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.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

"Words and sounds carry histories with them. Not only their own histories, but those of people who have uttered those words."- Me aka Yash.

My blog description starts with this quote by me. I think the quote deserves a post of its own . What do I mean when I say that 'words' and 'sounds' carry histories with them? Why do I believe so? This post answers all of these questions and more.  Also, in this post, I will try to be more global, in contrast to my previous post, where I was talking about an Indian language. 

So firstly, what do I mean by the quote. I mean and I believe that our languages are more than just tools of communicating. They carry all information about what the speakers of the language as a whole, have seen in their multiple years of existence, what other peoples and languages have they come across, and much more. As such, languages record a part of the people's history. There have been times where languages have helped us answer some questions from History. 

So now, why do I believe so? Take for instance,  the 'have seen in their multiple years of existence' part. Languages have vocabularies. Vocabulary is the body of words used in a language. When people encounter something new, which they are likely to come across again and again, they assign a word to it. By doing so, they are creating a record of the existence of that object. 

Living in the twenty-first century, we are no strangers to the concept of adding new words to languages. The technological revolution has added so many words to our jargon: email, texting, captcha, blog, to name a few. I would not be surprised if say 800 years from now,  new technology not withstanding, the presence of these words in a text will be used to date documents, as those before the Internet revolution, or those after. By inventing these words, we have added meaning to sounds and symbols, which have stored an imprint of our civilization. 

If the above example seems too hypothetical for you, let us take a real example. There is a group of languages known as the Indo-European (IE) languages. These languages are all derived from a totally undocumented, unspoken, but a common ancestor, called the Proto-Indo-European (PIE). We have traced the existence of this language by comparing various Indian, Iranian and European languages  The speakers of these languages are called the PIE people and they migrated to all over south Asia and Europe, and ended up spreading their language, which evolved into various daughter languages. The result: a very large percentage of the world's population speaks IE languages. Now there are various questions regarding these people. What was their original homeland? When did they begin spreading? There are various theories regarding this, and my purpose is not to answer these questions. But, words can provide a clue about the answers.

Most of earlier IE languages (Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Persian) have similar words for 'horse'. If you know these words, it might seem they are not so similar after all, but there is a series of sound changes which accounts for their little differences. But in any case, assume, for the sake of my argument, that these words all derive from the same PIE word. That means, PIE could not have split into various languages before its speakers had come across the horse, and added a word for it to their vocabulary. What does that tell us? That PIE speakers, before diverging into various groups lived/had lived in a place where there were horses. Similarly, PIE also had a word for 'chariot', which would imply that PIE speakers invented the chariot before spreading. This is what would constitute linguistic evidence. Linguistic evidence, along with archaeological and genetic evidence can help us answer questions about these people.

Another way in which words help us know about the history of their people is through the similarities between words across languages. The similarity of words in IE languages helped us find out about the existence of their common ancestor, the PIE. Similarly, the similarity of the Romani language, a language spoken by Romani people of Europe, with North Indian languages, helped us trace the  origins of the Romani people to North India. Genetic evidence supported this hypothesis. 

Words and sounds also record history, when those of one language create an impact on another one. For example, see my previous post about how the Hindi word for 'I' has come from Persian. This word, with what I assume would probably be millions of other word, is evidence that Persia and India definitely had very strong cultural links. 

Even though I had promised, I would make this post more 'global', there is another very interesting phenomena in Hindi, which I feel obliged to show. Originally, Hindi lacked the sound 'f''. When words from Persian and Arabic entered Hindi, 'f' was pronounced as 'ph' (p with a puff of air, how British and American English speakers pronounce p in the beginning of words) . So 'safed' (white) became 'saphed', '' 'faisla' (decision) became 'phaisla'. A very large percentage of the population pronounces these words so.

But at the same time, there began a process of correction- an attempt to replicate the original sounds: so 'safed' was pronounced 'safed' and 'faisla' was pronounced 'faisla'. However, along with it, the 'correction' spread to the original Hindi 'ph' as well, which became 'f'. So the original 'phal' (fruit) is now pronounced 'fal', and 'phool (flower) is now 'fool' (pronounced the same as the English fool). Now, there exists two groups of speakers: those who use 'ph' in all cases (which is generally thought of as the 'uneducated' way to pronounce the letter), and those who use 'f' in all cases. Very few speakers retain the distinction between the Persian 'f' and the Indian 'ph'. Persian and Arabic, have very lastingly made their imprint on Hindi, and this process has recorded the historic influence that Persia had on India.

And therefore, my quote.

Hoping that this was an interesting read, signing off from my second post,

What do 'I' call myself?

UPDATE: 26th October, 2013

I have been researching a little more and I have found out that my hypothesis about the origins of "main" might not be exactly correct. If I find out the exact origins, I will let you know. But I am pretty sure about the origins of "hum".


I have a friend, with whom I frequently have arguments about whether my Hindi is 'correct' or hers (Both she and I are native Hindi speakers, but as with a lot of school students in India, I use a fair amount of English with most of my friends). I put 'correct' in inverted commas because despite what your grammar teachers might tell you, I believe that language is in a constant stage of evolution and correctness is defined by the will of the majority of the speakers. Our arguments are more for the sake of fun.

Without drifting off to another topic, which will occupy its own blog post in the future, I'll come back to the original problem: what do 'I' call myself. The problem is that in standard written Hindi, the word for I (which I deem 'correct') is 'मैं' ( pronounced mɛː/mæ: *with a tilde over æ/ɛ, which I am unable to type*]). However, a lot of speakers (which includes this friend) use हम (həm) for I, which in standard Hindi would actually mean the plural i.e. 'we'. That was the observation. But my self-assigned task was not to simply observe, but to account. My question was 'Why the 'मैं'/'हम' argument ?'

However, the answer to the question did not come from Hindi, but instead from Persian and Sanskrit. For readers not familiar with the relation Hindi has with these two languages: Sanskrit is the mother of Hindi, along with that of various other North Indian languages; Persian has provided Hindi (and Urdu) with a lot of vocabulary during Islamic rule in India.

While I was learning (read: trying to learn) Persian, I came across the Persian word for I: من (mæ*with tilde*), which is pronounced almost the same as the Hindi 'मैं'. Considering the fact that a lot of Hindi vocabulary was derived from Persian, it was not unlikely that this was borrowed as well. Especially when we consider the Sanskrit word for I, 'अहम् ' (əhəm), which looks nothing like 'मैं'. On the other hand, हम (həm) and 'अहम् ' (əhəm) only differ in that the Hindi form has lost the initial ə. Could it be that Persian gives me my favourite 'मैं' and Sanskrit gives my friend her favourite 'हम'?

To answer that, we need to look at more than Standard Hindi, and a little bit at Indian geography. For people not familiar with Indian geography, an Indian map would come in handy at this point of time. Most of North India speaks languages derived from Sanskrit. I will specifically be looking at the belt stretching from Punjab to Bihar, because I am most familiar with languages from there. Punjabi uses ਮੈਂ ( mɛː*with tilde*). Bhojpuri, which is spoken in Bihar, and is often classified as an eastern dialect of Hindi uses 'हम'. Punjab is at the north-western border of India. Bihar lies on the east. Speakers of Hindi raised in Delhi are more likely to use 'मैं', while those is Lucknow are likely to use 'हम'. Lucknow and Delhi are closer to each other than Punjab and Bihar are, but Lucknow lies in the region which is associated with the Awadhi dialect of Hindi, which was the standard Hindi dialect for quite sometime before it was replaced by the Delhi Hindi dialect Khariboli. This explains why now the standard Hindi I is मैं.

So far so good. But we still haven't answered our question. Why do people in Delhi and Punjab use मैं, while those in Lucknow and Bihar use हम? I think it has got to do with the fact that Delhi and Punjab are towards the west of India, more closer to Persian speaking regions, and places where Islamic and Persian culture reached before it reached Bihar and Lucknow. Thus the western languages adopted the new 'I', the eastern ones stuck to the Sanskrit-derived 'I'. There seems to be a line running somewhere through the middle of Uttar Pradesh, which divides the languages spoken in this belt into two. The western ones share some features, the eastern ones share some features. The मैं/हम distinction is only one such feature. I might discuss other such features in future posts.

Now, to my original two characters of the story. My friend and I. My friend was raised in Kolkata, in West Bengal. Even though Bengal lies outside the Hindi speaking zone, there is a significant Hindi speaking population here. The Hindi in Kolkata is influenced by the one in the neighbouring state of Bihar, which we have identified as a 'हम' state. Hence, she uses हम. I, on the other hand, have been raised in various places, two of which, Jamshedpur and Kolkata, are very much 'हम'cities. Yet, my mother was raised in western Uttar Pradesh which is very clearly a 'मैं' region. Moreover, since I have been raised in different cities, I tended to pick up the language taught in schools rather than the one acquired locally. Hence I am a 'मैं' person.

So that's me signing off after my first post, which I am particularly pleased with, and which I will definitely ask my 'हम' friend to read, who will definitely ignore my request. Hopefully, I was at least able to captivate your interest for you to read my future posts.