Conventions of depicting vowel sounds in Roman script

June 16, 2006

We have developed, quite informally but fairly consistently, a way of depicting different vowel sounds in the sometimes non-phonetic Roman script(“a” could be sounded as “harp”, “hare”, “hash”; “c” could be “care”, “citron” and so on.) Roman script seems incredibly random to us Indians, because our language scripts are phonetic, some very precisely so. (Kannada is the language I know, which has the widest range of phonetic letters. it even has “e”, “E” “o” and “O” (see below), which even Devanagari doesn’t have.)

In fact, Indian language scripts, to my mind, are so very evolved and elegant. The script begins with the vowels, which are sounded in the throat; then come the consonants in serried ranks,ordered according to to where they are produced in the mouth. Beginning with the throat and moving up the buccal area through the palate to the teeth and then the lips. At the end,we have letters (except the last one) made at the lip/teeth area with lips,teeth or tongue.

Those of you who are interested,(esp ) try the consonant series. Pronounce them phonetically and say them out loud. You will see how they progress from the back of the mouth to the front:

ka kha ga gha gyna (this last one is UNTRANSLTABLE!)

cha ccha ja jha nga (ditto!)

ta tta da ddha Na (ta as in “tumbler”, tha with an aspirate added, and so on, the Na is sounded against the palate above the gum, as in “pinnal”–plait)

tha thha dha dhha na ( tha as in “thin”, thha as in “thick” (with an extra aspirate) da as in “there” and so on..the na is sounded with the tongue against the teeth, as in “paNNu”–do it)

pa pha ba bha ma (as they are said)

Then, the jumble, with all but the last letter being produced by teeth,lips or tongue:

ya ra la va sa sha shha ha.

There are three distinct sibilant sounds….with the tongue against the 1) teeth, 2) area just above the gum, and 3) the upper palate

sa as in “so”,

sha…I can’t think of of an English word, but a good name with the sound would be “Shankar”….saying “sh” to someone might get you this sound…it’s “between” the other two…and

shha as in “push”.

Many Indians themselves cannot pronounce the three sibilants distinctly, either, and say either the first or the third.

The English (Roman script) alphabet is a jumble of vowels and consonants and one letter could represent many vowel sounds. It’s a wonder that so many of us Indians are proficient in English at all, it is so alien to our speech structure and phonetic pronounciation!

When we have to use the Roman script to write the lyrics of a song in Tamizh, here’s the convention for writing vowel sounds in the order we have them in our alphabet:

a (hut) A (harp) also aa i (pit) I (peel) u (put) U (pool) also oo e( pet) E (pay) also ey Ai (sigh) o (hock) O (home) Au (sound)also ou m (mm) aha ( that’s “aha” not “AhA”…the aspirate sound,it’s not used very much at all)

Tough, isn’t it! Just as English is tough and illogical for us!

Tamizh has that extra, unique letter, “zh”….tough to pronounce! Say, “Kazhakastan”….Russian comes close to it. It also has, along with Sanskrit and Kannada, the hard “L” sound…“paLLi” ( this could mean school, sleep,village or mosque)

Oh, the difficulties of expressing one language in the script of another which is NOT phonetic! Well, at least English is better than French with its unsounded consonants and not-the-same vowels….imagine, writing “eau” and saying “O”, or “guillotine” pronounced “jiyoteen”…!

Well, , that was the answer to your question in great detail! Now you can go back and pronounce the song that I wrote about!

And Anu of Irvine, Ca.,…this post is for you, too!