A causerie on churning of speech sounds
Acknowledging this transitory nature of speech, shiksha (शिक्षा meaning phonetics), one of the six vedanga (lit. 'limbs of the Vedas') under the purview of linguistics in the Indian grammatical tradition, was intended for proper pronunciation of the sacred text (Cardona 1994). In the similar spirit, the Brahmi script and its derivatives like Devanagari, Sarada, Gurumukhi, Bangla, Assamese, Grantha, Kannada, Malayalam, etc. collectively called the Indic scripts, were primarily based on articulatory phonetics, and the units of orthography were designed to exhibit one to one correspondence with the speech sounds (see Murthy 2006: 273). This shows that there is a systematic relationship to language and has a systematic internal organisation. In other words, it follows certain principles and rules which qualifies to be called grammar, or grammar at the level of scripts. Panini's Shiva Sutra is one such formalisation of the Sanskrit language which Kiparsky (1991) refers to as an akshar-samamnaya, an ennumeration, exhaustive listing of sounds of Sanskrit.
1. Writing system and Orthography
In the study of writing, writing system refers to a set of visible or tactile signs used to represent units of language in a systematic way (Coulmas 1999: 560). These signs are individually termed 'character' (the Unicode Standards 4 includes letter, diacritic, numeral, punctutation, technical notation) and collectively called a script (लिपी). A single language may utilise several scripts. For example, Nepali can be written in the Devanagari script as well as in the Roman script as we do in sms. However, we follow at least one set of rules and conventions for using script in a particular language which is understood and shared by a community. A set of rules which defines the set of signs used, and the rules about how to write these signs including punctuation and spelling is called orthography (lit. 'correct writing') (वर्णविन्यास in Nepali).
The Nagari or Devanagari is used to write many languages of the Indian sub-continent viz. Hindi, Marathi, Bodo, Konkani, Sanskrit and Nepali. Though these languages share a single script, their orthography is different from each other. To cite an illustration, at the level of speech sounds Marathi has ळ and Nepali does not have. In other words, each language uses a subset of the Devanagari, and form their respective orthography. Similarly, Hindi case markers are written separately with nouns like राम ने but conjoined with pronouns like उसको whereas Nepali case markers are attached in the both as चामेले, उसलाई. Interestingly, a document entitled 'Sikkim Debt Law of 1910' shows, in the past, case markers with Nepali nouns were written separately.
2. Devanagari: Principles & Organisation
The Devanagari script is based on phonetic principles which consider both place and manner of articulation of the speech sounds (Bright 1996: 384). In the context of writing, the written form of these speech sounds are called (lit. 'letters representing modulation of voice'), and the systematic arrangement of the वर्ण is usually referred to as (lit. 'garland of letters'). However, in the Indian grammatical tradition, varna-samamnaya (as in TaittirÁya-PrÀtiÌÀkhya) and akshar-samamnaya are often used as near synonyms though they belong to the different knowledge domains (Kapoor 2007: 6 fn. 34). Vishnumitra-Vritti on the Rig Veda Pratisakhya uses the term mala (ibid.).
वर्णमाला is organised broadly on the basis of vowels (स्वर lit. 'voice') and consonants (व्यञ्जन lit. 'embellishment'), and the series of vowels and consonants is called स्वर वर्ण and व्यञ्जन वर्ण, respectively. The canonical order of स्वर वर्ण proceeds from short vowel (ह्रस्व स्वर) to the corresponding long vowel (दीर्घ स्वर) followed by diphthongs (संयुक्त स्वर/द्विस्वर). The names of vowels consist of their sounds sometimes followed by कर (lit. 'maker'); thus अ is called अ-कर (ibid.). It is interesting to note that the Devanagari vowels other than अ following a consonant are written with मात्रा corresponding to each vowel like पा, पि, etc. In other words, compositionally पा is made up of प् + आ, and पि is made up of प् + इ.
व्यञ्जन वर्ण is primarily based on the place of articulation (उच्चारण-स्थान). Further, speech sounds are organised on the basis of manner (प्रयत्न) – stops (स्पर्श), nasal (नासिक्य), approximant (अन्त:स्थ), fricative (उष्म/संघर्षी); voicing (घोषत्व - घोष/अघोष) and aspiration (प्राणत्व - अल्पप्राण/महाप्राण).
The series of speech sounds belonging to स्पर्श and नासिक्य (lit. 'pertaining to the nose') (collectively called occlusives) are organised into वर्ग (lit. 'class') on the basis of their symmetric articulatory phonetic properties, and each वर्ग is usually known by the initial letter of the particular वर्ग of the वर्णमाला. Such types of व्यञ्जन is called वर्गीय व्यञ्जन.
The fundamental principle of the Devanagari script is that each consonant carries an inherent schwa vowel (अमूर्त/निरपेक्ष स्वर) अ. This principle is graphically represented by a verti-bar called कन in all the consonants like क, ग, ट, etc. with an exception of र. To illustrate an example, प् + अ = प.
Apart from the वर्ण, there is a group of characters which is collectively called diacritic (उपचिन्ह). In the articulation of speech sounds, it is observed that the initial nasal sound is assimilated to the following sound sharing the same place of articulation. This kind of regressive assimilation is called nasal homorganicity. Since, the Devanagari is based on the articulation of the speech sounds it is a convention following which the respective nasal of the each वर्ग is used. However, when followed by अवर्गीय व्यञ्जन – य र ल व श ष स ह, it is अनुस्वर (lit. ‘after-sound’) <ं> (शिर बिन्दु in Nepali). The following examples illustrates nasal homorganicity.
ङ in क-वर्ग : अङ्क
ञ in च-वर्ग : कञ्चन
ण in ट-वर्ग : कण्ठ
न in त-वर्ग : अन्त
म in प-वर्ग : चुम्बक
<ं> in अवर्गीय व्यञ्जन : वंश
The Devanagari स्वर वर्ण is inherently oral in nature; however, it can undergo nasalisation and consequently result into nasalised vowels. अनुनासिक ('after-nasalisation') (popularly चन्द्रबिन्दु in Nepali) <ँ> is used to represent nasalised vowel (अनुनासिक स्वर), like अ as अँ. विसर्ग (lit. 'discharge') < : > is used to represent non-syllabic ह. Since, अनुस्वर, अनुनासिक and विसर्ग are not pronounced independently and their pronunciation is dependent upon another sound, they are collectively known as अयोगवाह (lit. 'formed in union with') in Sanskrit.
An additional diacritic, a subscribed dot, which is popularly nowadays known as तल थोप्ली/थोप्ली (in Nepali; Hindi equivalent is नुक्ता (from Arabic 'point')) is used for similar sounds to an existing character. Such convention is also found in Classical Sanskrit like य and य़ (see Cardona 2003). अवग्रह < ऽ > is used to indicate elision or coalescence of a vowel as a result of sandhi like सदाऽऽत्मा (lit. 'the self, always') from सदा + आत्मा.
हलन्त (Sanskrit विराम lit. 'termination, end') is employed in order to cancel or silence the inherent vowel of a consonant, and represents a consonant without a vowel. It is a slanting stroke drawn at bottom right of a consonant to be precise at कन <्>, resulting प् as प् .
In the case where the inherent vowel is obliterated, consonants are conjoined together; and such conjuncts are called ligature (संयुक्त अक्षर). Some of these ligatures take a distinct graphical representation called glyph like क् + ष = क्ष; others follow linear expansion as in त् + व = त्व; र् + य = र्य (an eye-lash र /परेली-र in Nepali), and some other follow vertical stacking like ट् + र = ट् ; क् + र = क्र; र +् + क = र्क (superscribed hook is called रेफ in Nepali).
The Devanagari is written from left to right, and is recognizable by a distinctive horizontal line running along the tops of the letters, called headstroke (डिको in Nepali), that links them together as a word/token.
In the Indian philosophy, akshar is a conceptually ladened term. Akshar (masculine neuter in Sanskrit) originally refers to syllable. In its application to writing – Akshar (अक्षर = अ + क्षरmeaning indelible) is a group of one or more glyphs (of characters) that form one unit in writing or printing (Bhaskararao 2003: 388). It is directly related to glyph, and understood to have obligatory vowel ending (Salomon 2003: 70). Moreover, it is interesting to note that diacritics like अनुस्वर, अनुनासिक, विसर्ग, अवग्रह and हलन्त are not a separate akshar but a part of an akshar to which it is a diacritic in the Devanagari. It is often referred as graphic syllable although it does not necessarily share one-to-one correspondence with phonetic syllable as shown below. It is, hence, inappropriate to equate akshar with syllable (Sproat 2000: 45).
Glyph string: अस्त्र
Character string: अ + स + ् + त + ्+ र
Akshar: अ – स्त्र
Syllable: as-tra (slightly adapted from Bhaskararao 2003: 388)
In the Indian grammatical tradition, the akshars that are listed in the varnamala are called mulakshar. The Classical Sanskrit varnamala has twelve mulakshar belonging to the स्वर वर्ण; and a series of व्यञ्जन mulakshars with the matras came to be known as बाह्रखड़ी, which is derived from barhaakshari (lit. 'twelve akshars'). It is important to note that बाह्रखड़ी is specific to the Classical Sanskrit varnamala though nowadays it is generically used as a term for consonant-matra combination for all other varnamalas too.
Devanagari as a writing system follows akshar system (Salomon 2003: 71) opposed to other systems like alphabetic, abjad, syllabary, alpha-syllabary (Bright 1996), logographic, even to abugida (Daniels 1996; see Bhaskararao 2003 for opposing view). It is worth to note that one of the motivating factors behind the akshar system of writing was to aid in memorisation, recitation, and reproduction of orally preserved texts. Hence, akshar is not only a psychological and perceptual unit of the Indic writing system, but also a basis of grammar at the level of script.
4. Devanagari and Orthographies
Salomon (2003: 75) writes that “Nagari script as used for Sanskrit serves as the prototype for its application, with minor variations or additions, to other languages.” This explains the fact that despite having the same script, the respective orthography of Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, Bodo, Konkani, Dogri and Nepali are different from each other. The changes in the respective orthography are due to the qualitative and quantitative characteristics of speech sound specific to a language.
A sketch of main characteristics of the Sanskrit, Hindi Marathi, Bodo and Dogri orthographies are highlighted in a nutshell. Sanskrit shows the full range of characters several of which did not surface in other languages later. It has 13 vowels and 33 consonants; and ॡ , though not a phoneme of Sanskrit, is included to maintain short-long vowel symmetry (Salomon 2003: 75). ळ and ळ्ह which are allophones of ड and ढ, respectively in intervocalic position are also part of the varnamala of Vedic Sanskrit (ibid.).
Salomon (2003: 75) observes that in Hindi, ॠ, ऌ and ॡ are omited; न, ञ, ण and ष are retained in the varnamala but only for the tatsams, and ड़ and ढ़ are added using नुक्ता for similar sounds from other languages to an existing character. In the course of time, to accommodate Arabic and Persian borrowings in Hindi, नुक्ता has gained prominence; and क़, ख़, ग़, ज़, फ़ are a part of the Hindi orthography. On the use of diacritics in Hindi, Shapiro (2003: 257-258) mentions inconsistencies/interchangeability in the use of अनुस्वर andअनुनासिक. Marathi, as followed in Hindi, excludes ॠ, ऌ and ॡ, but retains ळ of Vedic Sanskrit. In common parlance, it is now identified as “Marathi ल”. It has an eye-lash र as a glyph.
As recently as 1976, Bodo, a Tibeto-Burman tonal language with 6 vowels and 16 consonants, has adapted the Devanagari as its main script (Baro 1996, 1990/2007). The Bodo orthography has < ' > as अ's matra, and ओ is used for unrounded back vowel. However, tone (तान) is not marked, therefore, at the level of the present day orthography, जा is ambiguous between 'to eat' and 'to be', which are, otherwise, distinct high tone and low tone, respectively (Bridul Basumatary, p. c.). Dogri, a tonal Indo-Aryan language, has घ, झ, ढ, ध, भ, ढ़ in its orthography but they are not pronounced. As matter of fact, they are substituted by tonal difference. सुर चिन्ह < ' > is used to mark high falling tone in Dogri orthography (Sunil Kumar, p.c.).
5. Nepali Orthography
The earliest evidence that shows Nepali written in the Devanagari is anonymous बाज परीक्षा which dates back to 943 A.D. (Pokhrel: 2043 B.S.). For all these centuries, it has remained as the main script to write Nepali. However, with the advent of publication of Nepali grammar and text books, there are consistent inconsistencies in the Nepali orthography, particularly varnamala. In the most significant linguistic documentation of Indian languages, the Linguistic Survey of India (1891-1927), Grierson (1927) makes reference to the Nagari script but does not document Nepali varnamala. Interestingly, he notes (ibid.: 21), “[T]he only peculiarity which occurs is the occasional use of the dots, thus < .. > instead of <ँ> , as the sign of Anunasika or nasalisation” (< > is mine). Similar observation is also made by Pandit (2051 B.S.: 3) (see Appendix I). A corpus study by Acharya (1991: 70) mentions inconsistencies regarding use of अनुस्वर andअनुनासिक in Nepali. A well known dictionary, नेपाली वृहत् शब्दकोष (1983: 19-21) acknowledges the lack of standardisation of the Nepali orthography, and points towards different issues and debates (see Clark 1969). A brief cursory survey of the Nepali varnas and their वर्णक्रम in the वर्णमाला exemplifies this very fact.
To summarise, Table 4 shows that नेपाली स्वर वर्ण ranges between 16 to 6, and there are 7 types of स्वर वर्णक्रम. Table 5 similarly, shows a range of 39 to 26 व्यञ्जन वर्ण, and 9 types of व्यञ्जन वर्णक्रम (see Appendix II).
Though one can safely attribute the paradox to tradition, convention and approach (see Acharya 1991: 63-64), the existing observed variations and the lack of the Nepali varnamala have actually opened the Pandora's box. Among other consequences; in the realm of pedagogy as in actual practice – Nepali learners following different text books will never end up learning the same Nepali varnamala. Similarly, the need of a the Nepali varnamala has a relevance in developing the script grammar of the Nepali language to meet the demands of the modern day technological advancement and its use in the emerging domains of language use.
At another level, in the Indian context, it is not just a distinct script which is a part of a language's identity – Perso-Arabic and Devanagari for Urdu and Hindi, respectively, (see Masica 1991: 144); but also orthography as witnessed in Hindi and Marathi despite having the same script. It is in this context, it is imperative to mention that orthography contributes in a high degree to the formation of a sense of solidarity and to formation of ethno-linguistic consciousness. Hence as an effort towards carving a distinct orthographic identity, Nepali is a language worthy to possess its own varnamala as well as the Nepali varnamala apart from its spelling system (see Turner 1931: xvii). Finally, a spoiler – the ideology, tradition, convention, trend and approach behind the (above mentioned) Nepali varnamalas and the contemporary cleavages, claims and contentions regarding the Nepali orthography, which certainly needs further investigation, is a part of a sequel.
The following available texts are used (as numerically listed in the tables 4 and 5):
- Ayton, Jas Alex. 1820. A Grammar of the Népalese Language. Calcutta.
- Turnbull, A. 1923 (1982 3rd edn.). Nepali Grammar and Vocabulary. New Delhi: Asian Academic Services.
- Pradhan, Parasmani & Pradhan, Rudramani. 1970. नयाँ साउँ अक्षर. Calcutta; Macmillan & Company.
- Sharma, Radhakrishna. 1981. नेपाली सरल पाठ. Gangtok: Education Directorate, Govt. of Sikkim.
- Sinha, Gokul. 1983 (2nd edn). सरल नेपाली. Sonada, Darjeeling: Ramesh Bandhu Prakashan.
- 1985 (11th edn.) माध्मिक नेपाली व्याकरण र रचना. Gangtok: Rashtriya Pustak Prakashan.
- Pradhan, Bhai Chand & Pradhan, Manbahadur. 1987 (2nd edn.). सुगम नेपाली व्याकरण र निबन्ध रचना. Kalimpong: D. P. Upasak & Sons.
- Sigdel, Somnath. 2050 B.S./1993 A.D. (23rd edn.). मध्यचन्द्रिका. Kathmandu: Sajha Prakashan.
- Pandit, Gururaj Hemraj. 2051 B.S. /1994 A.D. (2nd edn.). चन्द्रिका. Kathmandu: Sajha Prakashan.
- Acharya, Jayaraj. 1991. A Descriptive Grammar of Nepali and an Analyzed Corpus. Washington, DC : Georgetown University Press.
- Yonjon, Nainasingh. 2002. शिशुपाठ प्रथम भाग. Darjeeling: Shyam Prakashan.
- Hutt, Michael & Subedi, Abhi. 2003. Teach Yourself Nepali. A complete course in understanding, speaking and writing Nepali. London: Hodder Headline.
- Upadhyay, Tarapati & Upadhyay, Dron Kumar. 2005. आदर्श नेपाली व्याकरण. Udalguri, Assam.
- Kumari, Shyamala B. & Sinha, Gokul. 2005. An Intensive Course in Nepali. Mysore: CIIL.
- Nepal, Ghanashyam & Lama, Kavita. 2006. उच्च माध्मिक नेपाली व्याकरण र रचना. Siliguri: Ekta Book House.
- Nepal, Ghanashyam & Parajuli, Pushkar. 2007. माध्मिक नेपाली व्याकरण र रचना. Siliguri: Ekta Book House.
- Sarma, Khagen et al. (eds.). 2008. हाम्रो भाषा. Assam: Nepali Academic Council.
- (Year of publication not available). हाम्रो वर्णमाला. Darjeeling: Shyam Prakashan.
- Nepal, Ghanashyam & Rai, Jeena. (in press). नेपाली सरल व्याकरण. Siliguri: Ekta Book House.
- Sharma, Shivraj.2009. भाषावैज्ञानिक परिचय: नेपाली वर्णमालाका वर्णहरू र मेरा अन्य लेख. Darjeeling: Sriraj Prakashan
Native Nepali terminology of स्वरवर्ण-मात्रा (Sharma 2009: 7-11).
अ साँउ अक्षर
उ तलकुरे/तर्कुल्ले उ
ऊ बर्धने ऊ
ए एकलख/एकखुट्टे ए
ऐ दोलख ऐ
ओ लखकानो ओ
औ दोलखकन्ना औ
A popular Nepali Varnamala rendition (from Sarma et al. 2008) among others.
गाई गाड़े ग
घर जस्तो घ
मास गेड़ी ङ
खुट्टो झर्यो झ
गोरु सिङे ञ
ओठ काट्यो ट
ओठ मिलायो म
तीन धर्के ण
काँध लौरी ध
पिठ्यूँ बोकी फ
हात भाँचियो ल
पेट चिरो ष
तल थोप्ली ड़
तल थोप्ली ढ़
दुई धर्के त्र
गाँठो पारी ज्ञ
P.S. The Nepali Varnamala Troupe (tiny tots and their instructors Subash Shanker, Bishal Sewa and Karma) enthralled the audience with their soulful Varnamala rendition in their own style at Rachna Books, Gangtok, Sikkim on February 26, 2010. “We want to make the children learn their school lessons in the form of music,” said Debasish Mothey. Similar show was organized at Rambi Primary School, Sikkim.
I am grateful to Prof. Kavi Narayana Murthy, Dr. Mallikarjun B, Dr. Gokul Sinha, Prof. Ghanshyam Nepal, Dr. Khagen Sarma, Jeena Rai, Umesh Chamling, Rupesh Rai, Bridul Basumatary and Sunil Kumar for their valuable comments on the earlier draft as well as for discussion on the issue. Needless to say errors are mine. I wish to dedicate this causerie to my first teacher who taught me नेपाली वर्णमाला, Radhika Gurung (Pran Nath Nursery School, Kalimpong), whom fondly we call बड़ी आन्टी.
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Sikkim Debt Law of 1910 http://www.digitalhimalaya.com/collections/rarebooks/