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.