Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kannada for the North Indian (Part I)

A reader Sohan Mahanto submitted the following comment at my post Language Tidbits:
I wish you could help new Bangaloreans like me on how to pickup the local language (Kannada). Some basic practical examples like talking to autodrivers, busconductors, maids, the dukaanwalah etc. Most of my colleagues are North Indians or non-locals and are all in the same boat. As for the locals, they all know Hindi. So [there is] no chance for people like us to learn Kannada.
I was myself planning to put up a Kannada tutorial sometime. Sohan's comment spurred me on to actually get down to the task.

Disclaimer: Kannada is not my mother tongue. (Fortunately, that turns out to be an advantage since I can then suggest ways to learn the language as a non-native.) And I am no scholar either. So if you try the "Kannada" learnt by supposedly following my tips on your maid-servant and get slapped on the cheek, you have my sympathies; but I assume no legal responsibility.

I plan to do this tutorial in a series of posts; and these are targetted primarily at the folks from the northern states. But fellow peninsular Indians may also find something of value.

So here we go.
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Kannada is a part of the Dravidian family of languages. North Indian languages, as we all know, belong to a separate clan, the Indo-European. Now, this might give an impression that Kannada is very different from the North Indian languages and that learning it might be a daunting uphill task. This is not true: I would like to point out that it took (in 1816) the scholar Alexander Duncan Campbell 30 whole pages of his grammar text to demonstrate that South Indian languages are a different family vis-a-vis the North Indian languages. If it took so much effort to distinguish the two families, there must indeed be a lot of similarities between them. So even if the task of learning Kannada is not easy, it may not require a Himalayan effort. Perhaps just a Vindhyan one.

While the Kannada language may belong to a different family-tree, the Kannada script is descended from the same ancestor as are all the other Indian scripts — Brahmi. And this is where we will begin our study from. I will compare the Kannada script with Devanagari to highlight the similarities, but the same can be done with any other northern script too.

The Kannada Script

The Kannada varNamAlA is represented in the same format as the Devanagari one. First the vowels a to au, together with the anuswAra and the visarga. Next come the consonants falling into different rows - beginning with ka, ca, Ta, ta, pa, ya, za and terminating in ha.

The extra letters (not present in the northern scripts) are:
  • the short vowel e (pronounced like the E in "get")
  • the short vowel o (pronounced like the O in "poetry")
  • the retroflex consonant La (equivalent of the Marathi ळ)
A large number of Kannada characters bear such a close resemblance to their Devanagari counterparts that I believe that the script can be learnt in a week. Only a little amount of imagination is needed to discern the similarities.

Let's consider, for instance, the Kannada character ka (). First, take the Devanagari ka and remove its "helmet." Next, rotate it by 90 degrees anticlockwise.
And lo behold, the Kannada ka!
Character kha is as easy. Take the Devanagari kha, remove its inner circle and its helmet too. Next, circle up the bends.

And here it is:

Some more examples: Ga.






You get the idea now. I leave the other characters as an exercise. (Link: The complete alphabet.) As I said before, all that is needed is a little imagination.

Using other mnemonics:


(1) In Devanagari, a number of letters are formed out of the following shape:
... such as:
Similarly in Kannada, the following template:
... gives rise to:
(2) In Devanagari, some letters are written the same way, except for the fact that in one, the "head" touches the helmet, and in the other, it does not. For example, in the letter (ma), the head touches the helmet. But in the letter (bha), it does not. Otherwise, they both look alike. Another example is the pair, (gha) and (dha).

Similar cases exist in the Kannada script too. The letters na () and sa () are written alike except that the latter's head does not touch the helmet. So also, the letters va () and pa (). In the non-touching cases, note the small circle in Devanagari and the dot in Kannada.

(3) When the letters get together to form words in Kannada, their helmets do not merge into a common roof (as it happens in Devanagari). The helmet of each letter retains its independence. That is:
व + न = वन (The helmets merge.)
ವ + ನ = ವನ (The helmets do not merge.)
(4) A very important note on pronunciation. In Indian scripts, every letter has an implicit "a" sound. क is "Ka," not "K." But in North Indian languages, the letters sometimes lose this vowel depending on their position in the word. E.g., in the word सोमवार, pronounced somvaar, the letters म and र lose the implicit "a" vowel.*

This does not happen in Kannada (or any other South Indian language, for that matter). In the example above, the correct pronunciation in Kannada would be so-muh-vaa-ruh.

For a lot of North Indians, this tendency to clip off the implicit A vowel is a difficult habit to unlearn. But practice, practice. Every time you catch yourself saying Kor-mang-laa, go to your company pantry and punish yourself by consuming a cup of caffeine. And then say aloud a hundred times, Ko-ruh-mang-uh-luh.

As another example, consider the following word:
It is correctly pronounced va-nuh. Not van. The word means, as you may have guessed already, forest.

Exercise: What's written here?

Vowel Marks (mAtrAs)

The Kannada vowel diacritical marks. These are quite simple too. There isn't much for me to say here.

Conjunct Consonants

(1) In Devanagari, when two consonants combine, it is the first consonant that is modified. The second remains unaffected. For example,
ध् + व = ध्व
In Kannada, the opposite is true. The first is unaffected:
ಧ್ + ವ = ಧ್ವ
The second consonant is written as a subscript to the first; but otherwise there is no change in its form.

(2) Besides becoming a subscript, some consonants have a totally different form when participating as the second. These are listed here. Some examples:
  • ದೊಮ್ಮಲೂರು (dommalUru or Domlur)
  • ಬನ್ನೇರುಘಟ್ಟ (bannErughaTTa or Bannerghatta)
In their modified forms, these consonants resemble their Devanagari counterparts much more than in their simple forms.

(3) As in Hindi, the anuswāra is used as a substitute for nasal consonants. E.g.,
  • ಇಂದಿರಾ ನಗರ (iMdirA nagara)
  • ಬನಶಂಕರಿ**(banazaMkari)
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Other parts of this series:

* Bengali and Oriya are probably exceptions. jana gaNa mana, Bengali names like Aurobindo, Subroto and Oriya names like Satchidananda Mohanty, etc. suggest a Sanskrit-like pronunciation.
** In Dravidian languages, words do not end in a long "I" vowel.