Poshchim Bongo

Well, West Bengal recently renamed itself to Poshchim Bongo (পশ্চিমবঙ্গ; pronounced [poʃtʃim bɔŋɡo]). Inhabitants of a place should have the first say about what their place is called, so I don’t see any problem there. And a community can choose whatever pronunciation they want, as I had discussed in a previous post. Of course, one would expect that it is worth the millions in taxpayer money that would be spent in the re-branding. Either way, since this is Linguistrix and not SocioPolitrix, the political undertones and overtones that surround this issue are the least of my concerns.

What caught my attention when I was reading about the change is the spelling of the new name. Quite a few articles called it ‘Pashchim Banga’ while Wiki now says ‘Poshchim Bongo’ and this is the version I find in most places now.

You see, English spelling (or orthography, since you are reading a Linguistics blog and I want you to feel that your time was well-spent) is a mess. Things are already bad enough considering that most people blame the Roman Script for this problem (oblivious to the fact that the same script does a pretty decent job representing the pronunciation of words of many other languages). But when we use the Roman script to represent sounds of Indian languages, we are already venturing into troubled waters.

There are various levels to this mess. Usually, when people see some text written in a particular script, they try to read it as if it were a word of a language they know, in our case, English. This leads to common complaints, almost all of which follow the same template—that the spelling system of X is dumb, where X could be French, or German, or Finnish, or whatever. Never mind the irony of an English speaker calling any other spelling system dumb.

But since we are already used to the transliteration system followed for Hindi or other Indian languages, we largely use our knowledge of the language to pronounce Hindi names written in English. If we were to really look at the transliteration system we use, there are loads of inconsistencies, which are simply ignored because we know what the word is supposed to mean. But try to see a guy pronounce names/surnames not familiar to him, and you will know what chaos ensues.

It is usual in European languages to modify Biblical names—Michael becomes Miguel in Spanish, Joseph becomes Giuseppe in Italian and so on, usually as per the phonological rules of the new language. This happens in India too, to a certain extent. Arvind (अरविंद) becomes Aurobindo (অরবিন্দ) in Bengali, the spelling matching one-to-one, more or less, while the pronunciation is the way one would pronounce a Bengali word with that spelling. The advantage of writing Aurobindo is that when I pronounce it, I would pronounce it more or less in the Bengali way, which sounds fair enough. But more often that not, Bengalis use the Hindi version when spelling their name in English, with the effect that most non-Bengali speakers mispronounce it.

Both approaches have their pros and cons. Spelling it phonetically preserves the native pronunciation, while spelling it the same way across languages helps in preserving the fact that Arvind and Aurobindo represent the same concept. For instance, I didn’t realize for many years that Kajol was actually the Bengali way of saying Kajal. Also, when I have what is essentially the same name/surname spelt in a number of ways, any statistical analysis I do has to begin with a way to normalize the spellings. Agrawal is sometimes spelt as Agarwal, the reason being that those people pronounce it as Agarwal, which I would readily accept if they agreed to spell it as अगरवाल in Hindi, but that would never happen, of course. Chaudhary is sometimes spelt Choudhary and sometimes Chaudhari but Tiwari is seldom Tiwary. Mayur has a ‘bade u ki maatra’, so it should have been Mayoor, but it isn’t. X is sometimes used for क्ष as in Laxmi or Xitij, which is unusual, considering that in English, and in most other Hindi words, X corresponds to [ks].  And when you bring South Indian names into the fray, you add to the hilarity. While the North Indian system uses the letter ‘h’ after stop consonants to denote aspiration, the usual norm in South India is to use the ‘h’ to denote change of place of articulation from retroflex to dental (t is ट and th is त, likewise for d and dh). North Indians, not familiar with this system, laugh at what they feel is चैथन्य or श्वेथा. My father’s name was spelt by his South Indian colleagues as Vinodh, perfectly consistent with their transliteration system, but funny for North-Indians nonetheless.

Solutions? Erm, nothing much. We have been managing pretty fine, frankly. But yeah, I am tempted to suggest using the IPA. Now that would be real cute and über-geeky, but I know it’s never going to pull off… sigh.

  • bandarkar.prasad

    How was the ‘South Indian’ transliteration system formulated? Was it an improvement over the ‘North Indian’ transliteration system ( Hunterian transliteration, correct me if I am wrong), or was it formulated independently?

  • antariksh.bothale

    @bandarkar.prasad , my guess is that it might have stemmed from the fact that Tamil, or Thamizh does not have aspirated stops (ख ठ ढ etc.) So, there was no need for the aspirated counterparts, and the ‘h’ began to be used to denote the change in place of articulation. A common criticism of the Hunterian system is that it doesn’t distinguish between retroflex and dental sounds.

    However, I am not fully satisfied with this answer myself, because Kannada and Telugu do have aspirated consonants both phonetically and phonologically. Maybe the Tamil system just took off and was adopted by everyone, although for speakers of other languages, it just replaced one ambiguity with another. :)

    • Abha Avinash Kulkarni

      ‘zh’ in Tamil has a different sound to it than ‘zh’ in malayalam.. and the ’zh’ in malayalam does not exist in Kannada and Telugu. Although,the ‘zh’ of Tamil exists in Kannada,Telugu,Marathi as well as Sanskrit (I am talking about the alphabet that looks like infinity with a stick sticking out of it)..

      • Abha Avinash Kulkarni

        Well, I could be wrong-please do correct me if that is the case. I’d like to get this cleared as I’m currently residing in Trivandrum and there are areas like “Attinkuzhy”,”Kazhakuttom”,etc and I get very confused when I’ve to mention these names to the ticket-collector.

  • opus.woo

    Hey there, I’m an editor at the LINGUIST List and I found this entry interesting, so I’ve taken the liberty to post this entry as a media submission: http://linguistlist.org/LL/media/media-details.cfm?submissionid=4533741

    It’s pretty clear transliteration of any kind will be always be insufficient when porting a name into another language, but here’s the other side: I think there is a parallel between the writing systems’ approximating the look just like how the speakers phonologically approximate the sound. For example, it sounds very strange in English if you suddenly actually say 北京, tones an all, while it is more ‘acceptable’ to say ‘beige-ing’. Indeed the former is a kind of code-switching and arguably marked in some contexts, say, if your conversation partner does not know Chinese. For this reason I think it is ok for transliterations to be deficient just like people are forgiven for ‘mispronouncing’ names (when in reality they are just adapting it to the conversation’s language’s phonology).

    Something I’d want to look into is how speakers decide when to say the native endonym and when not too–i.e., how ‘close’ the name has to be for the speaker to think it’s acceptable. Many first-generation speakers of Chinese in America shudder when they hear Americans say “SHEING-hai” when it’s really more like “song-hai”. And when Chinese say where they’re from, they say 上海 “song-hai”, NEVER the anglicized “sheing-hai”. BUT. I have never heard a Russian ever ever say “I am from Rossiya! (Россия)”. They always say “Rusha”, the English exonym. What gives?

  • antariksh.bothale

    @opus.woo Thanks for the post on LINGUIST List!

    You are right about having the spelling system represent the phonetic approximation. It’s more about where one can draw the line, sounding close enough to the original pronunciation while obeying the phonological constraints of the other speaker. For instance, if 上海 is closer to “song-hai” than to “sheing-hai”, it might make more sense to spell it as “Songheye” or something. So, a native English speaker would be close enough, while obviously not being exact, since he won’t be following the tonal contours.

    Take pīnyīn for example. The fact that it is the roman-script is deceptive, because it makes you read Chinese sounds in the English way, and that’s disastrous. The fact that pīnyīn ‘b’ sounds different from English ‘b’ is something you can’t expect English speakers to know. So, we have a system which is bound to produce crass mispronunciations.

  • anonuser

    @antariksh.bothale “Anonymous commenting is another thing that I would rather not have. Comments with unrecognizable handles are also OK. Anonymous, no.”

    So all you want to do is give some digital identity to the user? I don’t get it. Its futile !

  • freetouse

    @anonuser but I can still play around with whatever system you use, ever heard of bugmenot ? there is an FF extension too !

  • freetouse

    You know, sometimes I just want to comment on a blog. I don’t want to chose if I am going to get email notifications if some other (random user) is going to comment

    The email field usually provided in the commenting system is for that specific reason. If the blog owner wants to reply, he will reply to that email (and optionally on the blog)

  • freetouse

    ohh BTW @opus.woo you have typo in that LIST you submitted. Our dear author’s last name is Bot*H*ale and NOT Botale (the latter can be construed as plural bottles in hindi, I am not sure about the former)

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  • Abha Avinash Kulkarni

    I wanted to know why “en-” is pronounced as “on-” in envelope,encore,etc and remains “en-” in words like enchanting,enable,etc. ?

    • Abha Avinash Kulkarni

      One more thing- why is the correct pronounciation of dengue-dengi?
      P.S : I heard it being pronounced as dengu in the song “bharat mata ki jai” from the movie shanghai..

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