A look of disapproval

(Posted by Sandeep)

In an apparent continuation of my quest of late to write about totally non-serious topics, here’s one more post topic dredged up from the dark corners of the Internet. (I owe a substantive post, and I promise it’s coming–probably not until after law school exams, though.)

According to Know Your Meme, a new emoticon is sweeping message boards all across the world. And it’s not happy.

The emoticon is known as the “look of disapproval,” and it’s easy to see why. Those bushy eyebrows. The flat, expressionless mouth. Those eyeballs staring right into your soul.

But the face didn’t draw my attention for its utility — there are plenty of expressive emoticons out there. I noticed it because the character ಠ * is drawn directly from my first language, Kannada.

The character represents the letter “ṭha,” the retroflex aspirated unvoiced consonant /ʈʰa/, for example in the word ಠಕ್ಕ ṭhakka, thief.  It is formed by curling the tongue back (a retroflex position) and striking the palate while releasing a small puff of air.

In my previous post about Indian abugidas, I explained how most Indian alphabets are organized in a systematic chart of voicing, aspiration, and tongue position. The letter ṭha appears after the unaspirated voiceless retroflex plosive ṭa (/ʈa/) and before the unaspirated and aspirated voiced retroflex plosives ḍa (/ɖa/) and ḍha (/ɖʰa/).

The character’s form is developmentally related to the Devanagari (Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, etc.) character ठ *, which represents the same sound /ʈʰa/. Both the Kannada and Devanagari character evolved from the Brahmi character O. The Brahmi character may, in turn, have evolved (although this is disputed) from the Phoenician character letter teth (to the right), which also gave rise to the Greek letter θ, theta.

In Ancient Greek, θ represented the aspirated voiceless dental plosive /t̪ʰ/ but Modern Greek uses a voiceless dental fricative /θ/ (English “thin”). Some Indian linguists believe that Phoenician teth also gave rise to the characters for the aspirated voiceless dental plosive (identical to the Ancient Greek pronunciation of theta) characters in Kannada (ಥ *) and Hindi (थ *) as well.

Anyway, it’s pretty amusing to what lengths people have taken the ಠ_ಠ meme. One woman even created a pillow so she could express her disapproval all the time.

While it bothers me that few people know where the character comes from (a message board I saw suggested “Indian,” “Malaysian or something equally ethnic,” and Telugu before someone pointed out that it was from Kannada), it’s probably all harmless fun. Wiktionary has an entry on the emoticon and has a proper etymology. There’s a page dedicated to it on Facebook. Someone also designed a website where the eyes follow your mouse around.

This is all bizarre to me. But I guess the letter does look like an eye. And it’s not like other languages’ characters are immune to becoming emoticons (a current favorite: (ノ° 益 °)ノ彡┻━┻, which uses the Chinese characters yì and shān).

I guess this means I hesitantly approve. (Is there an emoticon for that?)


*- Some people, mostly Mac users, don’t have Indian language functionality. Just in case, here is what each of the characters looks like.

Kannada ṭha (unvoiced aspirated retroflex plosive): 

Kannada tha (unvoiced aspirated dental plosive): 

Hindi ṭha (unvoiced aspirated retroflex plosive): 

Hindi tha (unvoiced aspirated dental plosive):