Monday, 31 March 2014

Mallinga, Mark Antony and Samskrtam

One of the British commentators on Star Sports, showing the 2014 T20 Cricket World Cup pronounces the name of Sri Lankan bowler Mallinga as “Mallingar.” Have you noticed? Some, but not all, of the news anchors on BBC World, often pronounce India and China as Indiar (or Indyer) and Chiner, respectively. Some, but not all. Why?

Most of you may have read Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar and remember a character called Mark Antony or Marcus Antonius. The months July & August are named after Julius and Augustus Caesar. 
Have you wondered why they months are not called Julius and Augustus instead? What is this “us” suffix of some Roman names: Brutus, Cassius, Aurelius? And why are they not used by modern Italians? Similarly why do some Greeks have name ending in “es” – Socrates, Archimedes, Thales, Hercules?

If you studied Hindi or Sanskrit, you remember the vowel series : a, aa, i, ee, u, oo, etc.going along nicely, then suddenly they finish with “um”, “ahaa” and you wondered what on earth that was all about?

Ok, I didn’t wonder about any of these until recently.

The um ahaa are not really vowels, they are called anusvara and visarga, respectively. Several words in Sanskrit end in not with a vowel or consonant as the last sound, but with this visarga, the ahaa sound. 

So names like Rama, Krishna, Brahma, Bhima, Ashva and Vrushaba, are really pronounced Ramaha, Krishnaha, Brahmaha, Bhimaha, Ashvaha, Vrsuhabaha. In Hindi, and other regional Aryan languages they lose this terminal visarga, and even the short vowel a sound and are pronounced Ram, Krishan, Brahm, Bhim, etc.

Some names ending in short i or short u, as in Hari, Guru which end in a visarga are pronounced Harihi, Guruhu. In fact writing doesn’t properly, there is not a full finish of the breath of air coming from the mouth to finish these sounds. That is why the separate sound ha is not used to spell these words when they are written. This visarga was the soft expulsion of breath that accompanied the last short vowel pronounced among the earliest speakers of Sanskrit – the Vedic people – and was included by them in their alphabet.

Some of you may know that in 1784, Sir William Jones, an employee of the East India Company, Judge of the Calcutta High Court, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, discovered and formally wrote about the linguistic connections among Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, which is now called the Indo-European language group. Modern linguistics, the comparative study of the common roots of languages, their geographic origins, grammars, etc begins with this hypothesis by Jones. In 1816, the Dravidian group of languages was discovered to be separate from the Sanskritic Indo-Aryan by FW Ellis in Madras, and in 1856, Robert Caldwell discovered the Munda group of languages spoken in India.

The es & us endings of the Greek & Roman names, or words, as in Socrates and Marcus Antonius, are the visargas of those languages : i.e. the Sanskrit versions of these name would have been Socrateehi साक्रेटीः or Markaha Antoniaha मार्कः अन्टोनियः! And this continues in some sections of the English speaking population of Britain today, whose visarga is the “ar” sound – hence Indyar, Chinar. And Lasith Malingar मलिङ्गः !

Incidentally, in a biography of Paul Dirac, “The Strangest Man”, its author Graham Farmelo mentions that natives of the town Bristol, like Dirac, used an “AL” visarga – in his words, “Bristol is the town that turns ideas into ideals and areas into aerials.”

Tailpiece My Sanskrit teacher Balasubramanian, says George W Bush pronounces English numbers with Tamil phonemes. Ok, read that sentence again J What he means is, Bush would say “Fordy fie” when he meant “Forty five.”


  1. Annae nice posting; please increase the size of the fonts and do consider rolling back to positive contrast

  2. Muthu, Readers: You can try Ctrl+, that is press the "Ctrl" and "+" keys to increase the size of the font on the page on Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers, on PCs running Windows. Mobile phones will have suitable options, probably just a touch-based zoom. Ctrl- is supposed to shrink the text, but is not doing so: I wonder why.

    If you are using Chrome browser, you can use the Zoom feature to make the text bigger or smaller by 110%, 125% etc. Click the the menu bar on the right corner - the three horizontal bars on the right top corner. The drop down menu items include New Tab, New Window and so on including "Zoom".
    Internet Explorer also has a similar Zoom option if you click the Gear icon next to the House and Star Icons on the right top corner. Firefox does not have them, I wonder why.

  3. I have been using Normal font size in the editor blogger provides. I don't know why that appears small. Since Muthu called me and observed that zooming will bring a horizontal scroll bar into force, I have used the large sized text for this blog. I may use this for other future posts too. Does anyone feel the size of my blog text is too small?

  4. I mentioned Bush only as a typical example of a whole tribe of American whites: forty being softened to fordy, hakuna matata softened into hakuna madada. I was there in a Canadian movie theatre years ago when the 'Lion King' of Walt Disney was on the screen: the lion cub being taught to say 'matata' was repeatedly saying 'madada' and the Ottawan audience broke into laughter. Back home we do have our Keralite saying 'simble' 'fundamendal' things. At this point I resist my near-infinite temptatation to diversify to tongue-in-cheek essaying of the mal-delectable pn-Indian prolixity of English pronunciations:- from the yell/yem/yen of the SouthIndian, 'angLe, 'tabLe, simpLe' etc. with retroflex L by the Tamils, 'papper', 'arathworum'[earth worm'] of the Telugus, ''colleze', 'vizianagaram', 'zee-rho-Jed' for 'g-rho-z' [Newtonian hydrostatics formula] by the northern seemaandhras, 'caliculation', 'saaturday', currad[for curd]' 'simpal' 'tabal' of the Kannadiga, 'soykal, toypwroyter, naees[nice], etc. from the Hindi Belt, 'bwoy', 'lawyyer', 'pleayyer', 'labour' for labourer and neighbourer for neighbour by the Pnjaabi, 'ischool and ispoon etc of the UP versus sakool, sapoon of the pnjaaabi and so on and so forth. I have a near-thesis-presntation on this acknowledged with a gluck by [now late] Khushwant Singh to whom I had sent a rejoinder to one of his instalments of 'Malice Towards One and All'. Years later I had sent a similar rejoinder to one of the letters in Madras Musings - and the MMM bottomlined it with the exhortation that correspondence on the subject cease.

  5. "There is not a full finish of the breath of air coming from the mouth to finish these sounds. That is why the separate sound ha ह is not used to spell these words when they are written."

    Wasn't aware of this. Thinking about it now, I pronounce it fully as "Ramaha" and not "Ramah". And my reasoning of having a separate Visarga in addition to ह sound was to be able to use the same symbol to make it follow the sound of the preceding vowel e.g. Harihi, Guruhu, Ramaha. Especially, if you look at words like Harihi or Guruhu - I don't see a way to pronounce "hi" or "hu" midway unlike "ha" sound where you can stop abruptly with "h". So, a little confused still. But it was just my own intuitive understanding, never really gave it so much thought. I'll verify.

  6. ha hi hu pronunciation is very South Indian like nu tu endings for words like swamin and tasmaat when they are the last words of a sloka.

    They visarga really takes less than a full matra, which is why during it can be replaced by half-consonant like s in namaste or r in heturbhuH