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.

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