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. 



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