ou' but since Britain and America have such a huge diversity of accents within them as well, I don't want to generalize) usually, but for us, it is 'o:'. But why does this happen?
I have a theory for this. It is not an actual proved theory, but something I like to believe in. I think Indians love to monophthong-ize i.e. every time there's a diphthong, we find a way to make it a monophthong. That is what we have done with a lot of our own languages. For example, the most ancient form of Sanskrit had four diphthongs: 'ai', 'a:i', 'au' and 'a:u'. After some time, 'ai' and 'au' came to be pronounced as 'e:' and 'o:', whereas 'a:i' and 'a:u' remained diphthongs but downgraded to 'ai' and 'au'. Thus, from four, we came down to two diphthongs. Later, when Sanskrit evolved into various Prakrits, these two remaining diphthongs also became 'e' and 'o'.
And in some modern Indian languages, such as Hindi, a lot of younger people, in a lot of places pronounce the remaining 'ai' and 'au' are pronounced as 'a' in 'bat' and 'o' in 'cot' respectively. And therefore, my conjecture: Indians monophthong-ize. And which is why we monophthong-ize English diphthongs.

I know this is not a very long post but the reason for that is because this is all I have to write about this topic, and since I am really fascinated by this topic, I could not fail to write a post about it. Hope you liked it. 


Sunday, 6 October 2013

Myth-Busting: "Sanskrit is (NOT!) the mother of all languages"

Hello Everyone,
Today’s post is a myth-busting post. And the myth we’ll be busting today is that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages in the world. Let me summarize what I’ll be writing below in a few words: It’s not.  It’s the mother of a small percentage of the world’s language, but even that depends on what kind of Sanskrit you are talking about.  Let’s see what the truth is.
One often hears in India that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages, that it is the oldest language in the world.  It is probably a statement which stems from Hindu nationalism. However, this statement is not exactly true.
The truth is something like this. There are thousands of languages spoken in the world. Many of these languages can be grouped into languages families such as the Dravidian language family, the Indo-European language family, the Tibeto-Burman language family, the Uralic language family etc. Sanskrit belongs to the Indo-European language family, which as I might have previously mentioned includes English, French, Latin, Romanian, Russian, Persian (but not Arabic), Urdu, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, just to name a few. In fact, the Indo-European language family has the most number of speakers in the world. Now, other than some common words due to borrowing from one language to another, Sanskrit shares absolutely no relation with non-Indo-European languages; therefore, there is no scope of these languages having originated from Sanskrit.
Now, let’s come to the Indo-European language family itself.  The Indo-European languages come from a common source called the Proto-Indo-European (once again, previously mentioned). We don’t have any written records of this language, but it can be reconstructed on the basis of similarities found in its daughter languages. From Proto-Indo-European descend many other languages which include (but are not limited to) Proto-Germanic (the mother of languages such as German, English), Proto-Italic-which later developed into Latin, which is the mother of French, Italian, Spanish and the likes- and Proto-Indo-Iranian ,which split into Proto-Iranian (the ancestor of Iranian languages, of which Persian is the most known and Proto-Indic. This Proto-Indic also goes by the name of Vedic Sanskrit, the Sanskrit in which the Rig Veda, the oldest piece of Hindu and Indian literature, is written.
Hence, we see that Vedic Sanskrit is not the mother of languages such as English or Spanish, but rather their aunt. Vedic Sanskrit’s mother- Proto-Indo-European had quite a few other daughters, and from these daughters, we get the non-Indian Indo-European languages.
Now you might be wondering how we can be sure that this so-called ‘Proto-Indo-European’ was not Vedic Sanskrit to begin with, and all other branches of the Indo-European family diverged from it by evolving. Well, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary, and I’ll list only one of them.  Firstly, Proto-Indo-European had three basic vowels (a, e and o) and their long versions (à, è and ò).  Vedic Sanskrit merged these into two: a and à. ‘A’ and ‘e’ became ‘a’, and  ‘à’, ‘è’ and ‘ò’ became ‘à’. ‘O’ became either ‘a’ or ‘à’ based on a law called Bruggman’s Law.
(Those familiar with Sanskrit will point out that Sanskrit does have an ‘e’ and an ‘o’, but in Vedic Sanskrit these were actually diphthongs. e was pronounced a+ i (ai) and o was pronounced a+u (au). Moreover, the current Sanskrit diphthongs ‘ai’ and ‘au’ originate from à+i (ài) and à+u(àu).)
We don’t need the technicalities of the change but what I’m pointing out is Vedic Sanskrit lost some information that the older language (Proto-Indo-European) had. And we know that this older language had an ‘a’/’e’/’o’ distinction because the other daughter languages such as Latin, Greek etc. maintain this distinction. Thus, Vedic Sanskrit could not have been the real deal because it simply doesn’t have those features, which the other languages possessed.
There are various other features which Vedic Sanskrit has lost, which the older language must have possessed to clearly establish that Proto-Indo-European is not the same as Vedic Sanskrit, and therefore Vedic Sanskrit could not even have been the mother of all Indo-European languages.
Also, you might have noticed that all this time I was talking about Vedic Sanskrit, not simply Sanskrit. When someone says Sanskrit, most people understand it to mean Classical Sanskrit. Classical Sanskrit or Paninian Sanskrit is the Sanskrit used long after it had ceased be a spoken language. Classical Sanskrit is a codified language which was based on Vedic Sanskrit, but was standardized by certain rules by Panini. These rules can be found in Panini’s work called Ashtadhyayi. At the time of Panini, people did not speak Vedic Sanskrit but various languages which had descended from Vedic Sanskrit (called Prakrits). Panini’s Sanskrit, was in fact a language which was never spoken and therefore, it could not have been the mother of any language.
Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi- all of these languages come from the Prakrits, which had come from Vedic Sanskrit. Classical Sanskrit- the Sanskrit that is taught in schools- doesn’t even come anywhere in this tree.
Additionally, the reason that Classical Sanskrit is so ‘scientific’ is because it was an artificially created language. One more point worth noting is that the greatest works of Sanskrit (such as Abhijnanashakuntalam) are in Classical Sanskrit, much like the greatest Latin works are in Classical Latin (and not the original Latin of Rome, from which modern Romance languages come). Ironically, these works were composed at the time when the natural Sanskrit and the natural Latin had ceased to be spoken.
Thus, in conclusion, Sanskrit is not the mother of all languages in the world. It is not even the mother of all Indo-European languages, though it’s related to them. It is only the mother of North Indian languages (also called Indo-Aryan languages), and that is only when you use Sanskrit to mean Vedic Sanskrit and not Classical Sanskrit.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

What's in a name?

After a gap of almost 2 months, I am back. My reasons for absence remain same as ever: school work, a little bit of extracurricular activities and other such things. But that’s all irrelevant now that I am back.
Today, I am going to talk about names- more specifically Hindu names. The reason that I am going to limit this post to Hindu names is because Hindu names derive either from Sanskrit, or one of Sanskrit-derived languages (called Indo-Aryan languages), and I am most familiar with these languages.
Let me tell you about a few incidents related to my name.  When I tried speaking one of my first Sanskrit sentences- ‘My name is Yash’- I was told that my name is not Yash, but Yashah. When asked the reason this ‘ah’ was added, I was not given a very satisfactory answer.  That was that.  Next, when I moved to Kolkata (in West Bengal), I found out that my name in Bengali would be Josh.  I had learnt that proper nouns remained the same across languages. For example, when I am speaking English, I do not introduce myself as Fame (which is what Yash means).
So let me first examine the reason for these changes in Bengali and Sanskrit. In Bengali, my name becomes Josh, because Bengali lacks the vowel a, and the consonant y cannot occur here . But why does it convert ‘a’ to ‘o’ and ‘y’ to ‘j’? Why doesn’t ‘a’ become ‘aa’ (which Bengali has)? The reason gets me to Sanskrit. The original Sanskrit word was ‘Yashah’. The ‘ah’ was actually added to a lot of masculine nouns. All of Sanskrit daughter languages either lost this ‘ah’ or converted it to something else. After this, several sound changes occurred. Bengali was one language which underwent great amounts of sound changes. Among them was a-->o, and y-->j. Therefore the Sanskrit-derived word in Bengali is Josh. So the reason that my name changes in these languages is because the original parent word for my name (Yashah) has many children, and all of these children are perfectly acceptable substitutes. Simple enough?
Not really. There are two problems with this theory. The first problem is that ‘Yash’ is not really a Hindi word. By normal development of sounds, Sanskrit ‘Yash-ah’ would become Hindi ‘Jas’ (which is incidentally what my grandfather calls me). However, Hindi has undergone a huge number of Sanskritization attempts, and the bastard child of Sanskrit ‘Yashah’ and Hindi ‘Jas’ is what I am stuck with: Yash. So what language does the name Yash even come from?
Secondly, a lot of Sanskrit names have cognates (words which derive from the same source) as Latin, French, Italian, German, Irish, Russian, English to name a few languages. For examples consider the Hindi name ‘Suraj’ which derives from Sanskrit ‘Suryah’. ‘Suryah’ derives from a word in an old language (called Proto-Indo-European), from which derive Latin ‘Sol’ , Greek ‘Helios’ and English ‘Sun’. So if ‘Josh’ an acceptable substitute for ‘Yash’, shouldn’t ‘Sun’ be an acceptable substitute for ‘Suraj’? Doesn’t usually happen, does it?
So why this disparity? I think the reason is two-fold. Firstly, since Bengali, Hindi and other Indian languages have over centuries remained in contact with each other, memory of their common origins haven’t been lost and correspondences between them can be easily established. On the other hand, very few people are aware of the connection between Latin/Greek and Sanskrit for example, and even I they are, no one except linguistics can derive the sound correspondences between them.
Secondly, Bengali, Hindi and other languages are written with scripts derived from the same parent script (Brahmi). Most often, it’s not spellings of words which have changes but the way the letters are pronounced has. So the Bengali equivalent of the Hindi letter ‘ya’ is pronounced ‘ja’. So to make a Hindi name Bengali, all that needs to be done is to replace each Hindi letter with its Bengali equivalent and then ask a Bengali native to read it out for you.
Like my post about dialects and languages, I don’t arrive at a conclusive answer here. Instead, I have just presented some strange and/or interesting phenomena relating to names across languages and given plausible explanations for them. I admit I have highlighted more problems than I have offered solutions.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Is Devanagari really all that scientific?

Forewarning: This is going to be a slightly complicated post, dealing with specific phenomena, and not generalizations, so don't read it when you're tired.

I have finally just accepted that my blog doesn't have any international audience, and therefore I am just going to assume that all my speakers are Indians and talk about a language, which quite a few Indians know: Hindi. So I am guessing that if you have every studied Hindi in school or even just heard anyone talk about it, you would've come across the idea that Devanagari, the script in which Hindi is written is a perfectly 'scientific' script. Very often, this idea will be juxtaposed with the idea that English has a completely 'unscientific' script. Today, I am going to look at how much truth these sentences have and examine related phenomena which occur in Hindi.

So by 'scientific', what these people mean is phonemic script i.e. a script in which every sound is represented by a single letter and a single letter represents only one sound. Now, we know that is definitely not English. So yes, English is written with, what is called an 'unscientific' script. But what about Hindi? 

While Hindi is more of less phonetic, it is not completely so. For example, we know that any consonant with no vowel marks is pronounced with an 'a' sound.This 'a sound' is represented by a character called the schwa (ə). I have used 'a' to represent this character in this post. Now, we know that क is pronounced 'ka' and म is pronounced 'ma'. So is कम pronounced 'ka-ma'? No, it isn't. At least not in Hindi. It's 'kam'. The schwa after m disappears. You'd think that this only happens at the end of words. But it isn't so either. Consider दशरथ. It isn't pronounced as da-sha-ra-tha. It isn't even 'da-sha-rath'. It's 'dash-rath'. And it isn't that the schwa disappears everywhere. It remains between d and sh, it remains between r and th.  This disappearance of the schwa is called schwa syncope and is one of the very few irregularities of the Devanagari script. Interestingly, even the word Devanagari (देवनागरी) which is pronounced 'dev-naagri' shows this phenomena. 

Now the question which arises is where does the schwa disappear and where not? According to a few Internet sources, there isn't any rule which completely describes this process. There are 2 rules which describe the process partially. Now, I feel that by just adding one more rule, all instances of schwa deletion will be explained. I have presented all the 3 rules below. I haven't been able to find any exceptions to these rules. If you do let me know:

1. Schwa is deleted at the end of words unless the word is made up of only one letter, eg . न 'no'  ( This is obviously because it's not possible to pronounce the consonant without the vowel, which is schwa in this case)

2. Schwa is deleted between two consonants if both the consonants have vowels to their sides: i.e. the structure should be  VC(schwa)CV, where C=consonant, V=vowel. This rule is processed from left to right and it applies after the first rule has been applied. Let us see what this means:
  - Take दशरथ again. By applying the first rule, we get the pronunciation dasharath. The 'a' at the end is eliminated because the first rule has to be applied first. Now let's see the first instance of schwa from the left as this rule applies from left to right. It is denoted in red: dasharath. Does the red 'a' occur in this format VC(a)CV. It is surrounded by two consonants ('d' and 'sh'), the 'sh' is even followed by a vowel, but 'd' is not preceded by a vowel. Thus the structure is C(a)CV, not VC(a)CV. But the next 'a' does follow this rule. It is preceded by 'sh' (C) and then 'a' (V) and it is followed by 'r' (C) and then 'a'(V). Thus, this schwa is removed. So now, the word is pronounced 'dashrath' The next 'a' will not satisfy this rule: it is preceded by two consonats ('sh' and 'r') because we deleted the 'a' in between them. Moreover, it is only followed by a single consonant 'th' and no vowel follows 'th', since we deleted that in the very beginning by applying the first rule. Hence the pronunciation of the word is 'dashrath'
- Similarly, take सूरत- 'surata'. First step, cut out the last 'a': surat. The only other schwa does not fit the format VC(a)CV, and therefore it cannot be deleted. So the word is pronounced 'surat'.

I hope I've been able to explain this complicated rule to you. This was the hardest part of understand the process. The rule number 3 is:

3. When suffixes are added to a word- for the purpose of schwa deletion, they are considered separate words. Let me explain. Take the word कर(kar) for example, which means 'do'. And then take the suffix ता (taa) which denoted regular action- something like the English simple present tense. So करता (है) means (he/she/it) does. Now if the schwa deletion rules are applied to कर  and ता, they will be considered separate words. Let us understand the implications of this rule.

-Take the word सरक which means shift or slip. By applying the above two rules, the pronunciation of this word is 'sarak'. Now, suppose we add a suffix to it and make it सरकता. If we consider सरकता as one single word, then by the schwa rules, we will have to delete the schwa between 'r' and 'k', and retain every other schwa. So the pronunciation of the world would be 'sarkataa'. This is obviously not the case. The word is pronounced as 'saraktaa'. If we consider सरक and ता to be different units however, and the rules apply separately to both the units, we get sarak+taa=saraktaa, which is the correct pronunciation.

Thus, the one irregularity of the Devanagari script can be explained by a series of rules. I have not verified if these rules will actually hold true for all cases, so don't just go by my word on it. There are a few other irregularities in writing Hindi in Devanagari, but I believe this is the most important and prevalent one. Hopefully, this post wasn't too tedious. Next time, I will chose a topic which doesn't require so much of technical explanation.


Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Love Story of Languages and Scripts

Hello Everyone,
Let me tell you about a little advice I was given about Mathematics when I was preparing for my ICSE Boards. I was told that practice makes perfect and the more I practise, the better I’ll get at Maths. I was told that there was nothing wrong with my concepts, and if I rehearsed the sums enough, I would be able to get a perfect score. To me however, this was like rehearsing every kind of sum over and over again until you reach a state where you see a sum and simply reapply all the steps you’ve learnt. So where exactly does the whole aspect of using your own brains to solve a sum come?
Whether I was correct or not is another topic of discussion because what I want to talk about is how this phenomenon applies to languages. Today, I am going to talk about languages, their scripts and their little love stories.
Before I begin, I want to clarify to my readers what a language is and what a script is. Language is our medium of communication, written, oral or signed. As such, English, Hindi, Romanian, Telugu, Japanese and the American Sign Languages are all languages. Script is the system of characters which is used to represent sounds in a language, and hence is the medium through which language is expressed in the written form.
Now, consider the Roman script, which a lot of you might erroneously call the ‘English’ script. This same script is used to write French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Konkani (in some cases) and many other languages besides English. Similarly, what is quite often called the ‘Hindi’ script, and whose actual name is Devanagari (or Nagari) script is used to write Hindi, Marathi, Konkani (in some cases) and a few other languages. Therefore, I want to impress upon you that a language is not the same thing as a script, and a script can be used to write multiple languages, and in a few cases, a single language (such as Konkani) can be written with multiple scripts.
Okay. So with that clear, let us get to the main focus of this post: the love story of languages and scripts. With a few exceptions such as Konkani, it seems that every language has one script used to write it. They have a very special bond because from the day that Mr. ABC decided that the sounds of Language X will be represented by Script Y, readers of X, on seeing a word written using Y script do not think of the individual letters of the script but the meaning the entire shape of the word conveys.
Let me make this a little clear. Take the word ‘fiordiara’ and ‘elephant’. How much time did the words take to register in your mind? Whatever the answer to that is, I think you can agree that ‘elephant’ registered quicker than ‘fiordiara’. Why? Because the word ‘elephant’ is something you have come across a multiple times and now you don’t have to analyse individual letters of the word to know its pronunciation. Therefore there are only two steps associated in understanding this word: looking at the word and associating it with the large, grey creature with a tusk.
On the other hand, ‘fiordiara’ is not a real English word. To know how it is pronounced, you need to look at the individual letters because you’ve never come across this combination of letters before. Had 'fiordiara' been a real word with a meaning, and you knew the meaning, but had never seen how the word was written, you would follow these steps in understanding the word: looking at the word, figuring out its pronunciation and associating the pronunciation with the meaning of the word.
Let’s see how this relates to our example of Mathematics. It seems that we have practised words to such an extent, that an overwhelming majority of the words we come across in our life have their written form already stored in our brains. Therefore, like we only need our memory to relate a sum to its solution, we only need memory to relate a written word with its meaning.
You might think that is the case only with languages such as English whose scripts are not phonemic. But that is not true. To dispel your doubts, let us take a language such as Hindi which is written with Devanagari. Every Devanagari letter represents a single sound of Hindi, and every sound of Hindi is represented by a single letter of Devanagari with only two exceptions that we can easily ignore.
Now take a fluent (native, if possible) Hindi speaker who does not usually read Devanagari (but he/she should be able to read Devanagari), write a word whose meaning he/she knows, but is unlikely to have come across in writing and ask him/her to tell you the meaning of that word. If he/she voices his/her thoughts out, you are likely to hear something like ‘a’, ‘ka’, ‘sa’, ‘ma’, ‘t’ before he/she tells you the meaning of the word. The same won’t happen if it’s a word he/she has already come across frequently in writing.
Thus, when people learn a written language, they simply do not learn the individual characters of its alphabet, but also unconsciously begin remembering what each word looks like in the written form, so that when they come across that word in a newspaper or a book, they don’t have to look at individual characters to find out what those letters mean.
(For languages such as Chinese which use single characters to represent whole words, this phenomenon becomes obviously prominent. However, I am not familiar with the intricacies of the scripts of these languages and therefore, I will not go in details for the fear of stating something erroneous. )
So now that we have established that languages and their scripts have a deeper relationship than visible, what if we were to break this marriage and send them off to different partners? What if I decide to use the Devanagari script to write English? What if I decide to use the Bangla script to write Gujarati? As absurd as the idea might sound (or not), we already do that. We use the Roman script to write Hindi in hoarding, in TV advertisements, on Facebook, in text messages and many other places.  
So a question arises: can the same phenomena whereby the reader understands the meaning of the word without breaking it into its letter components happen when languages and scripts are mismatched? I am working out the answer to this question right now.  Very soon, I will let you know the answer and how I arrived at the answer. But currently, I believe that it is all a question of familiarity and practise. If the reader is accustomed to seeing that word from Language N written in Script M, then whichever language and script you mix together, there would not be any problem!
For example, I would be quicker to understand that ‘barish’ (written in that exact way) means rain, than say, my grandfather would, simply because a lot of my Facebook statuses have used that word written in Roman script. On the other hand, my grandfather would probably be coming across that word written that way for maybe the tenth time in his life, which is not quite a lot. Similarly, I would be quicker to read ‘phool’ (meaning: flower) than I would read ‘ फ्लावर‘(flower) because I have come across the Hindi word ‘फूल’ (meaning: flower)  written in Roman script quite often, but not the English word ‘flower’ written in Devanagari.
On this note, I will conclude my post by saying that the love between languages and their scripts is more about familiarity that anything else. If we learn to see two people together, we accept their love, regardless of how mismatched this couple looks. Similarly, if we get familiar with Hindi in Roman, or Japanese in Perso-Arabic, then their love prospers. It’s all a matter of practise it seems. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

My Experiences at the Panini Linguistics Olympiad Camp

Hi Everyone,

So I am finally back home after having attended the Panini Linguistics Olympiad Camp and I have had so much fun there. In this post, instead of talking about any linguistical phenomena, I want to share my experiences with you.

So firstly, the Camp itself. For 6 days, we had a packed schedule from 9:30 AM to 6 PM which included lessons on various aspects of Linguistics, tests to decide who will be selected to represent India at the International Olympiad, and problem solving practise sessions. I don't think you want to know excruciating details of what we did in each of these sessions but the important point is, not at one instance was I bored. Because at every point of time, there was so much of information to soak up. For example, there was one time where we were trying to use the rules we learnt from Linguistics to construct missing words in the song: 'Ek ladki ko dekha to aisa laga' from the movie 1942: A Love Story. Then, at another point we were trying to discover how African and Native American languages frame their sentences. Discussing every thing I learnt would need much more than a single blog post, so I am afraid you will have to make do with just this.

But there was something I enjoyed even more than I enjoyed the Camp: the people. Never have I met such an interesting, and such a fun group of people in one single place. There were people with such a wide variety of interests and all of us shared a little bit of everything we knew: there were discussions of Maths, Physics and Chemistry, there were discussions on History and Languages (where I offered my two cents worth of knowledge), there were discussions on Zombies and Harry Potter, on movies, on every possible thing I could imagine. We played cards and we sang songs (albeit shyly). The thing is, with the Linguistics Olympiad, not requiring a theoretical background in Linguistics, attracts a variety of students, all of whom, while determined and eager to learn, are also looking forward to a fun time.

Because of the kind of people I met there, the most fun aspect of the Camp was the Team Problem Solving Session. Each day, we were grouped in teams of 3 or 4 and were expected to solve problems on Vietnamese, Mongolian, Bulgarian and Hawaiian. And all we were given was a bunch of text in these languages, and we had to figure out everything ourselves. Whether it be recipes for cakes written in Bulgarian, or the word for Calcium in Mongolian. Sometimes, we were able to find correct answers, sometimes we were far from it. For example, one time, we ended up with Mr. Vietnam instead of a Vietnamese-English dictionary. Don't laugh at us! It's not as stupid an assumption as it sounds.

Anyway, I am concluding this post. I apologize if it wasn't up to your expectations but I really wanted to share my experiences and this was the only place where I had a medium to. Also, if I might add, I got selected to represent India at the International Linguistics Olympiad in Manchester in July, where I hope to have an equally amazing time with three other students I met in Mumbai, and with the participants from various nations across the world.

For anyone interested in participating in the Olympiad next year, or finding out more about it, have a look here: http://www.facebook.com/PaniniLinguisticsOlympiad


Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Another little note and a little bit of an apology

Hi Everyone,
Firstly, I want to apologize for not giving you that 'lots and lots' of posts that I promised. It turns out that the camp is a lot more hectic (and fun) that I thought. I am having a really good time here though, having met a lot of interesting people and having had really interesting training sessions.
Anyway, I have decided that instead of just posting about daily events, I've decided to enjoy the full experience as it is and put it to pen (or in this case, keyboard? screen?) after the entire camp. So, once again, sorry for going back on my words but I think I'll do the post more justice once I return home- which will be on the 9th of this month.
A Really Sorry Yash

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Just a small note

I haven't ever written a post without any linguistics related matter until today, and I don't want to either but I wanted to tell all my readers (who are not in large numbers) that I am terribly sorry for the long intervals between multiple posts and this will continue until the 1st of June, when I have my SATs. But since I like sprinkling the bad news with the good news, I want to add that you should expect a lot of posts in the week after my SAT because that is the time I will be in Mumbai attending the Orientation-cum-Selection Camp for the International Linguistics Olympiad. So this blog and I are both looking forward to an interesting post-SAT week. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

You think what you speak

Hi, it's been a long time since I posted. What with final exams, and school fest, and ten million essays to write and the laziness following all of this, I think I can be excused. Anyway, the important thing is here I am with a new post. Have a look.

I recently came across an article, which I found rather interesting and worth sharing with you all. You can find the link to the original article at the bottom of the page. The article talks about how speakers of different languages think differently. Yes, you read it right. If I speak Greek, I think Greek. If I speak Japanese, I think Japanese. 

To understand this, we have to firstly appreciate that languages are different. While this may seem obvious, the point I am trying to highlight is that suppose you switch from Turkish to Tamil, you wouldn't simply be substituting every word for another. Rather, you will have to change all your ideas about nouns and verbs, and all the other words, about how their forms vary, and about how all these words in their different forms must combine with each other to form a complete sentence. Thus, it is clear that when we switch from one language to another, we switch our way of thinking about sounds, words and sentences. So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that speakers of different languages not only think differently about processes associated with languages, but also with respect to various objects? What if Spanish speakers think of bridges differently from what German speakers think of bridges? That indeed seems to be the case. 

In a study described in the aforementioned link, German speakers described bridges as 'elegant', 'pretty' and 'beautiful', whereas Spanish speakers described them as 'strong' and 'sturdy'. If you notice carefully, German speakers tended to stick with words generally reserved for all things feminine, while Spanish speakers with 'masculine' words. Now, if you know a thing or two about these languages, you probably know that both of them put nouns into genders. And guess what? Bridges are masculine in Spanish and feminine in German. Thus, these imaginary genders of words, which is often an unnecessary inconvenience to learners of these language, affect how speakers of these languages think of these words. Also, I might add that in the same experiment, a key, which was masculine in German and feminine in Spanish was described by 'masculine' adjective by German speakers and 'feminine' adjectives by Spanish speakers. 

So much for genders. But languages don't just make us think of objects in different ways. In fact, different languages give us a different idea of space and direction. Let us consider the Kuuk Thaayorre people in northern Australia. They are a group of Aborginal people who always, always use cardinal direction terms (like north, south etc.) instead of direction words which are used in reference to a certain person/object (like right, left etc.) This means, that these people, unlike English speakers always remain oriented. They always know which direction is north, and which is south, which may not be true for English speakers. Thus, the language they speak forces them to think of direction in a particular way.

This difference is not limited to languages which use cardinal direction instead of reference directions, but also to languages whose writing scripts run from right to left, or from top to bottom. For example, an experiment was carried out where participants were asked to arrange pictures of a man ageing in temporal order. They weren't asked to do so in a particular direction. It was found that English speakers arranged the pictures from left to right, while Hebrew speakers did so from right to left. It cannot be a mere coincidence that English is written from left to right, and Hebrew from right to left. Also, just in case you might be interested, the Kuuk Thaayorre participants arranged it from east to west, no matter which direction they were facing. 

This idea of direction also extends to time. For example, when English speakers talk about time using space metaphors, they always use horizontal ones. In English, bad times lie ahead of us; those days are behind us. But for Mandarin speakers, the next month is down month, and the previous month is the up month i.e.  a vertical metaphor is being used to describe time. And I know you've guessed/known it before, but I should add that Mandarin is written vertically from top to bottom. 

It's scary how much the language we speak affects how we think. It shapes the world around us, gives imaginary genders to objects, gives us a sense of direction. After knowing all this, I feel that in some ways, languages can limit our abilities to think about the world. Monolingual speakers see the world in one perspective. Maybe there are more advantages to being multilingual than we think, especially when the languages we speak are not closely related. Obviously, if you speak what you think, the more ways you speak, the more ways you think. 

And here is the link to the original article: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html


Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Tongue of the Gods

Today, I am going to be speaking about the relation that language and religion share with each other. Religion  has been a defining aspect of most cultures of the world. I have highlighted, time and time again, how language impacts and is impacted by culture. Hence, it is only logical that religion impacts language, and language impacts religion.

One thing that religion does to languages is that it may uplift the status of a certain language. Every religion has a language which it considers its 'holy language'. Usually, this language is the mother tongue of the original followers of the religion.Gradually, as the religion spreads to new people, the language, even though not the mother tongue of its new followers, becomes one of high status and prestige among them.

Consider for example, Islam and Hinduism. Hinduism's prestige language was/is Sanskrit. The Rig Veda was composed in Sanskrit, the Indo-Aryans, the original followers of Hinduism spoke Sanskrit. When the Aryans settled in the Indian subcontinent, they met with a lot of other people including the Dravidians, who spoke the languages from which the modern South Indian languages are derived. Sanskrit spread through the subcontinent, along with Hinduism. The result is that today, even millennia after it ceased to be spoken, Sanskrit is considered by many in India, including in South India to be the most prestigious and most refined language.

Similarly, the first Muslims spoke Arabic. As Islam spread in North Africa, Persia and then into India, so did Arabic. Arabic is the language Muslims recite the Koran/Quran in. Infact, in North Africa, Arabic has even become the lingua franca. Towards the east of Arabia , Persian still remains the lingua franca in Iran, but Arabic still retains its status as the language of Islam.

It is not always necessary that the holy language is the language of the first followers of the religion. For example, the first Christians spoke Hebrew. But the holy language of the largest denomination of Christianity, Roman Catholicism is not Hebrew, but Latin. The Roman is our clue. The religion made its way to Rome, and Rome propagated its brand of Christianity along with its language of that time, Latin. Thus, Latin became the prestige language for most of Western Europe. Even English, which does not have roots in Latin is full of words with Latin etymologies.

If a culture accepts another language as its prestige language, it does not automatically imply that it abandons its own language. Persian and Tamil are two languages which come to my mind, which despite not being the holy languages of the religions their speakers follow, which have a very rich literature.

It is not always true that people modify their languages to suit their religion. Sometimes, religions need to cater to the people and change their languages to suit their followers. The most prominent example of this, that I am aware of is Buddhism and Jainism. Obviously, they are separate religions now, but originally, they rose as sects of Hinduism, with the primary purpose of countering the Brahman domination of mainstream Hinduism. They opposed the Vedas, preached atheism/agnosticism, among other things. What is of importance to us, however, is that they opposed the preaching of religious sermons in Sanskrit, a language, which by that time, common people did not understand. They began preaching in the Prakrits, the common languages of the people. Thus, Buddhism and Jainism are examples of how religions adapt according to languages.

Even in the previous example I used, Christianity, first adapted itself to Rome, by switching to Latin, and then those who converted to Christianity after Rome, adapted themselves to accept Latin as the tongue of their God.

On, that note, I will conclude this post by saying that I believe languages and religion have a two-way relation, where one impacts the other and vice versa. The people revere the tongue of their gods and the gods learn to speak in the tongue of the people. Obviously, the two don't happen simultaneously, but one after the other. 

And now, I have a question for you: do you hold the language associated with religion in your culture in higher regard than your daily speech? For what reasons? Let me know in you comments. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Is it a dialect, is it a language?

There was a time when I heard someone I knew describing all Indian languages to someone of non-Indian origin as 'dialects of Hindi'. Ironically, this person was not even a Hindi speaker. Anyway, I thought his remark was rather ignorant, considering that I've been taught there are multiple languages spoken in India, and that there is no standard Indian language, of which other languages are mere dialects.

But lately, I have been questioning that assumption. That is not to imply that I am saying one language is India's standard language and the others are not worthy of being called languages. But rather, can languages/ dialects so close to each other really be separated out?

The actual question here is how we define dialect, as separate from language. A Yiddish scholar, Max Weinreich popularised a saying which goes along the lines of: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. I think what Weinreich wanted to say was that whether something is a language or a dialect is not determined by the language/dialect itself but rather by political conditions. If a dialect has an 'army or navy', i.e. if its speakers have the political power to present it as a language, rather than a dialect, then a language it is. The whole process seems kind of arbitrary.

Consider for example, the various dialects of Hindi. The whole idea of placing a bunch of dialects under the label of Hindi is rather weird. This is especially if you consider that Standard Hindi and Punjabi, which are separate languages resemble each other more than Standard Hindi and eastern dialects of Hindi do. At one point of time, a language called Maithili was classified as a dialect of Hindi, even though linguistically it was much closer to Bengali than to Standard Hindi. Eventually, Maithili was recognized as a separate language, and not as a dialect of Hindi and was added to the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

The whole process seems random at times. If someone demands a language status for their mother tongue, and the conditions are favourable, then perhaps the mother tongue can be classified as a language. Let us try to make a little sense out of this mess.

One important factor which determines the difference between a language and a dialect is politics. The politics of identity, of nationalities, and other such things. For example, consider Serbian and Croatian. Both are almost the same language, or dialects of the same language at the most. Yet, because of the fact that different cultures associate themselves with that/those language(s), and that they want to highlight their difference from each other, Serbian and Croatian are two separate languages. Just a little disclaimer: I am not very informed about Slavic culture or politics, so I sincerely apologize if I have made any ignorant or uninformed comments.

To me, the above example doesn't seem very strange because I have seen something similar close to home: India speaks Hindi, Pakistan speaks Urdu. (India also speaks Urdu in places such as Hyderabad and Kashmir) Aside from their scripts, which is a matter of convention, they are virtually the same language. If they differ, it's in their educated vocabulary- maybe, Hindi and Urdu are dialects of the greater Hindi-Urdu language, or maybe they are the exact same thing. We don't know-but what we do know is that same language has been divided into two by political divisions.

But sometimes, politics works the other way to unite multiple mother tongues into a single language. In China, there is a multitude of languages spoken (the Mandarin dialect being only one of them), but all of them are classified as Chinese dialects, even though there are various dialects which are mutually unintelligible i.e. speakers of one tongue don't understand the other. Yet, everything is counted as Chinese. Why? Because the idea that the whole nation shares a single language promotes the idea of national solidarity.

Politics however is not the only factor in classification. One other factor is the amount of literature the language has. In a previously mentioned example regarding Hindi, the belt of dialects extends to, but does not include Bengali. Why is Bengali not a dialect of Hindi, but languages in its neighbourhood, which resemble it more closely than they resemble Standard Hindi, are? There could be multiple reasons, but one factor is the wealth of literature that Bengali possesses. Its literature calls for its classification as a separate language.

But if literature is a deciding factor, what about the dialects of Hindi- Awadhi or Braj? Much of the initial literature in Hindi was written in these dialects. But, as time passed on, the importance shifted from Braj and Awadhi to Khari Boli, which forms today's Standard dialect. So, why did Awadhi and Braj, despite their vast literature cease to be languages in their own right? I believe the answer lies in the history of these languages. An accurate answer would involve a historical analysis, but the point I was trying to make is that literature is not a make-or-break point in a dialect's quest to become language.

At the end of it, I am still not convinced that the classification of mother tongues as languages or dialects is not arbitrary. So there isn't much hope that I have managed to convince you of the same either. But what I think I have managed to do is to add a little bit of sense to this arbitrary process. There isn't an exact answer, there are a lot of answers, and all I have done is given you some of them. So tell me, what do you think determines if a mother tongue is a language or dialect?


Friday, 1 March 2013

Why languages change over time? Because of YOU!

In my previous posts, you might have noticed that there was a lot of mention of words and sounds of a language changing over time. In this post, my goal is to make you believe, that in this very day, probably at this very moment, you are responsible for changing languages. When you change the words and sounds of a language enough, you create a new language.

For example, take a look back to the previous paragraph. Read it aloud. Are you sure you've read it? Now tell me how did you pronounce 'probably'? If you are like most of the English speakers I've come across, you said prob'ly, omitting one 'b'. Even if you did pronounce both the b's, which is quite possible, you must definitely have heard people say the word with only one 'b'. (Even if I did not convince you with this example, there are more of them to come, so don't quit reading yet.)

So you say, "Okay, fine, some people pronounce probably with one less b. Big deal!." YES, big deal. And I'll tell you why. Think of it like this. There is a pronunciation rule which says that when two labial stops (or simply put: b, p- don't let the word labial frighten you) occur one after the other, the second one is omitted. This change does not happen in all places,only in certain places, determined by more complex rules. But why is it a big deal? Because if this sound changes persists for long enough, it will be responsible for making new words out of existing English ones, thus changing English to another language, which after some time will not be comprehensible for English speakers. Don't believe me? I'll give you proof. This change has already been documented in a language change. From Sanskrit to Hindi. Here goes:

'Pipaasha' is the Sanskrit word for thirst. 'Pipaasha' leads to 'Pipaasa'; 'sh' changing to 's' is not a very uncommon change: a lot of Hindi speakers pronounce 'sh' as 's'. So we get 'Pipaasa'. And now comes our master rule. The one we derived from probably-prob'ly. Elimination of labial stop (p,b) when there are two of those occurring next to each other. Thus, 'Pipaasa' becomes 'Piasa', which ultimately was standardized as 'Pyaas'. Voila! 'Pyaas' is Hindi for thirst. There you go. First evidence that a change you make while speaking can be responsible for a new language coming up.

As I promised, there'll be more evidence. So I am going to show a second example. This example is also about sound changes. But before we go to that let me tell you that there is a group of consonants called the palatals ('ch', and 'j' for example) and coronals ('t' and 'd' for example). Now tell me, have you heard people say, 'Whachoo doing?' when they mean to say, 'What you doing?' (Grammatically: What are you doing?). Here the 't' of 'what' is linked to the 'y' of 'you to give 'ch'. If we generalize this, we can say: coronal + y = palatal.

Once again, we will be applying this sound change in English, which you are responsible for, to the transition of Sanskrit to Hindi. Truth 'Satya' has t + y, which is a coronal + y, which would give us 'ch' in its place. We'll get 'Sacha'- the Hindi for truth.

Obviously, one or two changes do not create new languages. From the birth of human language, thousands of such changes must have occurred which made different languages so diverse. But my purpose was to show you the process on a small scale, and let you imagine it on a larger scale. Thus, at this very moment, we are making changes which have defined new languages in the past, and are very capable of creating new ones in the future.

So, now that we have agreed that you and I are capable of changing languages, think of this process on a larger scale. Through all the millennia of human existence, of the billions and billions of people that have ever lived, each one of them has contributed bit by bit to the process of language change. The result is that there was one time where our ancestors began communicating using simple sounds, and now we have at least 6000 different human languages in existence. I think you can take a little credit for that.