Thursday, September 19, 2013

In Defence of the Sout Indian 'H'

It’s been forever since I posted something on this blog, so, naturally, it makes sense that my comeback post is one of such earth-shattering significance.

Yes, I’ve always wondered if the amount of bile, spit, venom and other inimical bodily fluids flung in the direction of Sout Indians by way of mockery for our choice to use those H’s with the T’s in our overly holy names, was rather disproportionate.

I’m sure those of you who have spent any amount of time pondering this gravely vexing question will have come to many of the same conclusions I have, except that most of you wouldn’t have pondered this gravely vexing question.

Anyway, without further ado, my argument stands thus.

In English, the letter group ‘th’ is almost always pronounced in one of two ways – the softer, hissier ‘thin’ and the thicker, tongueful ‘thus’. Given an unknown English word containing the letter group ‘th’, I’d be far more likely to ‘thin’ it rather than ‘thus’ it.

Now, the way most Indians pronounce the word ‘thin’ means that the ‘th’ letter group is the best possible way of representing the soft T sound we expect in say the name ‘Bharath’.

Sweeping statement #1
Unless it’s an Iberiano-Italian import, no English word ever pronounces the T soft.
So if you write ‘Bharat’, expect me and other proficient Anglophiles to read it as Buh-rat (‘rat’, like the mouse. Did I just kill off an entire colony of zoologists with that comment?)

I can already hear the counter argument: but it’s not an English word, is it? It’s not, but it’s written in English and in English we already have a letter group (the ‘th’) which is much closer to the sound you want me to make. Besides, it's not like the letter 't' in Indian languages is always pronounced soft, like in, say Spanish, that we can always assume that any Indian name written in English with a 't' should be pronounced soft.

There’s another counter argument to my counter argument to the first counter argument, and this one stems from a quirk of the Indian accent.

Sweeping statement #2
No self respecting Indian accent aspirates the right consonants.

Back to the counter-counter-counter argument, which is that the ‘th’ letter group indicates the aspirated T (the big T in Indian languages) and the plain T indicates the unaspirated T (the small T in Indian languages).

Now, here’s the thing. Almost all native English speakers aspirate (i.e. big Tee the T) the first consonants in words, and also possibly consonants in the middle of words.

We (noble practitioners of the Indian accent) don’t, and to compound our mistake, we believe that aspiration requires the addition of the letter ‘H’ to an otherwise unaspirated consonant.

This may well be a perfectly valid thing to do if the ‘th’ letter group didn’t occur so frequently in the English language already, and weren't pronounced completely differently! If it were the ‘bh’ letter group for example (cough Abhinav cough), it’d be perfectly fine to force aspiration using the 'h' as the letter grouping 'bh' almost never arises in English.

Also, in English, the aspirated and the unaspirated versions of consonants are allophones - this means that the state of aspiration of a consonant in a word doesn’t ever change the word itself. (This is of course is why we can still claim we’re speaking English when we’re actually speaking Inglish, because we’d otherwise be completely unintelligible with our aspirophobia.)

If my fumbling attempts at conveying the idea of aspiration have got through your thick skulls, then you’ll immediately see that aspirated and unaspirated consonants are not allophones in Indian languages. I mean, the aspirated T and the unaspirated T are two entirely different letters of the alphabet after all in most Indian languages (just like the aspirated and unspirated D, the aspirated and the unaspirated P and so on).

That’s sort of a rationalization of the mocking Nort Indian’s mind, I think, because you can see why they’d try to differentiate between the aspirated and unaspirated versions of consonants by adding an ‘H’.

Repeat after me - ‘th’ doesn’t aspirate the ‘t’!

Knowing all that, I still can’t help be utterly confounded to read the Hindi translation of the word ‘sit’ written as ‘baitho’. Again, a mistaken attempt at aspirating the T by adding an H – I have to spend an entirely unwarranted amount of brain cycles stopping myself from reading the ‘th’ in there like the ‘th’ in thin. I mean, come on. How little English must these Norties have read to expect us to read ‘baitho’ with a hard, aspirated T?! (

Now that I’ve established my argument, let me take it apart bit by bit because you know, I’m fair like that. Recall how I said earlier that “the way Indians pronounce the ‘th’ in thin” corresponds almost exactly to the expected sound in Bharath.

There’s a tricky little caveat I buried in there, because the way Indians pronounce ‘thin’ is not quite the way native English speakers pronounce it. The best way to understand how they do it is to imagine somebody with a lisp saying the word ‘sin’. That’s exactly it.

Even so, even so, I’d still contend that a native English speaker pronunciation of the word Bharath (lispy Bharas) is much, much closer to the real thing than Bharat, with the inevitably hard T.
I really don’t like rats by the way.

PS: There's an instance where Nort Indians, Sout Indians, everybody respects the way a certain letter group is generally pronounced in English, and in fact rely on it. That, ladies and gentlemen is the 'ch' sound - of Archit(h), Rachit(h), Chit(h)ra fame. See? We don't expect the 'h' to aspirate the 'c' do we? Ha. (I know the counter argument to my postscript by the way. Don't bother. Never let the truth get in the way of a good argument, eh?)

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