Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Master turns 78 today

It has been more than 16 or 17 years, but I still clearly remember the first concert I heard of my idol Sri M.S. Gopalakrishnan. It wasn't live -- it was, in fact, a recording of an AIR National Programme of Music. It took only one song - the very first one, the nATakuriJji varnam -- and I was a fan. And remain one to this day. The songs that he played in that concert (they are etched in my memory: rAma bhakti in zuddha baGgALa, zObhillu saptaswara in jaganmOhini, E tAvunarA in kalyANi, a sindhubhairavi bhajana) all remain my personal favourites.

I can go on and on about him, but I am in the middle of a busy work week. So here are some links instead:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Marathi is a South Indian language

The classification of Indian languages into Dravidian and Indo-European is well known. I would like to propose a new classification based on pronunciation -- South and North Indian.

1. Pronunciation of the vowels 'ai' and 'au'
If the vowels rhyme with "why" and "cow" respectively, the language is South Indian. If they are pronounced like "way" and "cause" respectively, the language is North Indian.

2. Pronunciation of the conjunct consonant 'jJa'
If it is pronounced as 'gya', the language is North Indian.

3. Pronunciation of the aspirate 'pha'
If the consonant is pronounced as F, the language is North Indian.

4. Extent of eliding the vowel 'a'
This criterion is more of degree than black-and-white. The extent of elision is close to 100% in North Indian languages.

In the case of Marathi, it meets all the criteria except the third. Observe how a Marathi speaker pronounces the words vaidya, gaurava, jJAna. Also note the non-elision of the vowel 'a' in the names Ranade, Thackeray and Fadake, and in the Varakari chant 'viTThala, viTThala.'

By the same token, Sanskrit is a South Indian language too.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Naming the NRI progeny

Indian names are tough to pronounce correctly. Even by other Indians. Countless are the people to the north of the Vindhyas who bravely tried to make it through "Venkataramanan" or "Ananthapadmanabhan" or "Kodhandapani" but got lost in between. (Also, if the question "How do you say 'Parithi Ilamvazhuthi'?" is not already a part of the IIM or IAS interviews, it should definitely be.) And everyday in Tamilnadu, "Geet Sethi", "Hrithik Roshan" and "Vajpayee" are brutally dismembered in public sight.

So, it is needless to mention the extent Indian names are mauled abroad.

Considering the huge exodus of Indians (mainly to the US) in the last decade and their need to label their offspring, this knotty problem deserves to be examined in some seriousness. What kind of nomenclature can the proud NRI parent bestow on the child such that the name, when it comes out the American mouth, is recognisable? Or to ask the question differently, how does the American manage to tear to shreds this seemingly unmispronouncable name? Is there a method to his madness?

Given the nature of the English alphabet, it is impossible to guarantee that any particular name, however simple, will be perfectly pronounced. But reducing the possibility of mispronunciation will in itself be a laudable goal.

Stress

Purushothaman and Thripurasundari, San Jose, CA, are blessed with a beautiful daughter. They decide to name her Uma. Just three letters, what could go wrong? It's even the name of a Hollywood actress. Alas, the name gets mangled to Oo-muh. Subramanian, professor at a reputable Texas university, scarred by the experience of being addressed as "Submarine-man", decides to give his son a very short name - Siva. Unfortunately, it becomes See-vuh.

In English pronunciation, all words have at least one syllable that will be stressed. Catalysis. Technology. Algebra. So if the name has all short syllables, such as Ravi, Guru or Siva, it will surely be mispronounced, since some syllable will be elongated due to stress ("Raavi", "Gooru"). And with feminine names, if they end in A, you need some syllable other than the last to be long. This is because, in most English words, the last syllable is not elongated -- especially if it ends in A. (Contrary to the common misconception in our country, the stress in the word "India" is on the first syllable, not the last. Same with "China".) So names such as Uma, Sarika or Lathika will nearly always go wrong. But we can take advantage of this fact with Sanskrit masculine names -- Rama (rAma) will work well, but not the feminine Rama (ramA). Partha should be fine, too.

Even if the name does have a long syllable, the spelling must clearly indicate it. For English words, the native speakers have an idea of which syllable to stress. But for foreign names, they are not quite aware. For long I (I), use EE. For long U (U), use OO. Soorya rather than Surya. Praveen instead of Pravin. Sreenath instead of Srinath. (Since I spell my name "Srikanth", an American colleague pronounces it "srik-ANth".)

AB and AJ

If an NRI is addressed as AB, what is his name likely to be?
  1. Atal Behari
  2. Amitabh Bachchan
  3. Aravamudhan Balakrishnan
  4. None of the above

The right answer is, of course, 4. AB is how "Abhi" will be pronounced. And AJ is how "Ajay" will be.

As in "abiotic", "asymmetric" or "asymptotic", the A-prefix will be pronounced as E, not a (as we do in Indian languages). So Arun, Ashok, Amar, Akash, Aditya all suffer from this disadvantage.

Tom/Thomas

There are two main conventions in India for romanising the consonant "ta." In the south, it is "tha" with an H. In the north, there is no H. While the latter will be correctly pronounced by the Spanish or French, the former is handled better by the native English-speaker. Note the difference in pronunciation between tin and thin, tree and three. I feel that the southern convention will work better in English-speaking countries. Karthik, Shanthi, Samith, etc.

However, for the consonant "da", the southern convention (with H) works no better than the northern one. (Gandhi is always Gan-dee.) So, Adithya is better than Aditya, but Adhithya is not more useful.

English-like

Certain names that look like English names work really well. Smitha is one. ("Smith" with an A.) Laxman is a good choice too.

Beware

Remember how in the early days of Tendulkar's career, his name was pronounced by English/Australian commentators as "Sa-shin"? This was probably because the spelling is similar to the word "sachet", pronounced "sa-shey" because of its French origin. This is why Indian names of the pattern *chit, such as Archit or Sanchit, can go wrong. (Ar-shit, San-shit) If the surname is Dikshit, better get it changed to Deexit(h) or Dixit(h).

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thoughtfulness

From Sanjay Subramaniam's blog:
In my personal experience I have given several non-mic concerts. The most recent being one in Europe. The best part was that they provided mics with monitor speakers just for feedback, whilst the audience listened to the true sound as they would like to call it.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Tamil 'sha': Unicode to the rescue

In the previous post, I had argued for including the Grantha letter 'sha' in Tamil. I was very happy to find out that Unicode 4.1.0 has already done so. Its code-point is 0x0BB6.

It looks like this version of Unicode was released in March 2005. This means that Tamil fonts created before, such as the default one in Windows XP, will not have this character. If you are interested, you can download the "Lohit" tamil font, which supports the new code-point. It should work on Windows and Linux. (Not sure about Mac.)

As I feared, there were some anti-Sanskrit folks who fought against this character. From a Unicode mailing-list thread on this subject:

Sanskrit is always seen a wanton intrusion [sic] to destroy all Indic languages and cause confusion. Tamil has been defending itself for hundreds of years.... Unicode is not the entity that should decide the demise of the ancient and sophisticated Tamil, like the demise of all other Indic languages.... 0BB6 must be deprecated. 0BB6 was encoded illegally by Unicode.

I am pleasantly surprised that, inspite of this, 0BB6 made it through.

Right now in translipi, I use ச to transliterate 'sha' into Tamil. This is fine for the cases where it is accompanied by a vowel. However, when it appears as a pure consonant or together with other consonants, ச is conventionally pronounced 'cha' in Tamil. This is not very satisfactory; the grantha 'sha' letter fits the bill perfectly here. However, since not many fonts support it yet, translipi will go along with ச for 'sha' for some more time.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

One more character for Tamil

Most Indian scripts, as we know, are derived from Brahmi. This is true of the Tamil script also, but in its case, it somehow seems as if one person sat down and customised the alphabet to suit the Dravidian language, before making it public:
  • There are no characters for aspirates.
  • A single character is used for both voiced and unvoiced sounds. E.g., the character க represents the guttural sounds 'ka' and 'ga' (and also 'ha'). The character ச is used for the sounds 'ca', 'ja' and 'za' (and sometimes 'Sa').
To represent certain sounds from other languages unequivocally, it borrowed a few characters from Grantha, the script used for Sanskrit in Tamilnadu. ஜ for ja, ஷ for Sa, ஸ for sa, ஹ for ha. These additions mostly sufficed, even for Arabic/Persian loan-words and Muslim names.

But not anymore. A large fraction of the current generation of Tamil-speakers bear names that are Hindi-like. Venkatesh (veGkaTez) where the traditional version would have been Venkatesan. Shankar as opposed to the traditional Sankaran. Satish or Akash, which were never prevalent in the previous generations. And there is no Tamil character which can unambiguously represent the za sound.

As of now, we make do using ஷ (Sa) which is not the same sound at all. I feel time is ripe for Tamil to make space for one more character from Grantha () to represent za. (In fact, this character is already present in Tamil in the symbol for zrI.)

However, given the anti-Sanskrit leanings of Tamil scholars, I am not sure if this will happen.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sri Santhanam

From today's Hindu:
On one occasion, while introducing Maharajapuram Santhanam to the audience at a felicitation function at the Music Academy, [Semmangudi] said: “He is my guru’s son. When he was a little boy, I would toss him up in the air and play with him, but now [sizing him up with his eyes], I can’t quite manage that.” [Link]
A related observation from the Music Season of 1990:
Still the person who attracts most crowds is Maharajapuram Santhanam and the present theory in Madras is that this attraction is purely gravitational. [Ramesh Mahadevan]