Is There a 'Right' Kannada?

“Kannadigas themselves do not speak Kannada properly”, “Many Kannadigas do not know the right way of pronouncing Kannada words”, “We Kannadigas have spoilt our language because of our lack of understanding of the right pronunciation of Kannada words”. If you are a Kannadiga, chances are that you have heard such statements quite often. There is also a lot of ridiculing of such 'incorrect' pronunciations that you may have heard of. For example, pronouncing the word 'dhana' (ಧನ - meaning wealth in Sanskrit) as 'dana' (ದನ - meaning cattle in Kannada) by dropping the mahaprana (aspirate) is often mocked at. In reality, we know that most Kannadigas pronounce it as 'dana', including those who mock, unless they are speaking in a formal setting and are quite self-conscious.

But how can one claim that most native speakers of a language do not speak it properly or often mispronounce its words? It seems quite strange, and to understand this situation we need to understand what really defines a language, and what indeed is the 'right' pronunciation of a language's words. Since I am taking this subject up in the Kannada context, I will keep the whole discussion mostly around Kannada, though the arguments may be applicable to any language in a similar situation.

We see languages in two forms, spoken and written. Most often we think that the written variety to be the 'right' one and all spoken forms are assumed to be corruptions of this variety. So, is the written variety or the one that is used in formal contexts, the 'right' version of a given language?

Languages came into being in the form of speech, several thousands of years ago. But the written form is a relatively recent invention. It only came into being only a few thousand years ago, and till recent times in history, only a small fraction of the world's population used writing. Many languages, to this day, are not written.
Also, as speech changes and evolves, the written variety too changes accordingly. For example, the written variety of Kannada today is not the same as that in the tenth century. As spoken Kannada changed over time, the written variety too has changed along with it.

So, it is clear that for a language, speech is the ultimate source of truth. A language may have no writing but may be very vibrant and alive. On the other hand languages like Latin, may still be used in writing, but as they have no speakers, for all practical purposes they are dead. Languages have several varieties and dialects. Even if the dialects are mutually intelligible, having to read all the different dialects in the written form is cumbersome for readers. Writing, inevitably requires standardization, so, there is usually a single variety or dialect of the language adopted as a standard for writing. That is how standardization in writing evolved.

So, one should see the written form just as one of several forms of the language, and not as a superior or the 'right' variety. So, the dialect spoken by a backward community, for instance, and the dialect spoken by learned people, are simply two different varieties of the same language. Neither one is superior to the other or is the right variety of the language.

Now, let us look at the history of standard varieties used in Kannada writing. During the times of Halegannada (Old Kannada) it is said that the Jainas of Coastal Karnataka were the first to begin writing in Kannada. So, it is quite obvious that they used their dialect in writing which later became the standard. Writing in Nadugannada (Middle Kannada) is said to have been begun by the Lingayaths of northern Karnataka, and needless to say their dialect was adopted as the standard. Literature in Hosagannada (New Kannada) was started by the Brahmins of Mysuru. As a result, it is their dialect that forms the standard variety across Karnataka today.

Now that we have a writing standard that is accepted across Karnataka, should we take this standard as close to all the dialects as possible or should we take it farther and make it much tougher to the Kannada speakers? The answer is obviously the former; have the written form as much close to the spoken varieties as possible. But there are a few practices in Kannada writing that has kept the standard variety as far away as possible from the spoken varieties when there is much scope to bring it closer. Simple changes can help address the issues.

Take for instance the word for earth 'boomi' (ಬೂಮಿ). Many argue that it should be pronounced as 'bhoomi' (ಭೂಮಿ) - the first letter should be a mahaprana (aspirate). In reality, Kannadigas do not utter or use mahapranas in regular speech. Even those who argue that mahapranas are a must, do not use it in regular speech. So, mahaprana consonants in loan words (native Kannada words do not have mahapranas), become non-mahaprana consonants, as in ಸ್ತಾನ (staana), ದೀರ್ಗ(deerga),  ಸಂಸ್ತೆ (samste), ಸುಕ (suka), ಅನುಬವ (anubava) etc, in regular speech.
There is a misconception that this phenomenon is only seen in the southern districts of Karnataka, especially in and around Mysuru, and that the mahapranas are prevalent in the northern parts, and the coastal regions. But this is a myth, mahapranas do not appear in the spoken varieties of Kannada across all regions. Given this, should such loan words be written as they are pronounced or as they are ought to be pronounced?

Needless to say, writing them as they are pronounced should be the right approach. So, dropping mahapranas out of the alphabet will benefit the masses. It reduces quite a lot of confusion and makes learning so much easier. There is a similar problem with letters like ಋ, ಷ, and ಅಃ. They are not there in Kannada speech, and forcing to retain them in writing creates unnecessary confusion and people inevitably make mistakes. And a small minority that is good at these make fun of the vast majority that make mistakes.

When we talk of getting the written form as much closer to speech as possible, there are many who intentionally misinterpret it. Take the word 'ಹೊರಡು' (horadu - Kannada for 'leave' or 'exit'). It is pronounced differently in different dialects, like 'ಒರಡು' (oradu), 'ವೊರಡು' (voradu), 'ವೊರ್ಡು' (vordu), 'ವೊಳ್ಡು' (voldu) etc. They not only make fun of such pronunciations but also ask if all these various 'uncultured' pronunciations be incorporated into writing, and in that case what would happen to standardization.

Making fun of people and their dialects is uncalled for, but the question of standardization is definitely a valid one. But in our effort to get writing "as much close to spoken forms" as possible we do not have to give up on standardization. "ಹೊರಡು" is a standard form that has been accepted and can be retained as it is. Instead, one may avoid the usage of words like 'ನಿರ್ಗಮಿಸು' (nirgamisu), which do not exist in any spoken forms of Kannada. This is how you get closer to people.

Why should it be a problem if a few such loan words are used, one may ask? Borrowing from other languages will only help our vocabulary, won't it? It appears so on the surface, but Kannada writing, especially science literature, is filled with so many unknown and unfamiliar borrowings and 'coined' terms that it is literally impossible to read and make sense out of them. Take for example, these words I found in the eighth class Science text book (Government of Karnataka): 'ಲವಣ' (lavana), 'ಸಸ್ಯ' (sasya), 'ವನ್ಯಜೀವಿ' (vanyajeevi), 'ಶೈವಲ' (shaivala). These can be easily replaced by familiar words like 'ಉಪ್ಪು' (uppu), 'ಗಿಡ' (gida), 'ಕಾಡುಜೀವಿ' (kaadujeevi), and 'ಪಾಚಿ'(paachi). There are tons of such words in textbooks and there is no way any student or even teachers can make sense out of them, let alone learn science.

Considering the scope to reduce the gap between spoken and written forms of Kannada, two steps need to be taken. One, we need to get the Kannada script inline with the phonetics of the language. As discussed above, there are several extraneous letters in the alphabet which can be removed. Two, in usage of words and coining new ones, we need to ensure they are not alien to Kannada speakers. While there is no need to remove well-known loan words, there is also no need to borrow unknown or unfamiliar ones. Known Kannada words can be used in their place. And finally, we need to understand that there is no dialect or a language that is superior to another. All languages and all their dialects are equally capable of expressing human thought. Let us respect them all and treat them and their speakers with dignity. 


Indian Union Can Become Antifragile Only by Decentralizing

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Nassim Nicolas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, scholar and statistician, who shot to fame by his book Fooled by Randomness. The book dealt with human fallibility and was ranked as one of the 75 smartest books of all time by Fortune. He is also well known to have publicly criticized the risk management methods used by finance industry; when financial crisis occured in late-2000, he is said to have profited from it.

Mr. Taleb has been making a career out of understanding and dealing with randomness – his keen area of interest. His business has been to safeguard investors against crises by reaping rewards from rare and less-understood events. In his latest book, titled Antifragile, Mr. Taleb explores the fragility of systems. As the world we live in is random, volatile and disorderly, any system that cannot withstand the random events, Mr. Taleb calls them as fragile. Any system that thrives on such randomness has been classified as antifragile. One thing that is highlighted in all the famous books of Mr. Taleb (Fooled by randomness, Black Swan and Antifragile) is, randomness that is faced by humans daily since their living in wilderness hasn’t changed much even in the current world. In other words, randomness is as natural as rain.

What kind of systems are fragile and what are antifragile?
Based on his observation and research, Mr. Taleb has classified couple of systems as fragile and few as antifragile. The banking system based in New York is classified as fragile, while fail fast startup businesses of silicon valley are classified as antifragile.
As nimble startups of silicon valley encourage mistakes and thrive on them, an idea that cannot continue is cornered sooner and gets scrapped. At the same time, any idea that can continue gets validated sooner and goes on to be a winner; Google or Facebook for instance.
The investment banking system in New York cannot afford many mistakes. Hence, the system grows fragile as days pass. Even the ideas that cannot continue are covered up, and are allowed to exist. Such fragile systems yield to unforeseen random events and collapse; Lehman brothers for example.

How has Mr. Taleb classified the political systems?
In his book Antifragile, Mr. Taleb has called the centralized political system as fragile. He has also called the decentralized political system as antifragile. If one looks to history for centralized political system, the Soviet union is the one to hit the eye first. USSR came into existence in 1922, and was considered one of the world-leaders till the eighties. The centralized system of functioning did provide many results and USSR’s military might was respected around the world. However, as with every centralized political system, Soviet Union was fragile too. The fragility took the better of USSR in 1991, resulting in disintegration.
The American union is much decentralized when compared to the USSR. Since the American civil war that ended in 1865, the united states of America has been a world-leader in many fronts. This observation of the USSR and the USA goes onto validate Mr. Taleb’s thesis that more centralized a political system is, more fragile it is.

Is the Indian union Fragile? 
A centralized political system is what Jawaharlal Nehru envisioned for the Indian union. It is said that Mr. Nehru was very much impressed with the USSR’s centralized planning  and governance. That explains why Mr. Nehru favored setting up planning commission and initiated five-year plans, much like the USSR. This centralized political system continues to exist in the Indian union even today. With only one-third of subjects under the state list in Schedule 7, rest being in the centre-list or the concurrent list, majority of power and say is concentrated at the centre. That makes the Indian union very fragile. Being fragile, the Indian union is vulnerable to random events that will continue to occur in future as well. To make the Indian union antifragile, so that it thrives under randomness and grows strong, decentralization is the right step.

Otherwise, sooner or later, we all will be fooled by randomness.

(This piece had originally appeared in

Undemocratic Amendments to the Constitution during the Emergency

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On 25th of June this year, the 40th year of the Union Government imposed state of emergency was remembered. There have been many discussions around the misdoings of the Union Government during the 21 months' long period of emergency. Several web portals ran stories highlighting what the citizens of present day India can learn from the period of emergency. What went missing in much of these articles/discussions were the changes to the constitution of India that were made during the emergency, and how these changes undermined the fabric of the constitution of India. Not only were the fundamental rights of the people compromised, powers of the states of the union were also taken away by moving some important subjects from the state list to the concurrent/union list. Education was one such major subject that was moved from the state list to the concurrent list, quite understandably without any debate. At Karnatique, we have always argued that education must be a state list, and in this article too a special emphasis has been laid to highlight the movement of education from state list to concurrent list.

Education in state list, as the constituent assembly had wanted
The constituent assembly chaired by B. R. Ambedkar had kept education in the state list. In the meetings of the constituent assembly, a member by name Purnima Banerjee had moved an amendment seeking to move education to the Union list. This move was supported by another member of the constituent assembly Brajeshwar Prasad. But, the move was countered strongly by another member by name Rohini Kumar Chaudhury. The move was finally not accepted by B. R. Ambedkar, and hence education remained in the state list. Rohini Kumar Chaudhury made a strong speech in the constituent assembly insisting that education be maintained in the state list, and a part of the same speech has been quoted below.

Sir, it seems to me to be an age since I spoke last. It is not that my tongue does not reach so long, but I loathe to speak in this House lest I impede the progress of the work here, but today the heart-throbbing speech of my honourable Friend Shrimati Purnima Banerji has aroused me from my slumbers. I come here not to appreciate the speech of my honourable Friend Shrimati Purnima Banerji but to oppose it with all the might that I posses. Sir, we have come nearly to the end of these Lists, I, II and III and what do we find ? What we find is that the position of the States are no longer States or Provinces, but they have been reduced to the position of municipal and other local bodies. All the powers have been taken away either in List I or List No. 3. It reminds me of the words in the Upanishad:
Poornasya Poornamadaya
     After having taken out everything the same fullness remains : it is as if it is a full Moon. We are taking slices of the full Moon and yet the full Moon still continues as before. That is the position to which we have arrived after going through all these lists.' No power is left to the Provinces and the full Moon remains a full Moon as before.
The 42nd amendment
The 42nd amendment to the constitution of India was brought about during the days of the emergency. It is regarded as the most controversial of the amendments to the constitution, in India's history. Apart from editing the preamble of the constitution and attempting to reduce the powers of the Supreme court and the high courts of India, the 42nd amendment brought such sweeping changes to the constitution that many described the amendment as a mini-constitution. As part of this amendment, education was moved to concurrent list from the state list. It is nothing but a mockery of democracy that such sweeping amendments, ones that curtailed the powers of the courts and reduced the powers of the states, were made during the emergency period without any debate whatsoever among the representatives of the people of India.

The run up to the 42nd amendment
The constitution of India, as drafted by the members of the constituent assembly, had not let so much of power reside at the hands of one person. If the same form of the constitution had continued till 1975, the sweeping changes introduced as part of the 42nd amendment would have been impossible to make. The 24th amendment is what tilted the constitution from the original form towards the current form. If not for the changes made to the constitution as part of the 24th amendment, the 42nd amendment wouldn't have been possible, As part of the 24th amendment, the parliament was enabled to dilute the fundamental rights, yes, the fundamental rights of the people of India. Also, the courts were prevented from doing any review of the future amendments to the constitution that impact the fundamental rights of the people.
When the 24th amendment was made, those members of the constituent assembly who were alive at that time, came out and opposed the amendment. Several of the legal experts had called the 24th amendment as slaughter of the constitution.

Interestingly, both the 24th and the 48th amendments were made when the union of India was in a state of emergency. The 24th amendment was made in the year 1971, at a time when the Bangla Liberation War was going on and the relations between India and Pakistan were tense. The 48th amendment was introduced during the period of imposed emergency, in 1976.

There seems to be larger agreement that the imposition of 21 month long emergency, starting in the year 1975, was detrimental. There is also widespread disapproval of the 42nd amendment to the constitution. The present Union Government of India has made special efforts to highlight the excesses of the emergency period.

To undo the damages done to the constitution during the emergency, what remedial actions is the current Union Government planning, is not very clear. Honest attempts to correct those excesses will have to start from moving education back to the state list from the concurrent list. With that, all the centralization efforts in the field of education will also have to stop. The power to meddle with the fundamental rights of the people, needs to be taken away from the parliament. All the talk about emergency is good, but the remedial actions need to speak too.