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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:38 pm on October 16, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , alphabet, devanagari, , indo-european languages, , panini, , scripts   

    Fun with abugidas (Part 1) 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    Most major Indian languages can be separated into two major language families–with North Indian languages mainly classified in the geographically diverse Indo-European family (with distant cousins as far-flung as Persian and Irish Gaelic) and the South Indian languages in the Dravidian family, which is mostly limited to the southern part of the Subcontinent.

    Although grammatically and structurally quite distinct, many Indian Indo-European languages and Dravidian languages have some critical elements in common.

    First, the various scripts used to write Indian languages evolved from one script, Brahmi, which has been dated at least to the 3rd century BCE (on the Edicts of Ashoka) and perhaps earlier.

    Despite their common derivation, Indian scripts can look very different from each other.

    Consider the Sanskrit quote I posted a few days ago, written first in Devanagari (used to write Hindi, Nepali, Marathi, among others) and then in Kannada (used to write Kannada, Tulu, Konkani, among others). Sanskrit is now mostly written in Devanagari, but historically it was written in whatever was the script in vogue in various regions of India.

    Pretty different, right?

    The apparent visual differences between North and South Indian languages is often incorrectly conflated with the actual structural differences between Indo-European and Dravidian languages.

    For one, South Indian scripts, such as Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam, are “curvier” than North Indian scripts, which utilize more straight lines. However, this is popularly explained by linguists in India by the different writing media historically in use: ancient South Indians wrote on large dried leaves; straight lines would have punctured the leaves and rendered them useless, so South Indian scripts evolved more curves.

    Whether or not this explanation is true, I think recognizing the common ancestor of the scripts of India is a great (and missed) opportunity to build unity.

    Wikipedia has possible derivations of some letters in some Indian scripts from Brahmi:

    In a nation of 22 officially recognized languages and hundreds, if not thousands, more unofficial languages, linguistic differences are used to divide people. The apparent differences in scripts are a major part of this divisive arsenal–”Oh, look how different Tamil looks from Bengali; they must be so different from me.” Why not use it for the opposite purpose? “It’s remarkable that even though Tamil looks different from Bengali, we share a common ancestor script.”

    Folk etymologies and false derivations are rampant in India–especially because fluid word borrowings, especially from Sanskrit, confuse true linguistic relationships–but this is an actual, demonstrated, linguistically and historically valid commonality.

    A common ancestral script may be a minor thing to note, but Indians could use all the unity they can get, right?

    Alphabets, or why Indians were awesome linguists

    Indians were incredibly awesome linguists. More on this later, but a brief overview: the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Sanskrit grammarian Panini (c. 500 BCE) is the earliest known work of descriptive linguistics anywhere in the world. Still, even Panini refers to older Sanskrit works on grammar. Linguistic ideas are built into the oldest of old Sanskrit texts and Sanskrit morphology and syntactic rules are some of the most complex and most developed of any language in the world, past and present. Four of the six branches of Vedanga (the study of the ancient Hindu texts the Vedas) are linguistic: phonetics, etymology, meter, and grammar.

    In short, Indians were badass at linguistics.

    Part of this badass-ness (badassitude?) came in the form of the organization of many Indian alphabets. Unlike the Latin alphabet, which came to its present order (A, B, C…) through a series of historical serendipities, the standard organization of the Sanskrit alphabet is remarkably systematic.

    Many Indian languages now, even some Dravidian languages (which aren’t structurally similar to Sanskrit), use the exact same organizational chart.

    Consonants are organized in an implicit table. On one axis, consonants are distinguished by the type of closure required for their production:

    kaṇṭhya (velar), tālavya (palatal), mūrdhanya (retroflex), dantya (dental), and oṣṭhya (labial)

    On the other axis, consonants are distinguished by voicing and aspiration:

    aghoṣa alpaprāṇa (unvoiced unaspirated), aghoṣa mahāprāṇa (unvoiced aspirated), ghoṣa alpaprāṇa (voiced unaspirated), ghoṣa mahāprāṇa (voiced aspirated), then anunāsika (nasal).

    So in the first row of consonants, you have velar consonants, beginning with an unvoiced stop and ending with a nasal.

    /k/ /kʰ/ /g/ /gʰ/ /ŋ/

    The pattern continues. At the end of that collection, there are several antastha (approximant) consonants, three sibilants, and a voiced fricative.

    Here is a lovely table, adapted from Charles Wikner’s A Practical Sanskrit Introductory (1996).

    This table is misleading, though, because it’s not quite the exact order that the alphabet is recited in. The consonants ya, ra, la, va, sa, sa, sa, and ha are recited after ma. Here is a better representation of the order, here in Kannada, but without the linguistic tags (Omniglot):

    As far as I’m aware, this order is used more or less in the following major languages: Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Nepali, Bengali, Telugu, Malayalam, Konkani, and Gujarati, among others. Tamil uses a similar, but reduced, organization.

    The Indian obsession with linguistics is built into the very structure of its languages. And it’s awesome.

    [Competition Update: We decided to withdraw ourselves from Grammar.net's Best Grammar Blog of 2011 competition because we felt that voting was proceeding in an unfair manner. We are no longer participating.]

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 10:42 am on September 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: abjad, alphabet, alphasyllabary, , dyslexia, , language disorder, language therapy, logogram, phonics, poetry   

    “My belabored relationship with words”: dyslexia in different languages 

    posted by Sandeep

    I willed myself into being him. I invented a character who could read and write. Starting that night, I’d lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth. I imagined being able to sound out the words by putting the letters together into units of rhythmic sound and the words into sentences that made sense. I imagined the words and their sounds being a kind of key with which I would open an invisible door to a world previously denied me.

    In a beautiful piece in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz writes about his struggle with dyslexia and how the utter difficulty of parsing and pronouncing words instilled within him a deep appreciation of the power of language.

    Dyslexia — an umbrella term for a host of reading disabilities, but most commonly understood in English to be the struggle to pair letters to their sounds and form words — has been the subject of quite a lot of recent research. A lot of famous people have struggled with dyslexia. Many famous authors have struggled with the disorder. A lot more not-so-famous people are dyslexic, too — some have estimated that up to 15% of Americans are dyslexic.

    The complexity of dyslexia belies its popular understanding. And because it can be difficult to properly diagnose, many dyslexics go through life thinking that they are simply unintelligent, rather than the bearers of a disorder.

    Philip Schultz writes:

    We know now that dyslexia is about so much more than just mixing up letters — that many dyslexics have difficulty with rhythm and meter and word retrieval, that they struggle to recognize voices and sounds. It’s my profound hope that our schools can use findings like these to better teach children who struggle to read, to help them overcome their limitations, and to help them understand that it’s not their fault.

    There’s plenty of research on dyslexia in English (of course), but I’ve been curious — in a language that doesn’t use an alphabet — like Chinese, which uses logograms, or my native Kannada, which uses an alphasyllabary— how does dyslexia manifest itself?

    Chinese is really different from English.

    The character for Biáng-Biáng Noodles is one of the most complex Chinese characters. Coincidentally, it is also one of the most delicious Chinese characters.

    In Chinese, the sheer complexity of characters, coupled with the fact that each character represents a morpheme (a language unit that has meaning–a word or part of a word) rather than a phoneme (a singular sound, not necessarily with meaning) creates unique problems for dyslexics. And because Chinese doesn’t use letters, a dyslexic can’t scramble letters the way an English dyslexic might.

    In a study published in Nature in 2004, researchers suspected that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may be fundamentally different because the main skill in English reading is putting letters into sounds (phonics, of Hooked on Phonics fame) and the main skill in Chinese is the rote memorization of characters and their meaning. They found that different areas of the brain were activated in English dyslexics versus Chinese dyslexics. Furthermore, they found that the left middle frontal gyrus (previously implicated in Chinese character recognition) in Chinese dyslexics was smaller than Chinese non-dyslexics.

    These researchers suggested that English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia may in fact be two different disorders because reading each language demands different things of the brain.

    In a 2009 paper in Current Biologyresearchers expressed a hunch that because Chinese requires the rote memorization of characters and their meanings, those who had trouble understanding particular characters might have trouble with visual-spatial processing as well as phonological processing. English dyslexics typically only show deficiencies in phonological processing.

    During an fMRI activity, Chinese dyslexics showed less activation in a brain region associated with visual-spatial processing during a test in which subjects judged the relative size of objects, confirming that phonological and visual-spatial deficiencies may be uniquely coupled in Chinese dyslexics.

    The logical next point is: If English dyslexia and Chinese dyslexia are two fundamentally different disorders, can you be dyslexic in one language and not the other? The research says, probably. Understanding the differences between the two (or more?) types of dyslexia could be critical in developing language-specific therapies for dyslexics.

    Spanish is pretty different from English, too.

    This clean dichotomy of “two dyslexias” gets muddier when you consider the differences between dyslexia in English versus a language like Spanish or Italian, which use the same alphabet for different ends.

    English and French are two languages whose pronunciation is not always intuited from the spelling of a word. As I explained in my previous post on Moammar Qaddafi, figuring out English pronunciation is pretty damn hard. French is notoriously hard, too. This is called deep orthography — pronunciation rules are highly varied. It requires more (social, contextual, memorized) knowledge to pronounce a word in deep orthographic languages.

    Spanish and Italian, on the other hand, use a standardized system of pronunciation that varies very little within a dialect. Non-speakers of these languages can usually suss out pronunciations if they are given a set of rules, even if they don’t actually know the language. These are languages with shallow orthography.

    survey of studies (click for PDF) on the effect of shallow versus deep orthographies on developmental dyslexia has suggested that dyslexics who speak a shallow orthography language as their mother tongue have an advantage in overcoming dyslexia over deep orthography speakers.

    What about other writing systems?

    This Kannada character, /m/, has an inherent vowel, /a/, so it is pronounced /ma/.

    Unfortunately, there isn’t much research done on dyslexia in other writing systems, such as alphasyllabaries (e.g., all Indian writing systems, such as Hindi [Devanagari script] and my native Kannada). In Indian alphasyllabaries, each consonant is written with an inherent vowel, and vowels are written separately, so one letter usually corresponds to one syllable in a word (with some exceptions).

    My hunch is that dyslexics in alphasyllabary languages would have similar developmental issues to dyslexics of shallow orthography languages. In Indian languages, spelling-to-pronunciation is nearly one-to-one, similar to Spanish or Italian. In addition, although Indian writing systems are not alphabets, they are more similar to alphabets (in that they use letters to represent phonemes, not morphemes) than logogram systems. So, in the absence of research on the subject, I would guess that dyslexia therapy programs used in shallow orthography languages would translate well to Indian languages.

    – — –

    Philip Schultz writes that his [English] dyslexia inspired his love for language and poetry. I wonder if the same love can be developed by dyslexics in other languages, too.

    … the very thing that caused me so much confusion and frustration, my belabored relationship with words, had created in me a deep appreciation of language and its music …

    I hope so. Schultz’s poetry is awesome.

     
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