Ambarish Sridharanarayanan

Personal website + blog of Ambarish Sridharanarayanan.


ambarishsanskrit, dravidian languages

If you follow Tamil urban pop culture, youʼve probably heard of the ‘kogul’ moniker that describes native Tamil speakersʼ pronunciation of foreign words. In Sanskrit, ‘gōkula /goːkul̪ə/’ means ‘cattle‐station’, and through synecdoche also means Krishnaʼs cattle‐shed near modern‐day Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. The derived term ‘gokul’, pronounced /goːkul̪/, is a personal name in various Indian languages. Tamil speakers pronounce the imported word variously as /goːgul/, /koːgul/ and /goːkul/, and thus the label. ‘Kogul’ began life in web‐comics and has seen usage in diverse forms – in blog titles, photo captions, and as a Twitter hashtag. A search reveals > 50000 ghits.

The reason Tamil speakers pronounce voiceless and voiced consonants interchangeably has to do with Tamil phonemic rules. The specifics are unique to Tamil, but the phenomenon exists in all world languages.

Each language has a fixed set of phonemes, and various context‐dependent rules around which phonemes are valid in what contexts. For instance, English allows the /h/ phoneme in every syllabic position except the final. In the initial position, /pr/, /pl/ and /tr/ clusters are allowed but not /tl/. Sanskrit words cannot end in a palatal phoneme. Sanskrit also has sandhi rules when two phonemes come together either in the middle of a word or between words. And so on.

When a language borrows a word from another language it perforce has to adapt the phonemes into its set of valid phonemes. This is why gairaigo words in Japanese often sound very different from the source words (e.g. /bijinesu manejimento/ from ‘business management’, or /raibaru/ from ‘rival’). Other examples include English /ˈke‐chəp/ from Amoynese ‘ke2 jap1’ and the Spanish ‘chofer’ from French ‘chauffer’. Not just loan‐words, but cognates too are pronounced very differently in different child languages: compare the pronunciations of Stephen, Etienne, Esteban, Stefan and Estephanos across English, French, Spanish, German and Greek respectively.

In the Indian context, languages across India have borrowed Sanskrit words over millennia so systematically that grammarians have classified the borrowings: tatsama words are those that have retained their Sanskrit phonetics, while tadbhava are those with morphed pronunciations, like Hindi ghar /gʰəɽ/ from Sanskrit gr̥ha /gɽ̩ɦə/, pyās /pjaːs̪/ from pipāsā /pipaːs̪aː/ and lakhan /l̪əkʰən̪/ from lakṣmaṇa /l̪əkʂməɳə/ (Note the Hindi dental nasal in place of the Sanskrit retroflex nasal). Sanskrit has also borrowed words, fitting them into its phonemic scheme, e.g. pravāla /pɽəvaːl̪ə/ from the Tamil pavaṛa /pəvəɻə/, and dramiḍa /d̪ɽəmiɖə/ from the Tamil word for the language itself, tamiṛ /t̪əmiɻ/.

In effect, thereʼs nothing unnatural or wrong about Tamil people pronouncing the Sanskrit‐derived word ‘Gokul’ /koːgul/. So why all this fuss?

In 21st century India, an Indo‐Aryan culture centered around northern India is on the ascendant. Bollywood movies are popular throughout urban southern India and among the rural middle‐class; there are 130 million non‐native speakers of Hindi; ‘Indian food’, ‘Indian attire’ and even ‘Indian accent’ have come to mean the food, clothing styles and manner of speaking common in Hindi‐speaking cities. Names like Rahul, Neha, Diya and Amar, once only found in the north of India, are now common throughout India, and are percolating into non–Hindi‐speaking villages where few understand their meanings. Schwa elision, a standard feature of Hindi, is widespread in names of people, places and establishments well outside the Hindi‐sphere.

At the same time, thereʼs renewed interest in “Sanskritic purity”: there is a movement to declare oneself a Sanskrit‐speaker in the Indian census, there are many popular Sanskrit‐quote‐of‐the‐day web‐feeds, and Carnatic music performers singing non‐Sanskrit songs routinely mispronounce tadbhava words as if they were tatsama words. In fact, the kogul phenomenon was given prominence by a well‐known Carnatic music blogger.

So, on the one hand, we have these Sanskrit purists trying to outdo one another in insisting on applying Sanskrit rules to non‐Sanskrit languages. On the other hand, North Indian cultural practices have become normative and beyond judgement. That leaves the poor Tamils, pronouncing words in their language the way theyʼve always done and according to the rules their grammar prescribes. Except now their pronunciation is being judged against a standard founded on ignorance and built on snobbery.