10 October 2008

Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism

One interesting features of ancient Indian literature is the way they explain the meanings of words. There are two main methods: by giving series of synonyms, and by giving a series of words which appear to only be linked by using many of the same sounds. The latter method has been likened to the contemporary science of etymology, though usually it is seen as a rather debased or inferior version of etymology. In this essay I plan to give an example of an ancient etymology from the writing of Buddhaghosa, show that it has parallels in the Cratylus dialogue of Plato, and make some comments on these two with respect to sound symbolism especially the work of Margaret Magnus.

First a brief word about ancient epistemology. Foucault, in The Order of Things, points out that in Pre-renaissance Europe knowledge was based on resemblance, and that after the Renaissance knowledge came to be based on difference. In other words we now make sense of the world by looking for points of difference between 'things'. Information is meaningful to the extent that it represents something unique. We don't even think about this most of the time. However in the days of the Buddha and Plato people made sense of the world by looking for how 'things' were similar, looking for qualities in common. So for us a red pen, and a red vegetable are not related; but to the ancients the redness of the two meant that they could be seen to be related. This way of thinking is so foreign to us that we would say that the relationship is a false one. However it does mean that they tended to see the relationships between things, and to perceive everything as being interconnected; while we tend to atomise the world, and fail to understand inter-relatedness. The current crisis in the environment is an obvious consequence of this of this failure. The very way we polarise into right and wrong is influenced by this tendency to understand things in isolation.

In the Visuddhimagga Buddhaghosa offers a variety of same sounding words in order to explain various words. This basic procedure is called nirukti (Pāli nirutti) etymology after the text Nirukta by Yāska, a grammarian from about the 6th or 5th century BCE. In chapter VII Buddhaghosa explains the name/title Bhagavā in a whole series of nirukti etymologies, but in particular with this little verse from the Niddesa (a commentary which is included in the canon):
bhagī bhajī bhāgī vibhattavā iti
Akāsi bhaggan ti garu bhāgyavā
Bahūhi ñayehi subhāvitattano
Bhagavantago so bhagavā ti vuccati

The reverend one (garu) has blessings (bhagī), is a frequenter (bhajī), a partaker
(bhāgī) a possessor of what has been analysed (vibhattavā)
He has caused abolishing (bhagga), he is fortunate (bhāgyavā)
He has fully developed himself (subhāvitattano) in many ways
He has gone to the end of becoming (Bhagavantago) thus he is called "Blessed"
He also suggests that bhagavā can be understood as:
bhāgyavā bhaggavā yutto bhagehu can vibhattavā
bhattavā vanta-gamano bhavesu: bhagavā tato

He is fortunate (bhāgyavā), posssessed of abolishment (bhaggavā), associated with
blessings (yutto bhagehu), and a possessor of what has been analysed
He has frequented (bhattavā), and he has rejected going in the kinds of becoming
(VAnata-GAmano BHAvesu), thus he is Blessed (BHAGAVA)

(Visuddhimagga VII, 56, 57, p.225-226)
One of the things which makes the scientific etymologist doubtful about this approach is the obvious fluidity. In the space of two pages Buddhaghosa has offered two quite different versions of what bhagavā means. Our ideal is to have one explanation for each word. To some extent this is a hang over from what Umberto Eco calls "the search for the perfect language". For centuries westerners believed that in the perfect language (initially conceived of as the language which God spoke to Adam) each word would have a single referent, and each thing would have only one name. What we try to do with language is pin down meaning. Many people are disturbed by the fluid multiplicitous nature of the relationship between words and the world, but actually this is what language is like.

If one is familiar with Sanskrit or Pāli one might recognise that some of these words stem from the same notional verbal root, or are different only in their grammatical relationships. bhāgyavā and bhagavā for instance are both concieved of as stemming from a root bhaga (Sanskrit bhaj). However bhagga is from a different root, bhañj. So a theory of verbal roots cannot account for the relationship. In fact there is no obvious relationship between all of these words except for the the initial sound combination: /bha/. (In phonetics sound units or phonemes are placed between forward slashes, which helps in cases such as the letter c which can ambiguously sound like /k/ or /s/.)

Under the current paradigms of linguistics there is no possible relationship between sounds and meaning - these are denied by definition. So for linguists in general the fact that all these words share an initial sound is irrelevant to what the words mean. This has not always been the case in Western thinking. Plato put forward a partial account of the meaning of words based on the sounds of their letters in his Cratylus dialogue. He says for instance:
"Now the letter rho, as I was saying, appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently uses the letter for this purpose: for example, in the actual words rein and roe he represents motion by rho; also in the words tromos (trembling), trachus (rugged); and again, in words such as krouein (strike), thrauein (crush), ereikein (bruise), thruptein (break), kermatixein (crumble), rumbein (whirl): of all these sorts of movements he generally finds an expression in the letter R, because, as I imagine, he had observed that the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter, which he therefore used in order to express motion".
There are clears parallels with Yāska's Nirukti method. Here Plato is suggesting that the letter rho (i.e. /r/) lends a quality of energy to words. Most contemporary linguists subscribe to a version of the idea of Ferdinand de Saussure (whose own theories on language were in fact influenced by his study of Sanskrit) which says that the relationship between a word and its referent is arbitrary. So any theory which posits a non-arbitrary link is de facto wrong. Behind the scenes however is a growing list of academic papers which demonstrate that the paradigm itself is unable to account for some obvious non-arbitrary links.

Margaret Magnus has definitively shown, in her doctoral thesis, the initial phoneme of a word has a symbolic function in the word. If one examines all words (with no suffixes) that begin with the same phoneme they fall into a smallish number of areas of meaning. Different phonemes create different clusters of meaning, and these do not overlap very much between phonemes. Her more popular account of what she calls "phonosemantics" is quite fun so rather than quote her research I'll give an example from her book Gods of the Word (full details below) which was written for a general audience. In what follows Magnus is describing, poetically and associatively, the impact of having the phoneme /r/ in a word, especially in the initial position:
"/r/ is active directed force. It is red, rowdy, and roguish. Run! Run! Run! But it is also rational. It does not feel. It reasons and acts. And reacts. If it is headed in the same direction as its neighbours, it can be supportive as rock. But if not, it leads to wrack and ruin. And /r/ is linear. It thinks in terms of 'right' and 'wrong'..."
In order to understand what Magnus is getting at one would need to comb through the dictionary and see that many of the /r/ words fit this picture that she is painting. If you have a spare hour this is a fun thing to do. The relationship is not one to one, it is fuzzy, it is symbolic. One cannot predict what sound that any given language will use for a particular referent. The pattern only emerges when comparing large numbers of words - Magnus was involved in creating an electronic dictionary when the patterns began to appear to her.

My feeling is that this contemporary research sheds light on the method of Buddhaghosa in defining words. It makes more sense when you know that initial phonemes do indeed effect what a word means.

I have long wondered whether this knowledge had any impact on the development of Buddhist mantra. While I have amassed a huge amount of information and many thousands of words of notes, I am still not in a position to assess it. I think it is suggestive that the Buddhist exegesis of mantra often focuses on individual syllables.

At the date of publication I am still largely responsible for the text of the Wikipedia article on sound symbolism or phonosemantics. This could change at any time of course. [Definitely changed 22.4.13] Another summary of sound symbolism can be found on visiblemantra.org.

image: lipreading poster from lipread.com.au
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