किम् वदति ?

It is difficult, I understand. Sanskrit is a literary language, not really spoken anymore. Perhaps not much understood either. But there it is, invading our daily life, not letting go of its hold on us Indians. It has always had a firm foothold in our languages, whichever we choose to speak, as so many of our words are derived from Sanskrit. As Hindus, we cannot be named, get married or even die peacefully without someone droning on in this so called ‘dead’ language. If we are the temple going types, we will be faced with some rapid-fire Sanskrit which will make us blink. And if we happen to be Carnatic Music fans, we are forever being subjected to Sanskrit poetry and song. Even with all this, do we give in and learn the language? But no! We are a stubborn lot, are we not!

So we don’t. This is not about us but by those who are on stage. Surely it behoves that they learn at least to pronounce correctly the songs they sing? Tamilians have a great learning curve, I understand. After all, there is the case of the missing consonents. The Sanskrit consonents क ख ग घ (ka, kha, ga, gha), and sometimes ह as well,  are all transcribed in Tamil by a single letter க . Poor ப has to take the load of प फ ब भ (pa, pha, ba, bha) .  ச has an easier job with only च छ स (cha, chha and sa) to give one more example. Of course the reverse is also true; one cannot transcribe the Tamil ற ழ ள (R, zha, La) easily though the rather unused ळ exists. But my gripe is about Carnatic Musicians learning Sanskrit songs transcribed in Tamil or another language which doesn’t offer the equivalent consonents. What a minefield it would be to guess what the pronunciation should be! Why not simply learn the Devanagari script? I don’t understand!

We do it in our daily life too, we Tamils. At my parental home, we used to refer to water as தீர்த்தம் (tIrtam) but of course it should have been तीर्थम् (tIrtham). We use words like சுத்தம் (suddam) in our daily life, which have morphed from the Sanskrit शुद्ध (shuddha). But I am not picking on these. Such is the life of words and languages, when they pass from people to people, they morph.

Of course, it is not just the Tamils who do this. Recently Aamir Khan has started a well-watched program called सत्यमेव जयते . For Hindi speakers, with the same script, one would assume that there would be no problem, isn’t it? Yet I cringe when I hear them pronounce it as सत्यमेव् completely ignoring the ‘a’ at the end, as Hindi speakers tend to. My dear husband is a Bengali and so I often keep company with Bengalis. Many are the times I have been subjected to ब or even भ instead of व , क्ख instead of क्ष and the rounded अ . That is Bengali and we can accept it as is even if the original word is Sanskrit. But when it comes to prayers, for example the mantra pushpanjali during Durga Puja, should not the correct Sanskrit pronunciation be used?

So this is my rant for the day. Let us all try to pronounce Sanskrit the way it should be pronounced, especially those on stage or on air and who have the job of teaching future generations to speak correctly. We owe it to our heritage.

7 responses to “किम् वदति ?

  1. Ramesh

    This is hardly a rant ! More a plea to use a language rightly 🙂

    On a slightly different note, one of the features of Carnatic music is that it is on a different level if the singer understands what he or she is singing and immerses in the song. This is probably because most songs are devotional in nature. I believe this was the true greatness of MS, especially in her later years. There were many singers in that era who were outstanding. But MS was divine. When I listen to MS, it feels like she is almost talking to the gods.

    • Sanskrit pronunciation is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. Truth to tell, I am in no position to dictate to anybody. Its not that I am perfect in any language I speak. My English is excellent but my accent is not that of a native speaker. Tamil may be my mother tongue but having grown outside Tamizh Nadu, I’ve never been schooled in it; it is self-taught and with limited vocabulary. My Hindi is better; it is coloquial and fluent but I have never read literature in Hindi so vocabulary is ordinary. My Bengali is also colloquial, fluent and accent-free but my vocabulary is limited to social and everyday Bengali. My French is good enough for social needs but its neither fluent, nor error free and my accent is poor. And as to Sanskrit, I pronounce it well but my knowledge of it is very very limited. So I can claim 6 languages, but none with perfection. But then I am not a performer, so I may be excused! I cannot however excuse those who go on stage without an attempt to get it right.

      And what you say about MS is related. She seemed to understand and live the music, and that produced the right emotions in her listeners too. I prefer today’s style of singing but as to emotion, few can meet her skills.

  2. Nadhamuni Gayatri Bharat

    I enjoyed reading your rant :):)

  3. Sridhar

    Nice post.
    I am a Tamilian who grew up in Delhi, later moved to US where I live.
    I am fluent in Tamil, Hindi, English.
    I, with my wife spent, sometime in an “Ashram” near New Jersey founded by an Indian Guru some 2 years ago. This Guru (I think his name was Brahmananda) seemed to have made learning Deva Nagari and Sanskrit part of the daily activity there. There are 2 “live in” sanskrit scholars, one of German origin and the other a white American, both women.
    It was a treat to interact with them. I later learnt that the German lady is fluent in sanskrit and can speak it well at a conversational level.
    Sanskrit is still spoken today albeit by a small number of people. I think it will make a comeback as Indians gain in pride in their own culture and heritage.
    I agree with you that this language should be learnt only in Devanagari script.
    You talk of Amir khan mispronouncing “satyameva” with emphasis on last word but I found (during my time in India) many North Indians (especially Punjabis) misprounounce “phal” as “Fal”, “phool” as “Fool” and so on!
    Sanskrit is a phonetic language that can be learnt in any script provided all the letters are there and it is phonetic, which is to say that letters stand for a sound. This becomes a problem (as you have explained) in Tamil that has only 20 or 21 letters! Western sanskritists have evolved their own alphatets (IAST) making it possible to earn sanskrit in Roman alphabets as well!

    • Hello Sridhar,
      Interesting to hear about an Ashram in NJ which encourages the learning of Sanskrit! You are right in the many mispronunciations which occur in India, be it the South or the North. Sanskrit words have become a part of their own language, with changes to suit themselves. That is the way of language development, and we have to accept it as is. When they come across the word in Sanskrit however, instead of trying to pronounce the original version, they tend to pronounce their own languages ‘modified’ version. In this regards, it may be easier for foreigners to pronounce correctly as they do not come to it with preconceived ideas.
      Cheers. Suja

  4. Sridhar

    A little clarification.
    The Ashram was founded in the 70s I think. We (me and my wife) spent a week there some 2 years ago. My previous post was a little confusing, hence this clarification.

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