Saturday, March 19, 2011

Deelybobbers and Diphthongs

In Devanagari, vowel symbols attach to a consonant (e.g. क - k) like this:

कि  -  ki                      की  -  ki:

के   -  ke                  

क   -  ka                      का  -  ka:

को  -  ko

कु   -  ku                      कू  -  ku:

What is cool about this is how symmetrical it is. In the upper vowels and the lower vowels there is a length distinction (mostly lost in modern Nepali pronunciation but preserved in spelling) - ki vs. ki:, ku vs. ku:, ka vs. ka:. The symbol that describes the upper vowel in the long is a reversal of the short: कि/की, कु/कू.

However, the 'deelybobber vowels' don't have length distinctions. The deelybobber vowels are mid-vowels, /e/ and /o/, and their Devanagari symbols look like deelybobbers: के and को . This is a very scientific term that I just made up. The Nepali term for it is eklaakha for one and dolaakha for two

The dolaakha are used for the two written Nepali diphthongs:

कै   -   kai

कौ  -   kau

We might expect, given the symmetry, that कै would represent /ke:/ and कौ would represent /ko:/. Instead, they represent diphthongs that contain neither vowel. However, the trajectory of the mouth as it creates these two diphthongs passes through the vowel in question: कै starts at /a/ and moves up and forward (passing /e/ along the way), and कौ starts at /a/ and moves up and backward (passing /o/ along the way).

Again, weirdly symmetrical. I wonder if this suggests a historical vowel shift in the middle vowels, which used to contain long mid-vowels that have since been diphthongized.

[Note: I've simplified the /a/ vowels, which I'm pretty sure are two fairly different vowels but that have been explained to me as 'reduced' and 'full' versions of the same thing. Also, I'm pretty sure 95% of the people reading this have no idea what I'm talking about, and the other 5% are laughing about how wrong it is.]


  1. Hi Luke,
    This popped up in my RSS feed a few days ago, and I just couldn't resist geeking out about Devanagari vowels for a second.

    The only vowels that have been dropped in Hindi/Nepali, since the time of Vedic Sanskrit, are .R, .l, and .L. The vowel .r is still used occasionally, as in the word "Krishna" ( There are no English equivalents (or even approximations, really), but they are kinda-sorta retroflexive.

    That said, if I'm remembering my first year Sanskrit correctly, e and o are technically considered dipthongs in Sanskrit. e, ai, o, and au are also treated as long vowels in Sanskrit (in the same sense as A, I, U, .R, and .L).

    But if that's the case, then your observation about "deelybobers" is right -- it's just that they're actually dipthongs!

    I'm not sure if you know Sanskrit, but based on the things you've written in this blog, I think that you would find the rules for sandhi (the combination and transformation of sounds when two words placed together) really fascinating.

  2. I have enjoyed reading your blog. What is interesting to me is that in Amharic, the Ethiopian language we learned to read and write, the vowels are also attached to the consonant and you would go through the ke,ka, ko, etc just as you wrote them. The way they are written also has little legs that go here for one vowel, there for another, etc. So it isn't quite as hard to learn as it initially looks. Anyway, again, it is fun to read your blog.

  3. Does this topic has to do with your professional field or is it more about your leisure and ways to spend your free time?