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  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on December 1, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , devanagari, emoticon, greek, hindi, internet, , know your meme, meme, wiktionary   

    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): 

    • stuartnz 2:32 pm on December 1, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      When learning to read Gurmukhi, I was delighted to see that ” ठ ” is exactly the same in that script – why the Gurus decided they needed a new script for Panjabi when Devanagari does just fine is beyond me, but at least that one letter made the cut.

      • johnwcowan 12:53 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Gurmukhi was not an ad hoc invention, nor is it derived from Nagari. The scripts have a common ancestor in Brahmi, to be sure, but represent centuries of independent evolution.

        • stuartnz 1:47 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink

          I know it’s not derived from devanagari, although some of its characters are taken from it and others were consciously influenced by it. Although the script as a whole is a development of that used for a language spoken prior to “modern” Panjabi, the gurus DID codify, for want of of a better word, the current Gurmukhi script, and that at a time when there was already a perfectly serviceable alternative, one that Hindi, Nepali, Marathi et al. have all found works just fine. At least from the point of view of this lay learner, who loves the simplicity and clarity of devanagari.

    • pam 9:27 am on January 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      sandeep! I am loving this meme. i thought you might enjoy this mandarin character, which deserves a meme all of its own (just read about it on wikipedia. it’s already had its moment in the sun):

      pronounced “jiong” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiong
      used as an emoticon because it looks like a sad face with wailing mouth and downturned eyebrows. 😀
      better yet
      (sad man kneeling on ground).

    • mbquilts 10:28 pm on September 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for this – I went and immediately put kannada keyboard into my list – it’s quite easy on macs really. there’s a qwerty and non-qwerty version right in system preferences!

  • The Diacritics 9:38 pm on October 16, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , 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.]

    • alficles 12:21 pm on October 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m sorry to read that you’re withdrawing from the “competition”. While there are technically prizes, the real prize for me was finding a collection of language blogs to look through and add to my feed list. And while the actual voting may be unfair (though I have no idea, first I’ve heard of it), having your site on that list is a benefit to the people who might not have heard of you.

    • Anup 4:58 pm on October 27, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sandeep,

      This article is a very nice read! I just happened to search something on google and came across this.
      I was wondering if you have any thoughts/references about my original search (that brought me here). I was wondering if there is some essential differences between the structure of sentences between South Indian and North Indian languages. I started thinking that might be so because of the differences I noticed in the way South Indians and North Indians speak English.

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