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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:00 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , email, , , , , grammer b, pronunciation, , , written language   

    The effects of txt 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    If you’ve ever transcribed a free-form conversation, you have probably been struck by how little of a spoken exchange is made up of true grammatical sentences. Listen to your conversations—we hardly ever talk “properly.” We interrupt each other, we lose our train of thought or we misconjugate verbs and get flustered.

    We’re not all careful speakers at all times: redundancies, mistakes and misinterpretations are as central to human language as descriptiveness and precision are.

    Despite this, our educational system—in fact, all of literate society in every language—demands that we write in grammatical sentences. We can’t write our academic essays in phrases and incomplete thoughts. Our literate culture requires completeness and grammaticality. Deviations from this sentence model are dismissed, at best, as art projects or, at worst, serious misunderstandings of grammar.

    Not everyone believes writing should be this way. Thirty years ago, a composition theorist named Winston Weathers proposed “Grammar B,” an alternate style providing, in his words, “options that do not yet exist but which would be beneficial if they did.” His Grammar B sought to convey information from author to reader in the same way it travels from speaker to listener. He promoted a written representation of human thought that mimicked the mechanisms of spoken language—with interruptions, redundancies and visual elements (in lieu of cues like intonation).

    Winston Weathers.

    It was a radical idea with several merits. In fact, for a writing project three years ago, I rewrote a sociology essay into Grammar B. The result was easier to read and understand than the “Grammar A” version. It was also more engaging and conversational.

    But it’s not a coincidence that Weathers’ book is out of print. Writing, especially academic writing, is driven by a cycle that rewards Grammar A and produces it too. I would never have actually submitted my Grammar B essay to my sociology professor and have expected a positive response.

    So if we write in Grammar A and speak and think in Grammar B, are we being cognitively torn apart? Are we being required to think in two different ways? To use language incongruously and inconsistently?

    Consider, at least, that spoken language dwarfs writing in our species’ timeline. We started speaking at least 200,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens emerged. Written language, on the other hand, appeared no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 200 years ago that mass literacy became common.

    Significant swaths of today’s world remain illiterate. All societies in the world are still based fundamentally on spoken language. In fact, all literate societies are both oral and written—and the conventional wisdom until recently was that a society can be completely oral, but it cannot be completely written.

    World rates of literacy. (Click to enlarge and for source information.)

    If our spoken language is different from our written language, what does it mean that the literate establishment requires such rigidity in writing? It’s obvious that I’m writing this post in Grammar A. I write all of my papers in Grammar A, and you probably do too. That’s considered normal. But when I speak in Grammar A, you think I am working hard to be a careful speaker: I am being formal, or I am delivering a speech.

    So we recognize the merits of Grammars A and B in different situations. But I’m no fool to think that academic writing will ever comprise Grammar B works. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not sensible for any mainstream academic or student to discard the established rules of grammar, even if Grammar B is clearer.

    ——

    I once wondered if the dichotomy between written and oral traditions would continue to grow until they had little to no relationship to one another: whether Grammar A’s rate of change would be so much slower than Grammar B’s that they eventually split.

    In my family’s first language, Kannada, a beautiful literary tradition spanning 15 centuries continues to flourish. But today’s formalized Kannada grammar and vocabulary has very little obvious relation to the spoken form—so much so that a Kannada-user like me, familiar only with speaking the language, can barely understand formal text.

    This phenomenon is called diglossia, and I wonder if English is headed toward it. To be sure, all literary languages have some spoken/written diglossia. When we have the luxury to be careful (like in writing), we are generally more grammatical. And written language usually changes more slowly than spoken language because of various forces—compare English spellings to pronunciations, for example.

    But forms of communication like short and ungrammatical text messages, or even longer, conversational emails, have thrown us a linguistic curveball.

    For the first time in our species’ history, we are constantly and continuously using written communication for real-time conversations. We IM, we text and we e-mail. Just 20 years ago, the only written communication reliably employed by most people was letter writing. Now, there are entire online communities whose primary, if not only, form of communication is through written language.

    What does this mean for the future of human communication? Will diglossia be thwarted? Or will there be an even greater divide between spoken (including instant, written messages) and formalized written English?

    Spoken language uses subtle cues like intonation, pausing and volume to deliver meaning. Written language lends itself to longer reflection and more careful word and phrasing selection. I’m not constructing the two in opposition to each other, although it is obvious which is more fundamental to our species.

    We have used spoken and written language mostly for different purposes, so they may have developed divergent characteristics for that reason. But as we communicate more and more through text, our use and understanding of language will change fundamentally—even if we never actually write our essays in Grammar B.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on September 23, 2010.)

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:57 am on September 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , afghanistan, buddhism, , hinduism, , japan, korea, pop songs, pronunciation, sa ding ding,   

    Same mantra, different language 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 2007, one of China’s biggest pop singers, Sa Ding Ding, released a hit song in Sanskrit — yes, that’s right, the dead liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism.

    Check it out:

    The words are taken from the 100-syllable Vajrasattva Mantra, an important prayer in Buddhism. It’s actually a pretty catchy song. But for Indians with any knowledge of Sanskrit, the words are totally unfamiliar: the Chinese pronunciation of Sanskrit is worlds away from the Indian pronunciation.

    Despite how popular the mantra is, I could only find one video of someone using the Indian Sanskrit pronunciation:

    Compare that to the Tibetan pronunciation:

    Buddhism is truly a remarkable religion in that it dominated in regions as far as Afghanistan in the west and Japan in the east. Not everyone spoke a language similar to Sanskrit, so it was inevitable that adopting peoples would adapt texts in Sanskrit and Pali (another liturgical language of Buddhism) to local pronunciations.

    But Indian tradition places the highest value on the oral transmission of sacred knowledge — ancient Indians were notoriously suspicious of written language, despising it as bad for the mind and for the soul. Because sacred scriptures were transmitted through intricate mnemonic procedures, pronunciation was highly preserved. Vedic Sanskrit was shared from generation to generation as a sort of time-capsule, even as the local vernaculars shifted in vocabulary and pronunciation.

    Sanskrit still holds an important place in Indian culture, especially for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Most Indian languages today (even the non-Indo-European ones) borrow heavily from Sanskrit, most obviously intatsama (literally, “that-same”) words, which are taken directly from Sanskrit without sound changes. For these reasons, many Indians today have a working knowledge of Sanskrit vocabulary, the pronunciation of which is relatively stable.

    And so we come to the curious case of Buddhism, which grew out of this Indian tradition that placed great emphasis on oral transmission.

    Should Indians really be upset that East Asian Buddhists pronounce Sanskrit mantras differently from the “correct” pronunciation? Prescriptivist Indians would shudder. I’m not so sure. Buddhism is as much “theirs” as it is “ours” — it’s been at least 1,500 years, after all. Some Buddhists would probably argue that the understood meaning of the mantras and their value as meditative devices are more valuable than faithful pronunciation. (Some strict Hindus might disagree; others would agree.) But for those who ascribe mystical power to the words themselves rather than the sentiment behind them, non-Indian pronunciation might pose problems.

    It’s a fun exercise to see the shift in pronunciation from India to far-off lands: consider the Sanskrit term dhyāna, meditation. In Pali, a historical vernacular (and later liturgical language) of India, it became jhāna. In Chinese, it’schán. Korean, seon. And in Japanese, it’s the famous zen.

    In my native Kannada, we still use dhyāna. Perhaps we’re just old fashioned.

    I’m curious to compare the situation of Arabic — which, of course, has been adopted as a liturgical language in non-Arab Muslim countries — to Sanskrit. Islam requires the use of Arabic in reciting the Qur’an, but are non-Arab pronunciations of the text (say, in Indonesia or Bangladesh) different from Standard Arabic?

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:00 am on September 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , hawaii, idaho, pronunciation   

    Hawaiian descriptivist dreams 

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    posted by Sandeep

    Hawaii is generally pronounced by non-Hawaiian Americans as /həˈwaɪ.iː/ (huh-WHY-ee). Many Hawaiians and more adventurous mainlanders pronounce it  /həˈwaɪʔiː/ (huh-WHY ‘ ee), adding a glottal stop (the same sound as the hyphen in uh-oh) between the last two syllables. Pretty straightforward, right?

    A friend of mine had the following Facebook status up this weekend:

    Somebody please tell the ESPN play-by-play guy at the CU-Hawaii game that Hawaii is not pronounced “Hava-ee.” It’s not a German word.

    To be fair, I would be pretty annoyed if someone kept unnecessarily Deutsching a common term, too. But maybe the ESPN guy knew something my friend and I didn’t. So I did a little research.

    So apparently the ESPN guy was kind of right. Huh? According to Wikipedia, in the Hawaiian language, the stateis actually sometimes pronounced with a /v/ sound, /haˈvaɪʔiː/.

    Okay, to be fair, plenty of languages conflate the two sounds /w/ and /v/ (like most Indian languages, which only have one character for both sounds), so maybe something like that is going on here.

    The first grammar of the Hawaiian language was written by a German missionary, Adelbert von Chamisso. The letter “w” in German represents the sound /v/. Hence, Hawaii would have been pronounced Havaii in German even though it was spelled with a “w.” And if German chose “w” to write the name of the language (“Hawaiische sprache”), maybe they were indeed faithfully documenting the native sound.

    But others disagree that the native pronounciation is /v/. The first English transliteration of “Hawaii” was apparently “Owhyhee” or “Owhyee.” (Remarkably, the latter is a spelling that is actually still preserved in a county in southwestern Idaho, named after three Hawaiians.) That suggests that the native pronunciation was /w/, not /v/, since English has both sounds “w” /w/ and “v” /v/ and chose to use “w.”

    But we can’t always take the British pronunciation at face value. They did, after all, mangle India’s “Mumbai” to “Bombay” and “Thiruvananthapuram” to “Trivandrum” (okay, I dont blame them for the second one).

    Transliterating between languages, especially when one of them isn’t a natively written language, is an inherently unstable activity. Awkward changes are bound to occur.

    Why must you tease us with your Vs and Ws, Germany? Why?!

    My suspicion is that the rogue /v/ pronunciation arose because some languages, like German, pronounce “w” as /v/. And because “Havaii” might sound more “exotic” than “Hawaii,” some people might have automatically assumed that the /v/ pronunciation was the indigenous one.

    Even if ”Havaii” is the correct, indigenous pronunciation, we might as well discard it altogether because “Hawaii” is the predominant pronunciation out there in English.

    After all, the pronunciation of American place names has changed a lot over time anyway. Think about “New Mexico” — pronounced /ˈmɛksɨkoʊ/ “mek-si-ko” not the Spanish /mexiko/ “me-hi-ko.” Or Louisiana — /luːˌiːziˈænə/ “loo-easy-anna” not the French /lwizjan/ “lweezyan.” Or pretty much any place name derived from Native American languages. English is remarkably devastating in its alteration of other languages.

    And when a placename has been so totally assimilated into the language and culture, such as in the case of an American state, the popular pronunciation is the real pronunciation. This belief that popular usage and pronunciation is more important to teach and learn (in other words, bottom-up linguistics) than prescriptive usage (top-down linguistics) is called descriptivism.

    It’s unclear whether the ESPN guy was pronouncing “Hawaii” faithfully or not. In terms of descriptivist English pronunciation, he was wrong.

    Either way, I’m guessing Hawaii’s fans don’t care which way the ESPN dude pronounces it as long as they win.

     
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