Monday, 3 March 2014

Of Words and Things, Arabic and Hindi

Things have names; indeed, things without names do not seem to exist. What does not seem to exist is not our concern; we are concerned here with things which exist and have names. And not only exist but travel long distances in time and space. Incidentally, names are vocal; that is, they are spoken and heard as words, short or long. For example, scientific instruments like radio and television, ever since their appearance have journeyed, so to speak, all around the world. And even beyond into outer space. They have of course carried their names to wherever they have been. 

It is true that in our age of science and technology such things travel quite fast and far from the place of origin; but even in earlier days things tended to be mobile and did not stay still. And when they moved from one place to another they naturally carried their names, and words used to speak them. We shall cite here a few examples of some interesting journeys of words and things between Arabic and Hindi speaking peoples.

Piil is a very old Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is the name of the language in use in Ancient India from which Hindi, a modern Indian language, derives. Now, Piil refers to the animal to which the English word elephant refers. The Arabic word corresponding to elephant in English and pill in Sanskrit-Hindi is fiil. On the basis of the correspondence we can set up the following equation. Sanskrit-Hindi piil=Arabic fiil = English elephant. This equation makes three points. First, it makes the close formal similarity, in fact, the near identity between Sanskrit piil and Arabic fill explicit. Secondly, by the same token, it makes the formal difference between Sanskrit-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil on the one hand, and English elephant on the other quite obvious. Thirdly, it raises an interesting question.

The question concerns the near identity between Sanskri-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil. Specially, the question demands an explanation of the striking formal and referential similarity between Sanskrit-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil. Normally, linguists explain phenomena of this nature in two ways. One way of explaining it is to show that two near identical lexical items like Sanskrit-Hindi piil and Arabic fiil are continuation of one and the same common lexeme or word in the parent language. The difference in form, slight or extensive, is then accounted for by the change of sounds in one or the other language, or in both languages. For instance, the English word fire and Greek word pyr demonstrate near identity; they are referentially identical; that is, they refer to the same phenomenon in the external world, they are translation equivalents. Their formal difference is visibly minimal; they differ in respect of their initial sounds only. Their near identity is then accounted for by stating that the two words in English and Greek are the continuation of one and the same word in their parent language called Indo-European, and that Indo-European sound /p/ changed into English to /f/, but remained  /p/ in Greek.

However, this explanation is not available to us in the case of Arabic fiil and Sanskrit–Hindi piil. We cannot say that the two words are continuation of one and the same common word in the parent language, the formal difference being sound change in Arabic or Sanskrit. The reason is simple:

Arabic and Sanskrit-Hindi have not descended from a common parent language. While Arabic is a Semitic language, Sanskrit-Hindi is a demonstrably Indo-European language; the two are genetically unrelated.

The other way of explaining such close similarity between two or more words in two genetically unrelated language is to show that one language has borrowed the words from the other language. That is, the near identity between piil and fiil may be accounted for by demonstrating that either Arabic has borrowed from Sanskrit-Hindi or Sanskrit-Hindi has borrowed from Arabic.

First, let us consider the possibility of Sanskrit-Hindi borrowing piil from Arabic. Obviously, the possibility of it ever happening is zero. Obviously, because a word like piil cannot occur in Arabic: Arabic sound-system does not contain the sound /p/ with which this word begins. Thus, piil is not a possible Arabic word. Besides, the animal itself referred to by piil or fiil does not exist at present nor has it ever existed in that part of the Arab word with which native speakers of Sanskrit-Hindi have been in regular contact with for centuries. Thus, we might conclude that Hindi could not have borrowed piil from Arabic. On the other hand, there is a real possibility of Arabic borrowing piil from Sanskrit-Hindi. The basis of this assertion are the same two complementary considerations used earlier to eliminate the possibility of Sanskrit-Hindi   borrowing piil from Arabic.

Piil is not only a possible word in Sanskrit, it is a real word in Sanskrit lexicon from which Hindi has inherited it. Besides, it is firmly integrated into Sanskrit–Hindi lexical system. For example, one can add the suffix –maan or –waan to piil in Sanskrit to mean “he who possesses or owns elephants”. However, in the passage from Sanskrit to Hindi there has occurred a slight change of meaning; in Hindi it has come to mean “he who looks after an elephant, feeds it, washes it, generally tends it”. The point worth making is that the Sanskrit-Hindi word piilmaan or piilwaan in the past was, and still is, albeit with a slight semantic change, a living word, not a loanword, but a native word. Besides, the animal so named is found in abundance even today in the deep forests of India. Indeed, elephants are so intimately associated with the country of India that no globetrotter considers his tour of India complete without an elephant ride. Thus we can safely conclude that ‘piil’ is a native Sanskrit-Hindi word and that it was borrowed into Arabic as fiil, at least as early as 14C. C.E. when Ibn Battuuta visited India. True, when it was borrowed, its form was slightly modified, but the meaning remained unchanged.

For the sake of completing the itinerary of ‘fiil’ as of now, let us add that it seems to have been borrowed back in this form, slightly modified though, into some of the dialects of Hindi spoken today. Here is an evidence of it. There is a disease called elephantiasis in English. It is a disease in which the leg of a person swells and becomes fat like the legs of an elephant and the skin too turns rough and thick like the skin of an elephant. The name of this disease in Hindi is ‘phillpaaw’; this word consists of two parts; ‘piil’ and ‘paaw’. The first part‘phiil’ means ‘elephant’ (notice the similarity between Arabic 'fill' and 'phiil') and the second part ‘paaw’ means ‘foot’ in Hindi. That is to say, the translation equivalent of English ‘elephantiasis’ in Hindi now is ‘phiilpaaw’, and not ‘piilpaww’ meaning ‘elephant foot’. It should be clear that Hindi has now come to possess beside ‘piil’‘phiil’ as well, which is very similar to Arabic ‘fiil’. We can account for the presence of‘phiil’ in Hindi as an instance of borrowing from Arabic.

Let us recall our conclusion recorded earlier that Arabic ‘fiil’meaning ‘elephant’ is a loanword from Sanskrit-Hindi. This conclusion receives support from one or two other examples. For instance, there is an Arabic word ‘fil fila’ called ‘pepper’ in English, and there is a Sanskrit word pippli, even a Greek word ‘Peperi’ meaning ‘a pungent aromatic condiment’. Now it is true that in Arabic ‘filfila’ does not exactly refer to the same referent, a spice, as Sanskrit ‘pippli’ does but it is pretty close to it. It is so close that the slight displacement in the referent cannot invalidate the argument and the conclusion based on it that Arabic filfila has been borrowed from Sanskrit with the change of p-sound into f-sound and the addition of a second l-sound.
Still another example comes to mind at this point there is a Sanskrit-Hindi word ‘Karpuur’, and an Arabic word ‘Kaafuur’. The two words refer to the same material thing; they obviously resemble each other in pronunciation. The only difference between the two that concerns us here is the correspondence of Sanskrit-Hindi /p/ and Arabic /f/. On the basis of the correspondence between the three lexical items we have considered, namely Sanskrit–Hindi ‘piil’ and Arabic ‘fiil’; Sanskrit ‘pippli’ and Arabic ‘filfila’, Sanskrit-Hindi ‘karpuur’ and Arabic ‘kaafuur’, one is tempted to tentatively formulate a general sound correspondence rule that, at an earlier stage Arabic tended to replace Sanskrit-Hindi p-sound by its f-sound, whenever it borrowed a Sankrit-Hindi word. At an earlier stage, because now the native speaker of Arabic tends to replace Hindi p-sound most often by their b-sound. For example, Patna, the name of a city in India is rendered in Arabic as Batna and Kapil, the name of a person, is rendered in Arabic as Kabil.

This is not surprising at all. Inded, it is a fact universally acknowledged that whenever a language borrows a lexical item from another language, it tends to modify the original item, radically or slightly and adjusts its sound and meaning to its own system of sound or meaning. Even if the meaning is preserved, the sound is almost always modified. In this regard, let us consider another pair of words: Sanskrit-Hindi ‘Chandan’=English ‘Sandal’ and Arabic ‘Shandal’; in English it corresponds to ‘sandal’ meaning ‘scented wood of species of Santalum’. Ch-sound, like the initial and final sound of the English word ‘church’, in borrowed words, is normally replaced in Arabic by a sound similar to sh-sound, resembling the initial sound in English ‘ship’. Accordingly ch sound of Sanskrit-Hindi ‘chandan’ is replaced by sh-sound in Arabic and the final n-sound is dissimilated to l-sound giving rise to ‘shandal’. From Arabic the word has been borrowed into English as ‘sandal’, the word by which the world today knows this kind of scented wood. Although the wood grows in India, the world calls it by its Arabic name; you can take ‘sandal’, if you please, as the measure of the closeness of relationship between  words and things, Arabic and Hindi. Indeed, most Indians are quite unaware of the fact that the name of the soap marketed and used all over the country, ‘sandal’ soap, ultimately derives from Sanskrit – Hindi word ‘chandan’.

This brief description of the travels of a few words between India and Arabia, it is hoped, throws some interesting light on the nature and extent of historical bond between  the speakers of Hindi and Arabic today. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

On Rhythm and Melody in Poetry

Speech is not random noise. It is organized sound; it is, more specifically, a culturally tempered system of regularly recurrent and structured sounds. It has its equally tempered tones and intonations, its rhythm and melody, and these, in their turn, have their social function and cultural significance. These supra-segmental features of speech are as much integral to it as are its segmental sounds, and no less systematic in their make-up. Poetry organizes the sound and their above mentioned attributes afresh into a pattern of higher order in which the graded structures of the first order register at every level an overall heightening of significance. In order words, the sounds of speech are heightened in their musical expressiveness, the tones and intonations are tempered into a new poetic scale, the rhythm and melody are intensified and built into a new complex. Poetry can achieve all this simply because its whole being is charged with a tension between its rootedness in speech and its instinctive urge towards music. This tension is active in every element of a given speech, and we can heighten the significance of these elements and enhance their value in proportion to our knowledge of their nature and function. It is not possible to add any sound, tone or intonation to the given repertory of them. All that one can hope to do is to finger them into a new pattern or lilt them into new chords. The less schematic, and more richly nuanced the pattern, the more charge it will carry, semantic as well as musical.

Speech is an event in time, it is essentially movement. Written speech renders this movement visually through graphic symbols arranged in a sequence. Succession of words in space is the closest approximation to the essentially temporal relation between words in utterances. Even a single word, an instance of speech, shows the same structure; only it is a succession of phonemes rather than morphemes. Moreover, the temporal sequence or succession constituting utterances, whether phonemic, morphemic, or phrasal, is not haphazard; it has its grammar, its set of governing rules. We should like to maintain that the movement of speech is controlled and regulated by the same set of rules as govern the movement in a piece of music. The only difference between the two is that the operation of these rules in speech is rather free and not quite so conscious and regular as in music. Also, these rules operate with musical sounds in music, but with speech sounds in speech. However, poetry comes nearer music in making these operations more conscious, regular and purposive. The music or poetry has the same constituent elements as the ‘music’ of music itself, i.e. , rhythm, melody and timbre.

The definition of rhythm in poetry and music as given by Sidney Lanier in his book The Science of Verse is: “When the ear exactly co-ordinates series of sounds and silence with primary reference to their duration, the result is a conception of RHYTHM”. The point worth stressing is that rhythm is essentially temporal and is based upon that physical feature of sound we call duration. It needs stressing because academically respectable authorities on the subject deny it and make accent, that is to say, intensity or articulate energy, the basis of rhythm in poetry. Without going into the genesis of this misunderstanding and with due regard to the importance of the role of accent in rhythm, we maintain that it does not generate rhythm. Owing to its regular, isochronic recurrence, it simply registers, as accurately as is possible in such cases, the changes in intensity at the relevant points in rhythm. Accents are ictus metricus, so to speak, responsible for reinforcing the primary rhythm. They signalise the change in intensity or articulate energy, demarcate the boundaries of the rhythmic beats, and group them into bars and measures. While we are at it, it would not be mere padding if we quote I.A. Richards’s opinion on the subject and take note of his positive stand. He considers metre “a more complex and more specialized form of temporal rhythmic sequence”, but assets that “temporal sequence is not strictly necessary for rhythm though in the vast majority of cases it is involved.” It is obvious that Richards, too, considers temporal sequence to be necessary for rhythm but his ‘not strictly necessary', the phrase that qualifies his assertion, is prompted by his anxiety to build a theory of rhythm comprehensive enough to include rhythm in architecture, painting, and other plastic arts in which rhythmic elements may not be successive but simultaneous. Moreover, his analysis of rhythm as a texture of expectations, satisfactions, disappointments surprisals is too psychological and intuitive for our frankly physical analysis. Richards’s general, very general aims are at the root of this hesitant and a little misleading pronouncement on the temporal basis of rhythm in poetry.

Lanier’s definition of rhythm categorically states that the ear must co-ordinate series of silence as exactly as series of sounds with reference to their duration for rhythm to arise from the arrangement of words in verse-lines. The emphasis should be laid on the function of necessary, almost inevitable, silence in the interstices of syllables, words, and bars. It is as integral to the structure of verse lines as the sounds themselves. Negatively, it has nothing to do with the silence about which Eliot grows so philosophically lyrical in one of his gloomy, metaphysical outpourings:

Words move, music moves
only in time; but that which is only living
can only die. Words, after speech, reach into
the silence…

We appreciate his awareness of the similarity underlying the movement in poetry and in music, but we should like to distinguish the silence into which the words, after speech, reach from the silence without which the words, through sounds alone, cannot create rhythm. Eliot’s silence is the eternal sink of speech. It is the inevitable end of all speech. This suggests to us that in the beginning was only silence, but man by his infinite labour carved the word out of it, and thus made it eloquent. It is this eloquent silence that we are stressing together with the sounds, whereas Eliot is primarily preoccupied with the stillness of silence, which precedes or follows and utterance. In his critical evaluation of the voice of Milton, Francis Berry rightly emphasizes the acoustic as well as semantic value of the pauses of silences, and observes: “Now the pauses, those medial, or terminal, creative silences… are an acoustical necessity granting the special kind of voice assumed, and required, by the poetry with its “sense variously drawn out from one verse into another. A pause or suspension at the end of each line is acoustically required for a sufficient absorption. – or dying away – of the resonance generated. Without such a pause, the opening sounds of the following line or half-line would be ‘drowned’ or blurred. But what is required by acoustics is also required semantically. During the silence the listeners are left to ponder the associations roused or speculate their own continuation of a sense which has been suspended.” He then illustrates the function of the Miltonic pause of “cliffhanger” thus:

  1. At last //
  2. Far/in th’ Horizon // to the North / appear’d//
  3. From skirt to skirt / a fierie Region, // stretcht
  4. In battalions aspect …
Berry’s comments on the lines: “After (1) ‘at last’ (the vowel of ‘last’ is very long, almost disyllabic, beginning deep-pitched it rises slightly in scale to terminate in the forward sibilant [s], and following plosive [t], there is a pause//. During that pause the resonance generated by the [a] diminishes and dies away. (The longer, the more forcefully it is sounded, the lower its tonic pitch, the greater the resonance generated and the longer the pause needed for its absorption.) But during that pause, while the resonance dies away, each member of the audience – and this applies to each reader if he is hearing Milton’s voice and not simply perusing the lines with his eyes – is creating for himself his own object of expectancy…”

The nature of the terminal, creative pauses or silences has been thoroughly explored by linguists, and it is now generally held that English language has three clause terminals. What we call pause is designed as ‘clause terminal’ by the discipline of modern linguistics. These clause terminals are of three kinds:

FADING: a rapid trailing away of the voice into silence. Both the pitch and volume decrease rapidly .
RISING: a sudden, rapid, but short rise in the pitch. The volume, does not trail off so noticeably but seems to be comparatively sharply cut off.
SUSTAINED: a sustention of the pitch accompanied by prolongation of the last syllable of the clause and some diminishing of volume.
These terminal pauses may be illustrated in given order with the help of the following extracts:
Fading terminal pause after ‘loss’ :
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss ;
Rising terminal pause after ‘behind’:
The trumpet of a prophecy : O wind ;
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
Sustained terminal pause after ‘thee’:
There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee

Similarly the medial creative pause can be shown to be functional in rhythmic structure of a verse line as integral to the living melodic lines of verses. After this brief statement of the general bases of rhythm in poetry we propose to do some illustrating and specifying. Read the following lines:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Each line consists of eight syllables, and takes nearly four seconds to utter or articulate them all at an average speed consistent with clear vocal articulation and equally clear aural perception. The increase in the intensity is marked at every second syllable, and is accompanied by a concomitant rise in the pitch. Thus the lines are grouped into four bars of equal duration, that is, a second each. There is obviously a simple and exact relation between any two syllables, or any two bars, and among all the eight syllables and all the four bars in the line. They are simple because they can be expressed in whole numbers; they are exact; the change in the speed cannot alter the proportion obtaining between them. In these lines the proportion between time and syllable may be stated as 1:2, i. e., two syllables every second. It is this simple and exact temporal relation which produces in us the sense of primary rhythm. The introduction of accent, and the consequent grouping of beats gives rise to another rhythmic flow, which is in intimate contact with the primary rhythm, but has certain individual features not perceptible in the primary rhythm. The active, vital presence of regularly recurrent changes is one such feature. All these six lines are extremely regular, but is not allowed to get tiresome and tedious; it is enlivened with a few artistic variations in the secondary rhythm, as in ‘Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’. The first bar is in duple falling rhythm (i.e., trochaic) which is different from the established norm of the duple rising. Another instance of variation is present in ‘a host, of golden daffodils’ and this variation indicated by the use of comma is realized by a truly artistic sliding of phrasal, medial pause a bar earlier. The normal phrasal pause is attested to very neatly in ‘Beside the lake, beneath the trees’ where the presence of comma at the end of the second bar is as striking as the existence of caesura in a heroic couplet. The metre of these lines may be described in terms of the traditional prosody as iambic tetrameter with variations.

Wordsworth’s lines are simple and graceful examples of regular poetry. Perhaps, this regularity is demanded by the mood and the theme of the poem; maybe the intentions informing and energizing these lines require the regularity. But there is another kind of poetry on which Ezra Pound cites the opinion of a musician. “The leader of orchestra said to me, ‘There is more for a musician in a few lines with something rough or uneven such as Byron’s

There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee
than in whole pages of poetry.” These are the opening lines of Byron’s Poem appropriately called “Stanzas for Music’, and here are some lines following them:
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me;
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming.

The poem consists of two stanzas of eight verses each; and these eight lines are further divided into two groups of four verses each. But what is rough or uneven about them?

First, the lines do not consist of equal number of syllables; the first four lines are divided into two alternating sets of eight and six syllables, rhyming alternately; of the next four lines, the two at the beginning preserve the syllabic structure of the preceding lines, but the last two vary it by showing only seven syllables. Moreover, these lines exhibit two different rhyme schemes. This, then, is the unevenness Pound’s musician-informant noted with satisfaction: diverse, varied syllabic structure of the verse lines occupying different time periods, and equally varied rhyme schemes displaying a pleasant interplay of tone-colours. We notice similar unevenness in the arrangement of time-beats: duple rising beside triple rising, followed by a pure triple rising, alternating with a verse line tense with varied rhythmic pulsations. No two successive lines show the same syllabic structure, and even when it is so, they do not possess the same rhythmic structure and the same accentual groupings. The following two lines may be cited as an example:

The waves lie still and gleaming
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming;

The rhythm of the first line may be considered to be duple rising consisting of three bars with – ‘ing’ left out: the line is hypermetrical. But the second line opens with a triple rising followed by a duple rising, and then it closes with a duple falling. In other words, the poet deliberately counterpoints syntactical articulation with the metrical articulation, plays off silence against sound, falling against rising, so that the total rhythm of the poem is alive with the contrasting interplay of varied movements. It is the rhythmic ambiguities of this poem which are so inviting and delightful to a musician.

Now that the basis of the rhythm in poetry has been laid bare, and some illustrating and specifying have been done, we propose to inquire into the basis of melody in poetry. No word seems to be as widely misunderstood and misused as melody or melodious. No concept seems to be as grossly neglected in the field of literary criticism as that of melody in poetry. It is quite depressing to see unintelligent practice of literary criticism debase its currency, and change it into a mere label of vaguely pleasing sense of approbation. It is really deplorable when we come to know that this word possesses a precise significance and a well defined field of application in the science of linguistics and musicology. We feel that the use of this word should be made as precise as in music or linguistics, that is to say, it would not be allowed to lead two different lives in two such intimately related disciplines as poetry and music. The literary critic will gain much from disciplining the use of the word in a securely delimited and defined field of its validity. In this context I. A. Richards’s view of the problem should be given serious attention and sincere efforts should be made to remedy the situation. He writes: “A more serious omission is the neglect by the majority of metrists of the pitch relations of syllables. The reading of poetry is of course not a monotonous and subdued form of singing. There is no question of definite pitches at which the syllables must be taken, nor perhaps of definite harmonic relations between different sounds. But that a rise and fall of pitch is involved in metre and is as much part of the poet’s technique as any other feature of verse, as much under his control also, is indisputable.” This is a very precise and forward-looking statement of the case; it does not need any commentary. It simply demands that this serious omission, this gross neglect of the pitch relations of syllables should be replaced in literary criticism by an understanding of its significance and its indispensability.

Rhythm and melody are intimately related. Rhythm without melody is possible, indeed, all the simple rhythmic forms like the oscillation of a pendulum etc. are without melody. But melody without rhythm is unthinkable. We have seen that the basis of rhythm in poetry is the duration of sounds and silence in time. We should now know that the basis of melody in poetry is the pitch value of vowels, consonants, syllables and words. In music, melody consists of tones, differing in pitch; struck successively in poetry, it lies in the sequential arrangement of syllables or words uttered at different pitches. The pitch value of every note is fixed in music, and, therefore, the relations between different notes is mathematically determinable. But the pitch value of vowels or consonants, or syllables and words, are not fixed; they can be uttered at any pitch for any length of time. But it does never mean that there is complete absence of order and degree of pitch among the vowels of any language. Every language has its own scale of vowels, that is to say, vowels are graded along a scale with reference to their pitch value. Generally, the high front or back vowels are higher in pitch than the mid or low vowels, both front and back. The inherent pitch of [i] in ‘hit’ is higher (and shorter) than the inherent pitch of [a] in ‘father’. The tonic pitch of every vowel has maximal as well as minimal limits, but within these limits, they are far more supple and variable than the pitch of the musical notes. In fact, melodies, distinctly formulated patterns of tones varying in pitch, exist not only in poetry and music, but in all kinds of human communication by means of words. Rather dogmatically Lanier asserts that “every affirmation, every question, has its own peculiar tune; and such tunes are not mere accidents but are absolutely essential elements in fixing the precise signification of words and phrases.” Every shade of emotion may not have its tune, at any rate, may not be easily detectable and workable by all the members of a linguistic community. But the general import of his statement is worth exploring and elaborating. Every language has its peculiar scheme of intonation patterns or melodic lines appropriately correlated with meanings and intentions, emotions and feelings and such other metalingustic entities. In English, the constituent elements are the four pitches and the three clause terminals of final pauses mentioned above. The four pitches are numbered / 1 2 3 4 / and may be roughly outlined as follows:


Extra High







The commonest intonation patterns, that is, the permitted combinations of pitches and clause terminals, for every day linguistic communication are limited in number. And although a creative poet does, to a large extent, succeed in overcoming these limitations, and turn them to good account, his ultimate frame of reference may not shift and change, but remain unalterable. The intensity of his creative power will be judged and evaluated by the measure of expressiveness he achieves within these limits, by the degree of freedom he exhibits in felicitous, surprising juxtapositions of contrasting melodies, and above all, by the pervasive melodic tension which thrills the whole being of the poem, and which results from the opposite and contrasting pulls and pressures between the norm and the actual durations.


  1. The Science of Verse - S. Lanier
  2. The Principles of Literary Criticism - I.A. Richards
  3. Poetry and the Physical Voice - F. Berry
  4. Four Quartets - T.S. Eliot
  5. Literary Essays - Ezra Pound
  6. Paradise Lost”, ‘Ode on Nativity” – Milton
  7. Stanzas for Music” – Byron
  8. Ode to the West Wind” – Shelly 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Arabic Words and the love-idiom of Hindi Film lyrics

Love is the loveliest of human emotions; it is the most colorful and tender of them all. Human heart is its native place where love in utter privacy, far from reason, grows its delicate tendrils and sprays. Through various phases and varying moods, love acquires powerful intensity in its birthplace demanding expression.

Language is the most readily available medium of expression which can give voice to love delicately and subtly, with fidelity and freshness. But then the language of love must be as privy to the heart as is the emotion of love; it must be alive with passionate vigor peculiar to love. Thus there must be a symbiosis between the heart and the language that speaks its private feelings. From this viewpoint, the language of love-songs can provide a very sensitive and objective measure of nature and quality of love articulated and expressed through it.

No sensible man is likely to dispute the truth of these simple and general statements. They are empirical and they can be easily verified, or falsified, which is the same thing, really.

However, one conclusion that these major premises necessarily lead to is at variance with an undeniable feature of popular love songs sung in Hindi films. The conclusion I am referring to is that the ‘love-tongue’ of a people cannot be other than their native tongue, which is intimate with the heart of the people. But the material feature of the love-songs in Hindi movies, which even a casual listener cannot fail to notice, is the use of ‘love-words’ borrowed from Arabic to articulate and communicate love. These songs give one the feeling that love is not love that is not spoken of in Arabic words.

For these love-songs, love is muhabbat . A lover is either mahboob or Mahbooba depending on the sex of the lover. The former refers to the male lover, and the latter to the female lover. Or else love is ishk, and the beloved is maashooka, of course. One of the terms of endearment used for the male lover in these love-songs is sanam, which means ‘idol’, and the other one is saajan. Hindi appears to have innovated the term sajani to refer to the woman lover; it pairs off neatly with saajan, and it follows the grammatical pattern of deriving feminine nouns from masculine nouns in Hindi. The denotation of saajan calls for some comments at this point. In Arabic the dictionary meaning of saajan is ‘prisoner’, ‘captive’. In the songs the word is used, metaphorically, to refer to ‘a prisoner of love’. This metaphorical extension of the meaning saajan seems to be in keeping with the poetic conventions in Arabic itself. Notice the following:

To be sure, there is a similar sounding good old Hindi word, which may be transcribed as sajjan meaing a true man, a man of integrity, a moral man. But surely love songs sing of prisoners of love rather than people of moral virtues. With the literary convention of Arabic love lyrics in mind it does not seem very far-fetched to interpret saajan/sajani of Hindi love-songs as borrowed from Arabic with their Arabic meanings.
Of course, the lovers are beautiful people; the male lover is hasiinbeautiful’, while the female lover is hasiina. They have beauty husn. Indeed, lovers find every part of the visible world, duniya charged with beauty. In the love-songs they sing of hasiin fiza or of hasiin shamaa  and hasiin zamaanaa. The value that governs their love-relation is wafaa;fidelity, loyalty’ to each other. Their love-songs are prone to lament bitterly the slightest possible deviation from it. Infidelity is their ultimate sorrow. Of course, there is the sorrow gam of separation furqa(t), but it can be for a short while and can be borne, but not the ultimate sorrow produced by the loss of wafaa.

We can cite many more examples of such Arabic words borrowed into Hindi which have come to constitute the idiom of love crafted so charmingly in Hindi film songs. However, our aim at the moment is not detailed documentation; our aim is to state simply what is perhaps plain to all who enjoy these songs that nagma may not be sung, and gazal remain unborn without these Arabic loans.

Some Arabic knowing readers might have observed that Arabic words borrowed into Hindi, and as recorded here, are not exactly the same as they know them to be in their native habitat. They are right and their observation is just and undeniable. But I should point out that there are two processes responsible for the difference between them; one of them is a general process that operates in the case of every word borrowed into any language from any other, and the other is a specific process peculiar to Arabic words borrowed into Hindi in particular. The general process is inevitable; it accounts for modification, large or small, phonological, grammatical or semantic, of the loan words as they adjust themselves and adapt to the genius of the host language. In the case of Arabic words borrowed into Hindi, the general process of adaptation and assimilation is mediated through the Persian language. That is, most Arabic loans have entered Hindi through Persian: in other words, they have  undergone two sets of modifications in two stages; the first modifications were introduced by Persian and the second by Hindi, and later than the Persian modifications. However, there is strong linguistic evidence to support the hypothesis that a sizable number of Arabic words were borrowed into Hindi unmediated through Persian. That is , mediated or not, Arabic loan-words in Hindi have undergone a variety of modifications; moreover, such modifications are inescapable. These general observations can bear some elaboration, but this does not seem to be the right occasion to elaborate them or illustrate them; we shall rest content with their simple statement here.

However, there are some other interesting aspects of this subject that deserve mention, if not a detailed description at this stage. One of them relates to the question whether these borrowed Arabic words filled any real communicative needs of the speakers of the borrowing language or not. In other words, the question is; is it possible to assert categorically that without these Arabic words the love-idiom of Hindi film lyrics would not exist at all, or if exist would be inadequately expressive of love. The answer is in the negative, for the meaning, if not the form of every Arabic word existed from before in Hindi, and exists even now. If even then the love-idiom of Hindi film lyrics cannot get off the ground without these borrowed Arabic words, the explanation has to be sought in Indian history, not in Hindi semantics. There was a time in Indian history when the rich and the cultured, the privileged and the sophisticated, considered those love-lyrics elegant, charming and worth listening to which were articulated in and through Arabic words processed through the Persian language. And this tradition, hundreds of years old, continues even today through the powerful medium of cinematography. It seems that even today listeners of Hindi film love lyrics can afford the luxury of cultivating and enjoying more than on love-idiom and a variety of love lyrics not possible for other linguistic groups.

What is really intriguing is that most listeners of Hindi love lyrics of films seem quite ignorant of the meaning, however defined, of the borrowed Arabic words and yet appear to be genuinely affected by them. The most striking example of this phenomenon can be gathered from the fact that when they propose love to their lovers, these listeners tend to do it in terms of the love-idiom crafted through Arado-Persian loan words.

Finally, it is possible to account for their behavior by assuming that what they respond to is the charm of a style rather than the content of the message, the presumed elegance of a little understood love-idiom intrinsic to a culture that not only has a long past, but endures even today in India. But what really ensures the living presence of this elegant style of fugitive charms is the abiding reality of the love-idiom Arabic loan words have given birth to.

(This article was first published in Yemen Times on August 23rd 1999)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Language Deprivation and the Socially Disadvantaged in Bihar

Language is a social institution. If you control it, you can transact business with the world on your terms. Terms, of course, must be favourable to your self; they must help you to enhance the quality of your life and realize the finer possibilities. They can win you also a share in the power structure of the society, and give you an easy access to knowledge, and authority based on knowledge. 

But if you don't control it, you are disadvantaged and suffer from language deprivation. Perhaps you use a language which does not reach beyond your region; you cannot transact business with the world through it; you are bottled up in this particular region. There is no way for you to break into the power centres of your society. You may find your path to knowledge and authority barred, barred because you don't speak the right kind of language. The limit of your language is the limit of your world.

The socially disadvantaged suffer from this kind of deprivation in Bihar. They haven't had the facilities for learning English or even Hindi. They speak their regional language: Maithili, Magahi or Bhojpuri. They use what a well known British sociologist, Basil Bernstein, calls as 'restricted speech code'. Their speech code is different from and inferior to the 'elaborated speech code' used by the socially advataged. And if proper care is not taken now, the deprivation is likely to grow and intensify. Unequal income, unequal status in society, unequal opportunities for material and cognitive well-being and unequal language. It is quite a pile, which oppresses the disadvantaged in Bihar.

( This blog is a modified version of the preface of my book, Language deprivation and the socially disadvantaged in bihar. Based on the data collected from field work, the book describes the extent and intensity of language deprivation among the socially disadvantaged in Bihar. It was published by Janaki Prakashan, Ashok Rajpath, Patna in 1992.)