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Some transliteration issues

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  12 Jun 2016 12:00 AM GMT


D. N. Bezboruah

Of late, I have been both amused and intrigued by the extent to which

transliteration has made inroads into our lives. [I must make it clear

right at the beginning that I am not talking about translation (which is

presenting the content of one language in another) but rather about

transliteration which involves presenting of the text of a language in

the script of another language without any attempt to change the

origil words.] Transliteration has been most commonly observed in the

way Hindi is presented in Roman script. What foxes me is why anyone

should want to present Hindi in Roman script in a country where Hindi is

being taught in schools, thereby making almost everyone familiar with

the Hindi alphabet. Even so, Hindi written in the Roman script has

become so common in newspaper advertisements and hoardings as to cause a

great deal of astonishment. There are other occasions too when

transliteration becomes necessary. Quite often, people reading

translations of literary work also wish to know how the origil text in

an unfamiliar language sounds. That is when transliteration becomes

necessary. That is when the sounds of another language must be presented

in a language that the reader is familiar with. What happens quite

often is that someone reading a translation of an Assamese poem or short

story wishes to know what the origil words sounded like in that

language. People often forget that many of the speech sounds of one

language may not be there in the other language at all. This makes the

task of transliteration extremely difficult. Besides, in many languages

the length of a vowel sound has phonemic significance and brings about

changes in meaning. This may create transliteration difficulties in the

language where vowel length may have no phonemic significance even

though the alphabet has both long and short vowel letters and markers.

Perhaps the best way of getting down to brass tacks is to take up the

case of Assamese and the problems faced in transliteration to English.

As we all know, the English alphabet has 26 letters though the English

language has 44 contrastive speech sounds or phonemes. Of the 26 letters

of the English alphabet, q, c and x are dispensable since they

duplicate the work of k, k+w and s. In English, the situation is most

chaotic in respect of the vowel sounds. We have five vowel letters

trying to do the work of representing 20 vowel sounds. That is why the

English language even has to use consonts to indicate certain vowel

sounds. For instance, in English a doubled consont in words like

dinner, hatted and batted merely indicate that the vowel preceding the

doubled consont is a short one. One only has to contrast the words

diner and dinner; hated and hatted; and bated and batted to see how

consont letters in English help to indicate the associated vowel

sounds. In none of these words with double consonts is the consont

sound actually doubled in pronunciation. This is the kind of thing that

one is unlikely to find in any Indian language.

Unlike English, the Assamese alphabet has 51 letters though it has

only 31phonemes. For instance, our alphabet has both the dantiya

(dental) and moordhanya (retroflex) consonts even though we have only

one series of ta, tha, da, dha and in the spoken form which is

alveolar or danta–mooliya like English. Likewise, Assamese has both long

and short vowels and vowel markers in its alphabet, even though we make

no distinction between long and short vowels in our speech. Besides, we

have consont letters like äâ and åã which are pronounced /s/.

However, the funny thing that happens is that whenever we encounter an

Assamese word or a proper me beginning with the letter äâ, we

transliterate this in English with the ch combition. So we end up

writing Chiring Chapori and Chaliha in English when the more precise

forms would have been Siring Saapori and Solihaa. We keep overlooking

the fact that Assamese does not have the /tò/ sound even though it may

have the letter äâ in the alphabet to represent such a sound that

exists in Sanskrit. Assamese has the /bh/ sound represented by the

letter öâ. Obviously, one cannot use the letter v to represent the

voiced, aspirated bilabial plosive. But we have a lot of people who

write *Vaskar instead of Bhaskar. Likewise, there are people who write

*Vabani instead of Bhabaani.

Transliteration of vowel sounds in Assamese seems to have created

needless problems merely because we have failed to be consistent in the

letters we have chosen to represent Assamese vowel sounds. It is a good

idea to use aa to represent the õ± sound or the vowel marker ± after a

consont letter. We can use the letter a to represent the õ sound or

the vowel component of a consont not modified by a vowel marker like ±

. In the same way, we can use the letter i for the short /i/ sound and

the letters ee for the long /i:/ sound. I can well anticipate questions

relating to the elusive one–to–one correspondence between sound and

symbol that is supposed to exist in all languages but does not. I can

anticipate people asking me how to represent the õ’ and ý vowels of

Assamese. If the letter o is used for the õ’ sound, what do we do for

the ý sound of Assamese? Well, the elusive one–to–one correspondence

does not exist even in English where one vowel letter often has to

represent different vowel sounds. Take for instance the word woman in

English where the vowel sounds are /u/ and /¶¶ / in the singular and /i/

and /i/ in the plural form. After encountering such arbitrariness in

English there is hardly any need to lose much sleep over having to use

the same letter o for ý and õ’ in Assamese.

We often tend to forget that many students in the villages learn to

pronounce English words and mes through the transliterated forms as

they appear in newspapers and magazines in Assamese. The most classic

example of a mispronounced me having attained currency in Assamese is

Venus. For years, the me has been written in Assamese as îöâò±äâ

instead of the more correct form öâïò±äâ. The kind of currency that the

mispronounced form of the me has acquired in Assam is likely to make

the correct form quite ucceptable to a whole lot of people. This is

what the mindless acceptance of incorrect forms does to a whole

generation of young people who should have greater exposure to correct

pronunciations of mes. This cannot happen through mere wishful

thinking. It could happen only if editors of Assamese newspapers learn

to use the English Pronouncing Dictiory by learning to use the IPA

symbols and to formulate the correct Assamese transliterations for such

words and mes. What is very alarming is an almost pathological

reluctance to look for the correct pronunciation of foreign mes and

words before venturing into print. This is a rather saddening aspect of

the lack of professiolism that is gradually creeping into several

professions. A copy of the English Pronouncing Dictiory is easily

available in the city, and it does not take more than three or four days

for anyone to learn the phonetic symbols that are used in the

dictiory. It is not much to expect from responsible editors who should

be concerned about ensuring that the editors of tomorrow are better

groomed than they are for their tasks and exposed to the right kind of

inputs that will make them better professiols.

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