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.

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