Happy Thanksgiving!

Here’s a little turkey-day trivia:

  • When Europeans first encountered this bird, they mistakenly identified it as guinea-fowl, which were also known as turkey fowl because they were imported to Europe through Turkey.
  • In Turkish, the bird is known as hindi, which means “from/related to India.”
  • In Hindi, the bird is called peru, which is a borrowed word from Portuguese language.
  • The Portuguese word peru refers, obviously, to the country Peru.

Had the Peruvians called the bird american, the circle would have been complete.

[Source: Wikipedia, HT: @manish_vij]

The Outlawed Letters

k atatürk

“There is a story about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk practising his signature in the Latin alphabet. The image is incongruous: the most powerful man in Turkey sits frowning over his own name, breaking in the unfamiliar strokes like a schoolboy. He had decreed in 1928 that Turkish would now be written in Latin rather than Arabic script – severing ties with the Ottoman past and making a generation of readers illiterate. In 1934 he passed a law requiring everyone to adopt a surname: Turks at the time tended to go by titles, patronymics or the name of their profession. It’s unclear how Kemal came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet. The story is apocryphal; Kemal’s signature (now one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey) was designed by Hagop Çerçiyan, an Armenian calligrapher. And while it’s true that the letter Q was outlawed for 85 years, from 1928 until last month, the reason for the ban had little to do with aesthetic bias or onomastic whim.” [More here]

Apparently, the 85 year-old ban on W, Q, and X may end soon. Also read my old post on linguistic nationalism.



The opposite of schadenfreude is the Buddhist concept of ‘mudita’ – happiness derived from the good fortune of others.

Fingered Speech

It’s easy to nod your head in full agreement when you hear someone bemoaning the corruption of (English) language — the decline of literacy — caused by texting, especially by those teenagers obsessed with smartphones. It’s quite common to scoff at their incessant initialism that seems to crop up a new “word” — like LOL and BRB — at a rate faster than our ability to keep up with them. Their utter disregard for capitalization and punctuation induce ridicule and even derision among the cultural pessimists who are quick to deplore anything and everything that is new and different than how it used to be.

While we grapple with this overcoming intuitive sensation that language (in specific), and culture (in general) is deteriorating, we conveniently overlook the fact that virtually every generation believed that people are not up to the standards of their parents and grandparents. Texting is yet another example, apparently, which exposes our pessimistic bias. In a thought-provoking TED talk (linked below) linguist John McWhorter discusses how – in spite of what our gut feeling suggests – texting is not a modern scourge. In fact, it might just be “a linguistic miracle happening right under our noses.” To comprehend why this might be the case, to grasp the reasons behind the emergent complexity of texting, you have to zoom out a bit, and start with understanding the difference between written and spoken language. [Here's a fun fact: If humanity has existed for 24 hours, writing came about at 11:07 pm.]

I recommend you watch this short (13-minutes) video for more details, but here’s the gist of it: McWhorter offers a novel point of view that doesn’t constrain texting as purely a written form of language. Instead, texting is a case of ‘writing as we speak’. It’s fingered speech, if you will. Just like how we don’t bother about capitalization and punctuation when we talk with each other in person, texting is also a form of spoken language with a very casual make-up, with its own rules, structure and vocabulary. While texting may be violating existing grammar rules, it’s developing its own set of complex, dynamic, and rich linguistic repertoire. And it’s happening at such a fast rate that not only we struggle to keep up with it, we fail to recognize the profundity of this possibly miraculous linguistic development.

Buffalo buffalo

The following (unpunctuated) sentence seems nonsensical, but it is a grammatically valid sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Here’s how:


English Vinglish

There are myriad examples of articles and videos of people expressing their frustration with the discrepancy between the way English words are spelled and pronounced. If ‘to’ is pronounced as /to͞o/, and ‘do’ is pronounced as /do͞o/, then shouldn’t ‘go’ be pronounced as /go͞o/? If we don’t pronounce ‘p’ in ‘pneumonia’, why include it in its spelling? What’s letter ‘w’ doing in ‘answer’? The list is endless.

Well, lo and behold, here’s a 15-year plan to improve English spelling:

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Hyperbole aside, I think this satirical passage does successfully wag a finger at the futility of imposing rules and restrictions on a language… of trying to “purify” it. Language is like an ever-flowing river. It has to keep evolving, and adapting. The fact that English has embraced words from many other languages is perhaps one of the main reasons why it is so successful. Yes, there are more exceptions than there are rules, it’s a bitch to spell, and is indeed a very phunny language (video link). But it’s here to stay. We must make our peace with it.


PS: The above passage is attributed to Mark Twain.

PPS: This reminded me of an article written by Utpal Dutt regarding the supposed purification of Hindi language on Doordarshan TV back in the 80′s. I posted an excerpt here.

Rainbows Have Seams

Did you know that the Japanese people call their traffic light ‘blue’ when it turns on? This is not because the third color – apart from red and orange – in their traffic lights system is blue; it looks exactly the same as it does everywhere else (i.e. green). It’s just that for centuries they didn’t have a separate name for the color blue. For them, blue and green are just two different shades of the same color which they call Ao. I didn’t know this surprising fact until I first saw this tweet, and then read this lovely post.

This implies that when the Japanese look at a rainbow, they recognize six distinct colors, not seven. Are they mistaken? Of course not! The choice of seven colors is arbitrary anyways. There are in fact infinite number of colors in the rainbow, which is a continuous spectrum of colors rather than a collage of seven discrete colors. There are no natural boundaries in the frequencies of visible light. It just so happened that Sir Issac Newton defined seven distinct colors because he thought that the number had some mystical, divine properties (seven days of creation, seven musical notes etc.) and that definition persisted till this day.

Now, there are other languages too that have fewer names for colors than the modern standard of ROYGBIV. You may wonder, what difference does it make if some societies have fewer names for colors? When they look at the rainbow wouldn’t they see exactly the same thing as we do? Well, as it turns out, language and words (or the lack thereof) do shape the way we perceive the world. But before we get into that, here’s a thought-provoking excerpt from the blog post I mentioned above:

Imagine that you had a rainbow-colored piece of paper that smoothly blends from one color to the other. This will be our map of color space. Now just as you would on a real map, we draw boundaries on it. This bit here is pink, that part is orange, and that’s yellow. Here is what such a map might look like to a native English speaker.

But if you think about it, there’s a real puzzle here. Why should different cultures draw the same boundaries? If we speak different languages with largely independent histories, shouldn’t our ancestors have carved up the visual atlas rather differently?

Apparently, some research had been done to answer this question, and it revealed some fascinating insights. It turns out that largely unique and independent cultures do take different evolutionary paths in naming colors. As language evolves, most cultures first come up with words for black and white, usually followed by red. However, eventually they do “somehow gravitate towards the same choices for how to slice up the visual cake“.

The picture that’s emerging is that colors aren’t quite random slices of the visual pie. They’re somewhat basic categories that humans from different cultures gravitate towards, and must have to do with how the biology of how we see the world. In other words, rainbows have seams.

That’s just fascinating to me.


Back to my earlier comment about how languages shape not only the way we talk but also how we think, experience, and perceive the world. In a post I wrote several years ago, I referred to some research that showed how the languages we speak can have a profound effect on the way we think. For example, in a study the participants were asked to describe a key. Half of the participants were native German speakers who used words like “hard”, “heavy” and “metal’ more often than the other participants. The other half of the participants were native Spanish speakers who were more likely to use words like “golden”, “tiny” and “shiny”. The difference in the choice of words to describe the same concrete object can be explained by the fact that the word ‘key’ is a masculine noun in German and a feminine word in Spanish.

The researcher also performed some tests to see whether differences in color language lead to differences in color perception. Indeed, the data suggested that the the Russians were quicker to distinguish between two shades of blue, as the Russian language makes an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy) colors. The English speakers have only one word, “blue”, for both shades and hence were relatively slow in recognizing the shade variance.

In conclusion, she writes:

I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses. Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.

So when Nietzsche called language a “prison house” and Wittgenstein wrote that “the limits of my language means limits of my world”, they weren’t kidding!

Knowing They Know That You Know

This opening paragraph from an old NYT article tickled my fancy:

(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

“This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill.”

The human facility of three mental states – the triangularization of minds – is a trait that evolved due to our excessive social interactions. An extension of this triangularization of minds is the concept of common knowledge which was briefly touched in one of the puzzles I posted on this blog: The Blue-eyed Islanders.

[Hat Tip: Cheap Talk]

Sanskrit in the Periodic Table

Who would have thought that there is some connection between Sanskrit alphabet and the periodic table? I certainly wasn’t aware of any such link until I came across this paper by Subhash Kak.

A quick refresher first. The periodic table is a two-dimensional display of Chemical elements arranged according to their atomic numbers. The rows are called periods, and when you move from left to right the atomic numbers increase. There are gaps in some rows to ensure that Chemical elements with similar properties stay in the same column. The invention of the periodic table is generally attributed to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Below is one of the first drafts of his periodic table from 1869:

Notice the question marks – these are the places where he thought that there should be corresponding elements, but they had not yet been discovered. It’s what Mendeleev decided to call those then-unknown elements where the link to Sanskrit comes in.

Mendeleev, who had studied Sanskrit at a university in St Petersburg, used Sanskrit prefixes eka, dvi, and tri to name those yet-to-be-discovered elements. The prefixes were chosen based on how far away the unknown elements were from the known ones. For example, Gallium was named eka-Aluminium because it was one place down from Aluminium.

It is this naming convention that made some people (like Subhash Kak mentioned above) speculate if the connection between Mendeleev’s periodic table and Sanskrit runs any deeper. One possible connection is: the two-dimensional arrangement. Like the elements in the periodic table, Sanskrit alphabet are also arranged, very logically, in rows and columns based on how each letter is pronounced. At this point, you might want to check out my post from few years back where I discussed the logic  behind the beautiful arrangement of Hindi alphabet: The Sequence of Hindi Alphabet.

In short, atomic numbers of Chemical elements are, in a way, comparable to the articulatory properties of the consonants (i.e. the place of articulation; whether the letter is pronounce from the throat, or from the palate, etc. ) They are used to determine the order (of elements and letters respectively). In the same way, the Chemical similarity between two adjacent elements, can be compared with the phonological similarity between, say क and च. Both are used to determine which elements, and consonants, appear next to each other. [Again, if you read that post of mine mentioned above, you will see that क and च are similar because they are both non-voiced and non-aspirated.]

Is it possible that Mendeleev might have been inspired by the two dimensional arrangement of Sanskrit alphabet? Here’s Stanford university professor Paul Kiparsky on this similarity:

[T]he analogies between the two systems are striking. Just as Panini found that the phonological patterning of sounds in the language is a function of their articulatory properties, so Mendeleev found that the chemical properties of elements are a function of their atomic weights. Like Panini, Mendeleev arrived at his discovery through a search for the “grammar” of the elements (using what he called the principle of isomorphism, and looking for general formulas to generate the possible chemical compounds). Just as Panini arranged the sounds in order of increasing phonetic complexity so Mendeleev arranged the elements in order of increasing atomic weights, and called the first row (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon etc.) “typical (or representative) elements”. Just as Panini broke the phonetic parallelism of sounds when the simplicity of the system required it, e.g. putting the velar to the right of the labial in the nasal row, so Mendeleev gave priority to isomorphism over atomic weights when they conflicted, e.g. putting beryllium in the magnesium family because it patterns with it even though by atomic weight it seemed to belong with nitrogen and phosphorus. In both cases, the periodicities they discovered would later be explained by a theory of the internal structure of the elements.

Now I am not a language expert and I also don’t claim to know the intricacies of the periodic table, so I can’t say if these similarities are far-fetched or merely coincidental. Kak argues in his paper that “[I]t is unlikely that [the arrangement of Sanskrit consonants] influenced him, because there is no evidence that he knew Sanskrit well enough to appreciate the subtle points related to the organization of the Śiva Sutras. It is more plausible that he noted the comprehensiveness of the two-dimensional arrangement of the Sanskrit alphabet (varnamālā) which is apparent to even the beginning student of the language. The tabular form of the Sanskrit letters is due to the two parameters (point of articulation and aspiration) at the basis of the sounds, and Mendeleev must have recognized that ratios/valency and atomic weight likewise defined a two-dimensional basis for the elements.” [Emphasis is mine.]

Influential or not, tenuous or otherwise, I am just astonished to learn that there are structural similarities in the period table and the Sanskrit alphabet. What do you think?

[Image courtesy: Wikipedia]

PS: If you’re interested in reading more about the elements of the periodic table, I strongly recommend The Disappearing Spoon. Funny, engrossing, and often chilling episodes of the elements in the periodic table.

Dil Dhoondhta Hai…

Previously on this blog I wrote a small post on the most succinct word (link). Here’s another word that has such a delicate and beautiful meaning, and has no immediate translation in English:

Saudade: [n] A vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.

The closest English word is perhaps ‘yearning’, but saudade carries with it a heavier, gloomy connotation. A melancholic, brooding emptiness… a feeling of despair that’s associated with the fact that the object of yearning (whether a place, person, or a situation) is unattainable.

I don’t think there’s any Hindi synonym for saudade, but this Portuguese word reminded me of one of my favorite songs ‘Dil dhoondhta hai’ written by Gulzar, which comes pretty darn close to the sentiments packed in this sublime word.

The opening stanza of this song is taken from Ghalib’s famous ghazal ‘Muddat hui hai yaar ko mehmaan kiya hue’. The original refrain went like this:

jee dhoondhta hai phir wohee fursat ke raat din
baiTHe raheiN tasavvur-e-jaanaaN kiye hue

Gulzar took this sher and interpreted it in his own peculiar way. “MiSra Ghalib ka hai, aur kaifiyat har ek ki apni apni [...]“ as the man himself had said once. He changed the first word jee to dil which improved the consonance of that line.[UPDATE: Not sure about this any more. See the comment section.] Later, ‘aundhe pade rahe’ – which means lying on your back – was a nice touch too; it perfectly evokes a feeling of reverie that this song revolves around.

The composer Madan Mohan, who shared Gulzar’s penchant for Ghalib’s work, made several tunes for this song, but only two were used in the movie. An unused version was later utilized by his son in the movie Veer-Zaara for the song ‘Tere liye, hum hai jiye’. (See this video where the third version can be heard, in Madan Mohan’s voice I believe.)

By the way, can you recall another one of his songs in which Gulzar used one of Ghalib’s verses again?

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