Wednesday, April 29, 2009

King of the Hill and Buddhism

When I took Buddhist Philosophy at Rutgers, my professor played for us an episode of King of the Hill: Won't You Pimai Neighbor?

It's a great episode and a lot of interesting Buddhist philosophy can be found in it, but really it's the ending that does it. Bobby finds out that he's the reincarnation of a lama after a few monks come to visit his girlfriend, Connie's parents. Things go well for a time, while they wait for another monk to come and confirm the finding. That is, until Connie and Bobby find out that lama's are celibate monks and cannot have relationships. Bobby worries a lot and even considers trying to throw the test, but realizes he can't when Connie explains her feelings about her religion and tells him what would happen if he purposely failed.

It's a heartwarming episode. At the end, he's supposed to choose among the effects of the old lama. He chooses Connie, by pointing to her reflection in the mirror. After everyone leaves, one of the monks talks to the newly arrived head monk, pointing out:

MONK # 1: But that was Sanglug's mirror.
HEAD MONK: I know, but he didn't pick it.
MONK # 1: But he used it.
HEAD MONK: Tough call. But it's mine, and I made it.

One of the ideas behind this exchange is that Bobby passed the test, but did not choose to be a monk. His relationship with Connie in this life was more important to him, and to take him away from that would be unacceptable.

While this is not exclusively Buddhist in ideology, and while it's neither highly detailed nor completely (in)accurate, it is notable for the fact that it provides a tangible argument in an appealing way, and that it's set in modern times. It's a great episode and I highly recommend it. That kind of television is something else entirely.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Linguistic similarities in Arabic and Sanskrit vowels

I don't know if this belongs here, or in A Modern Hindu's Perspective, but since it's not directly religious in any way, and provides very interesting notes linguistically, and since linguistics has a major impact on modern technology (by way of voice recognition, sound analysis, and linguistic interpretation by machines), I figured it wouldn't hurt to throw it this way.

NOTE: Here, I use my slightly altered version of ITRANS for sanskrit (saMskRta) transliteration. I use the Buckwalter transliteration for arabic (Eraby). For the purposes of this post, my alterations to ITRANS are negligible. Also, I will describe the appearance of the ta$kyl so that people who are familiar with arabic phonetics and logography can follow along without worrying about the transcription. Also, while I've taken linguistic classes and studied both languages with native/polished speakers (one more than the other), I am in no way a linguist. Thus, I do my best to be as accurate as possible and give helpful links, but feel free to study both languages and compare yourself.

Also, if you have no idea what I just said, don't panic! Just read on and you can ignore that jazz.

Something interesting I noticed today was how arabic's vowels and sanskrit's vowels are similar. In arabic, you essentially have three tiers of vowels, dictated by length (traditionally, in terms of beats).

You have the long vowels (in order of strength): yA (/a/), waw (/w/), Alif (/A/). These are pronounced as "ee" in 'beet,' "oo" as in 'boom,' and "a" as in 'hat,' in standard American English. They are held for two beats.

You have the short vowels (same order as long vowels), the kasra, Dam~a, and fatHa. There is one phonetic difference here: the kasra is often pronounced like "i" as in 'bit,' but they do still correspond to the longer vowels. These short vowels are held for one beat.

Then, you have the hamzap (hamza). It represents the glottal stop, which most English speakers will recognize as the hyphen in 'uh-oh.' It's that short abruptness you cause when you close your throat. The hamzap in arabic has vowel quality associated with it. In writing, when this appears at the beginning of word, it is represented as an Alif with the hamzap under it (for the yA equivalent), an Alif with the hamzap and Dam~a over it (for the waw equivalent), and an Alif with the hamzap over it alone (for the Alif equivalent).

For English speakers, think of that teenage apathetic "I'm not interested" sounding "eh," except with the aforementioned vowel sounds and shorter.

These hamzap representations are held for a half of a beat in duration.

Now let's get to the sanskrit representation.

You have the long vowels (in a comparitive, not traditional, order): /ii/, /uu/, and /aa/. /ii/ is pronounced just like arabic yA and /uu/ is pronounced just like arabic waw. /aa/ is NOT pronounced like Alif, however; Alif is more frontal (remember, "a" as in 'hat'), but /aa/ is a little farther back. Think "a" as in 'far,' or the first "o" in 'October.' The long vowels are also held for two beats.

You have the short vowels (same comparitive order): /i/, /u/, and /a/. In sanskrit, /i/ and /u/ have the same quality as /ii/ and /uu/, but are just one beat in length. This changes for modern Indian languages, where the short versions end up sounding like "i" as in 'bit' and "u" as in 'put.' Also, /a/ has two schools of thought as to its pronunciation. In one, it's pronounced just like "aa" but held for one beat. The second, and more predominant school has /a/ pronounced like "u" as in 'bun,' and "o" as in 'done.' Here, too, it is held for one beat.

Then, you have two semivowels, /ya/ and /va/. /ya/ is a palatal semivowel and is associated with /i/ and /ii/ in sanskrit's system of sandhi (which documents phonetic assimilation). In vedic sanskrit, /va/ was pronounced like an English "w," but came to be pronounced like the English "v." However, it still remains the labial semivowel, related to /u/ and /uu/.

Let's say you have a sanskrit word, /karmaNi/ "actions." Then, you have another word after it, /eva/ "only." You put them together in a phrase and you get /karmaNi eva/. However, in sanskrit, you must apply sandhi, and the /i/ changes to the semivowel /ya/. You end up with one word, /karmanyeva/, which still means "only actions."

It's a little bit easier to say and if you were to say the two words in casual speech (read: quickly and not in a metrically significant way), you'd end up with this anyway. To steal the wikipedia article's example, think of the phrase "don't be" in English. You say it casually and quickly, it comes out as "dome be." It happens in a great deal of languages, and instead of forcing uncomfortable articulation (when you speak "properly" or formally), sanskrit accepts and documents it, and then "forces" you to apply those changes (you apply them when you speak "properly" or formally).

/karmaNyeva/'s semivowel conversion illustrates that /ya/ - and the "y" in English for that matter - is just a broadening and truncation of the vowel /i/, to which you can then give another vowel to. Sanskrit doesn't like consecutive vowels, unlike greek and latin (mostly greek). This is how it deals with them. But, getting to the point, this makes these semivowels /ya/ and /va/ like very short half-beat length vowels in their own way.

It's fun to see similar structures.

Now, in arabic, you have two diphthongs, /ay/ and /aw/. This is a fatHa (one beat length of Alif) with yA and waw, respectively.

Sanskrit has four diphthongs (merged from a few more), /e/ and /ai/, and /o/ and /au/. Of these, /ai/ and /au/ come to my mind. Originally, scholars think they may have been pronounced as /aa/+/ii/ and /aa/+/uu/, but in modern pronunciation (and perhaps as far back as classical sanskrit), they are pronounced as /a/+/i/ and /a/+/u/. Each of these two diphthongs are of two beats' length and are classified as "long" vowels in sanskrit. Nice parallel structure, eh?

I don't know how much you guys are familiar with linguistics and such, but this is pretty interesting to me because arabic is an Afro-Asiatic language, while sanskrit is an Indo-European language. The two languages are pretty distant in terms of linguistic geneology and the features mentioned here are old in both respective languages, implying that a much later borrowing of structure and phonemes did not occur; it's more likely that each language retained these features independently. Also, while I used sanskrit here, please note that the vowel structures and such are in use in modern Indian languages in general, though the use of sandhi has declined in favor of consecutive vowels.

You may also be interested in how sanskrit and avestan are related.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Youtube's Audio Content Fingerprinting...

While this is predominantly a more spiritual blog, it also deals a great deal with technology. As such, it's my pleasure to give you all a link to an experiment conducted by a good friend of mine, Scott Smitelli:

Fun with Youtube's Audio Content ID System

Scott explains what Youtube's Audio Content ID System is and conducts a battery of experiments to try see what limitations that system has**. He does a great job with his tests and describes things for the layman while also giving all of the settings he used and extensively describing his procedure. You'll even find a neat little table of his results and a concise "Conclusions" section toward the end.

If you ever find yourself wondering why something you uploaded is muted, it'll pay to know why!

**Please read the disclaimer at the bottom of his page. I, too, am not responsible for what you do with this information. There's something to be said about knowledge for knowledge's sake.


Monday, April 13, 2009

From the (g)olden age to the information age

I try not to get too personal here, but some interesting things have happened that may make me cross that line a bit. This primarily concerns children of immigrants or those who have large elements of other cultures, but it's also food for thought for everyone. Bear with me, this is going someplace.

My grandmother lives with us. She's a dear and all, but she can be very annoying at times. She's my dad's mother, and so you always have that "mother-in-law" tension going on, but being here for 25+ years does a lot to ease that. When she's not criticizing in a "subtle" way, she's usually nitpicking at other things, but I feel that that's some leftover idiosyncrasy from her family life. Today, she was in a good mood, so I knew good conversation was coming forth. Normally, she talks about religious topics; folk stories and deeper religious stuff comes naturally for her. Sort of ironically, she's the most religiously liberal person I know.

Today, however, she decided to talk to us (my brother was present, too) about her childhood and her experiences. From where she was and how she grew up to where I am and how I've grown up, there have been tons and tonnes of changes. My grandmother told us stories of how she grew up in a village, how she could walk between two or three villages easily, with no worries about safety, about how she moved to Mumbai and picked up on some Marathi, about how her parents were and what was important to them.

As first-generation American-born kids, we have a lot of responsibility. Inevitably, the culture that's handed down to us will dissipate and fade over a few generations. Language usually goes first, and food goes last (or so I've found, while for me it's the opposite). Why is the preservation of this culture so important?

The way I see it, we learn very often through experience, but we also learn important lessons through the experiences of others. We learn not only how to act, think, and feel, but also how to be through what we learn from the experiences of others. If you have access to a wealth of experience from someone else in a drastically different place and time, why would you not use that? Of course, repeating "In my day, we had to..." as if it's some holy mantra doesn't really help the cause, but when you can show your kids, who are growing up with really nice plumbing and the internet what it was like to have to pump your own water and walk for miles just to get to school, you can show them that there's nothing wrong with hard work. Being smart isn't the only thing in the world, and there are plenty of people who don't luck out and have to work hard to make ends meet. Most importantly, just because you happen to be smarter, or work harder, it doesn't mean they don't deserve your respect.

There are important things worth keeping. Because of my background, I had an easier time identifying with and learning to work with certain ideas. Some of this was because of the remnants of clan culture that were passed on down, but a lot of it was independent of what my parents and grandparents taught me. There's even a handful which they consider completely rebellious. But, I found a lot of value in what I've learned. I want my kids to share that.

Actually, no I don't. My kids, and everyone else's, will be their own people. I can only try to give them what I have and hope they can use it. They will have their own dreams and hopes, beliefs and rebellious ideas. All I can do is provide what I value, in hopes that they will use it if they need it. I really think this is something that people in general forget. You don't have kids to make them something; kids are there to become something of their own.

And, while we have an easy way to find what we need, language doesn't quite work the same way. In my grandmother's time, and up to my parents time, you could easily tell where someone was from based on how they spoke. It's true of a lot of places today, too, but it's different when more than half of the active vocabulary in a language becomes borrowed English words. Gujarati now is degenerating rapidly, and indeed, so are many of the world's languages. It's not just English that's "taking over" either.

My grandmother's brand of Gujarati is very different from others'. Her dialect is one small way she identifies herself. We all have a need to identify ourselves and find belonging (consult Maslow if you're doubtful about that), and for many, familial/ancestral idiosyncrasies really help. More often than not, we mix and match those with our own ideas.

And this all will eventually fade. But, while we can, we're responsible to keep it going. Not in some trivial way. I hated being criticized for not being "a real Indian" because I ate meat (Hindus have a long history of eating all sorts of meat), or speaking imperfectly (everyone actively makes mistakes in speech in all languages). Just because I don't value what they, or they don't value what I do (you wouldn't believe how many of them don't know the first thing about actual Hinduism or Indian history), or I don't value it for the same reasons, I get criticized. The big picture is what's important here. What's important is that I find some sort of identity, and for my own purposes. We'd do well, all of us, to keep this kind of stuff in mind.

So, while I may be very annoyed at my grandmother for her nitpicky habits, I really love the times when we connect over important issues. I don't think I can properly explain what the internet is to her, or how the times have changed between mine and hers, but it's enough to know the difference and smile eagerly when she's telling me stories. Appreciation goes a long way. And, when she's stubbornly trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, I'll let her do her thing, but stand close by in case she does want my help. I hope that the future will see the past's desire to be self-sufficient, but will offer its help when necessary. It's the least we can do.