What is an "akshara" ?

Belloc's picture

Text copied from Wikipedia :

In many abugidas, there is also a diacritic to suppress the inherent vowel, yielding the bare consonant. In Devanagari, क् is k, and ल् is l. This is called the virāma or halantam in Sanskrit. It may be used to form consonant clusters, or to indicate that a consonant occurs at the end of a word. In Sanskrit, thus, a default vowel consonant such as क does not take on a final consonant sound. Instead, it keeps its vowel. For writing two consonants without a vowel in between, instead of using diacritics on the first consonant to remove its vowel, another popular method of special conjunct forms is used in which two or more consonant characters are merged to express a cluster, such as Devanagari: क्ल kla. (Note that on some fonts display this as क् followed by ल, rather than forming a conjunct. This expedient is used by ISCII and South Asian scripts of Unicode.) Thus a closed syllable such as kal requires two aksharas to write.

Does that mean that the Devanagari क्ल kla is formed by one akshara and कल् kal requires two aksharas ?

John Hudson's picture

Note that on some fonts display this as क् followed by ल, rather than forming a conjunct. This expedient is used by ISCII and South Asian scripts of Unicode.

This is not a feature of ISCII or Unicode, excepting either absence of smart font layout handling or absence of particular conjunct ligature or half-form sequence. ISCII and Unicode use the halant as a conjunct forming control character, applied during e.g. OpenType Layout; this differs from some earlier systems that had a dedicated 'conjunct key', which might explain the confusion in the Wikipedia article.
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As I recall, the term akshara can mean simply syllable or may refer to each individual combination of letter plus vowel or halant. Because of this varying usage, I've never found it a very useful term.

Adding further confusion, when talking about Indian writing the term syllable is sometimes used to refer to a grapheme cluster, which may not correspond to a linguistic syllable.

Belloc's picture

John, I'm rather curious to know if my intuition is correct : Does that mean that the Devanagari क्ल kla is formed by one akshara (or syllable, or grapheme cluster) and कल् kal requires two aksharas (or syllables, or grapheme clusters) ?

Uli's picture

Akshara (अक्षर = akṣara) may best be defined as "Indic syllable".

Have a look at this famous saying here

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tat_Tvam_Asi

If "tat tvam asi" were English, and if someone asked you to write down the syllables of this sequence of words, as if it were English, you would write down these 4 "English syllables":

tat - tvam - a - si

However, the Indic syllables in this case would be these:

ta- ttva - ma - si

I have deliberately drawn this example from the English-language book "Goldman/Sutherland, Introduction to Sanskrit", 1987, page 16 (section 2.23), so that English speakers may consult this English book in a library, if they want to learn more about Indic syllables.

An Indic syllable may be defined in a technically simplified way as:

(1) a single vowel at the beginning of a word (e.g. "a" of "a-gni" = fire), or
(2a) a single consonant (e.g. "t") or
(2b) a consonantal cluster (e.g. "ttv"), followed by a vowel.

Further technical details, e.g. concerning visarga and anusvara, are omitted here.

In Devanagari script, therefore
the sequence तत्त्वमसि (= tattvamasi)
is syllabified त-त्त्व-म-सि (= ta-ttva-ma-si)

see also here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiksha

Uli's picture

Belloc:

"Does that mean that the Devanagari क्ल kla is formed by one akshara (or syllable, or grapheme cluster) and कल् kal requires two aksharas (or syllables, or grapheme clusters) ?"

Whitney wrote:

"a. Native Hindu usage, in manuscripts and inscriptions, treats the whole material of a sentence alike, not separating its words from one another, any more than the syllables of the same word: a final consonant is combined into one written syllable with the initial vowel or consonant or consonants of the following word. It never occurred to the Hindus to space their words in any way, even where the mode of writing admitted such treatment; nor to begin a paragraph on a new line; nor to write one line of verse under another: everything, without exception, is written solid by them, filling the whole page."

"b. Thus, the sentence and verse-line

ahaṁ rudrebhir vasubhiç carāmy aham ādityāir uta viçvadevāiḥ
(Rig-Veda X, 125. 1: see Appendix B)
(I wander with the Vasus, the Rudras, I with the Ādityas and the All-Gods)

is thus syllabized:

a haṁ ru dre bhi rva su bhi çca rā mya ha mā di tyāi ru ta vi çva de vāiḥ

with each syllable ending with a vowel (or a vowel modified by the nasal-sign anusvāra, or having the sign of a final breathing, visarga, added: these being the only elements that can follow a vowel in the same syllable)."

see http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Sanskrit_Grammar/Chapter_I

Note: "l" is not a customary final consonant in Sanskrit words.

Michel Boyer's picture

a final consonant is combined into one written syllable with the initial vowel or consonant or consonants of the following word.

That appears to imply that even if the conjunct ब्न never occurs in a word in Sanskrit as you say in another thread (comment 521176), that conjunct will occur in a text if a word ends with ब् and the following word starts with न. Am I wright? Is that combination really impossible in Sanskrit?

Belloc's picture

Uli

Many thanks for your detailed and very didactic answers. As you probably noticed this is my first contact with an Indian script. But after reading several times what you said and the links you provided, I think I could somehow understand the concept of an Indic syllable. However, looking at this link, I'm having some difficulty in relating the transliteration "a haṁ ru dre bhi rva su bhi çca rā mya ha mā di tyāi ru ta vi çva de vāiḥ" with the original text

अहँरुद्रेभिर्वसुभिश्चराम्यहमादित्यै
रुतविश्वदेवैः।अहंमित्रावरुणोभा
बिभर्म्यहमिन्द्राग्नीहमश्विनोभा॥

For example, I could identify the 'a' with अ, but I can't figure out how the 'haṁ' is related to हँ. I presume that this is a result of a ligature applied to a conjunct formed by the Indic characters transliterated by the 'haṁ' mentioned above. Is that correct ?

John Hudson's picture

Belloc: I can't figure out how the 'haṁ' is related to हँ

In the case of हँ, what you are looking at is the letter h with a candrabindu above, which indicates that the vowel of the syllable is nasalised. When romanised, this is written as haṁ.

Uli's picture

Belloc: I can't figure out how the 'haṁ' is related to हँ

Wisely noted.

You can't figure it out, because the transcription of the Sanskrit Grammar by William Dwight Whitney is wrong here. See for comparison this scan from the reprint of the original Whitney book:

www.sanskritweb.net/temporary/aham-rudrebhir.jpg

see also for comparison page 4, section 125, of this pdf file here

http://www.sanskritweb.net/rigveda/rv10-120.pdf

Uli's picture

Mr. Boyer:

... that conjunct will occur in a text if a word ends with ब् and the following word starts with न. Am I wright? Is that combination really impossible in Sanskrit?

Yes, really impossible, because there does not exist a Sanskrit word ending in "b" in pausa.

("in pausa" (Latin) means as the last word of a sentence or line, where you make a pause while speaking.)

Even if a word ended in a soft "b" in Sanskrit (which is only the extremely rare case of e.g. "cumb", which, however, is a root and not a declined noun), the soft "b" would be converted to hard "p" in pausa.

PS: The word "impossible" should not be used in conjunction with an ancient language, because it is "impossible" to create "new ancient" texts. It is better to say: "bn" does not occur in the ancient Sanskrit texts, instead of saying: "bn" is impossible in ancient Sanskrit texts, because there will never be "new ancient Sanskrit texts".

John Hudson's picture

Uli, the Whitney scan you provide shows the nasalisation mark over the Ha as anusvāra instead of candrabindu. In Hindi, these two marks are used mostly interchangeably, with anusvāra often used instead of candrabindu simply on the basis of whether a vowel sign is also present above the head line. In Sanskrit, are anusvāra and candrabindu systematically distinguished?

Belloc's picture

John,

I was really tired when I posted my last post yesterday. While sleeping I guess my brain was working and I just woke up (it's just 5:30 in the morning in São Paulo) with the idea that the glyph हँ is the consonant ह composed with the diacritics for the anusvara, which I think coincides with your point of view.

Belloc's picture

Uli,

I don't want to give you the idea that I know something about Indic scripts. My knowledge about this can be summarized in three days of hard work. That's all. Therefore, I have no clue whatsoever you tried to convey to me in your last post, other than some disagreement with John's point of view.

Uli's picture

"In Sanskrit, are anusvāra and candrabindu systematically distinguished?"

Mr. Hudson:

1) In (post-Vedic) classical Sanskrit, the vowel nasalisation called anunasika and represented by candrabindu sign in Devanagari is only used in connection with nasalized l, and it can only occur, when l follows n, transforming "nl" to anunasika + double "l".

see www.sanskritweb.net/itrans/itmanual2003.pdf, page 12, note 3

2) In Vedic Sanskrit, especially in Yajurveda texts, there is a bewildering variety of uses of anunasikas.

see www.sanskritweb.net/itrans/itmanual2003.pdf, page 12, note 4

see www.sanskritweb.net/itrans/itmanual2003.pdf, page 131-133

Today, some of these signs now have been allotted Unicode code points.

For a real sample text with a sprinkling of different candrabindu signs

see www.sanskritweb.net/yajurveda/tb-1-01.pdf

3) Transliterations of anusvara and anunasika are different in Sanskrit.

see www.sanskritweb.net/itrans/itmanual2003.pdf, page 9

For an alternate Hindi transliteration of Hindi anunasik

see www.sanskritweb.net/itrans/itmanual2003.pdf, page 110

Belloc's picture

Uli

These two paragraphs here seem to contradict each other. Could you explain ?

First

a. Native Hindu usage, in manuscripts and inscriptions, treats the whole material of a sentence alike, not separating its words from one another, any more than the syllables of the same word: a final consonant is combined into one written syllable with the initial vowel or consonant or consonants of the following word. It never occurred to the Hindus to space their words in any way, even where the mode of writing admitted such treatment; nor to begin a paragraph on a new line; nor to write one line of verse under another:

everything, without exception, is written solid by them, filling the whole page.

b. Thus, the sentence and verse-line ahaṁ rudrebhir vasubhiç carāmy aham ādityāir uta viçvadevāiḥ (Rig-Veda X, 125. 1: see Appendix B) I wander with the Vasus, the Rudras, I with the Ādityas and the All-Gods is thus syllabized: a haṁ ru dre bhi rva su bhi çca rā mya ha mā di tyāi ru ta vi çva de vāiḥ, with each syllable ending with a vowel (or a vowel modified by the nasal-sign anusvāra, or having the sign of a final breathing, visarga, added: these being the only elements that can follow a vowel in the same syllable); and it is (together with the next line) written in the manuscripts after this fashion:
अहँरुद्रेभिर्वसुभिश्चराम्यहमादित्यै
रुतविश्वदेवैः।अहंमित्रावरुणोभा
बिभर्म्यहमिन्द्राग्नीहमश्विनोभा॥

Second

Each syllable is written separately, and by many scribes the successive syllables are parted a little from one another: thus,

अ हँ रु द्रे भि र्व सु भि श्च रा म्य ह मा दि त्यै

Uli's picture

In Second, Whitney hinted at the different handwriting customs of ancient scribes. Have a look at some very old original Sanskrit manuscripts at the following website so that you see, what Whitney was hinting at:

http://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/sasia/skt-mss/

Uli's picture

Syllable-spacing was customary also in the hand-composition foundry type era. The scan shown below is drawn from the title page of a handset Sanskrit-Hindi book printed in 1950 by Shri Venkateshwar Steam Press:

see http://www.sanskritweb.net/itrans/syllable-spacing.jpg

See also the syllable-spacing in the company logo picture here:

http://www.khe-shri.com

Belloc's picture

Uli

Notwithstanding the examples you've just given above, my understanding was that, in general, the Indic scripts were all written without space between the words. But that's not what I found out on some of the newspapers in India.

http://www.indiapress.org/gen/news.php/Malayala_Manorama/400x60/0
http://www.indiapress.org/gen/news.php/Amar_Ujala/400x60/0
http://www.indiapress.org/gen/news.php/Prajavani/400x60/0
http://www.indiapress.org/gen/news.php/Nav_Bharat_Times/400x60/0

Please correct me if my perception is wrong.

Uli's picture

Belloc:

I spoke of ancient times, not of modern times,
and definitely not of modern newpaper Times.

gasyoun's picture

Michel Boyer,
ब्न never occurs in a word in Sanskrit - as per dictionaries (255k words) and Sanskrit corpora, I can confirm. Out from 11671 syllables there is no such thing. Uli, as usual, is right. He has a full and deep understanding of the topic. Too bad his health and heart are not as strong as before and I do not see him lately around.

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