Tag Archives: Linguistics

Sanskrit Transliteration: Sabio’s system


Indian Sacred Texts are written in Sanskrit which uses the devanagari script.  General public translations of these books use transliterations which obscure correct or even tolerably-correct pronunciation of the original Sanskrit.  They obscure even the way modern Hindi speakers would pronounce these words when talking about their scriptures.

However, there are two main scholarly transliteration systems which preserve the correct pronunciations: the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (iast) and the Harvard Kyoto (kyoto).  Kyoto uses capital letter and adds a few odd letters (z and G) to its transliteration system, and so is ugly and hard to read.

I prefer the IAST.  And though some may consider the diacritics of IAST as cumbersome, they may be largely ignored and still be close-enough to the original.  But even with that, I see two problems with IAST:

(1) IAST uses the letter “c” to represent the “ch” sound and the letter “ch” to represent its aspirated version.  To avoid this, the transliteration system I will use (SES) in my glossary and occasionally in my texts will use a “ch” and a “chh” for these sounds (see the chart).

(2) Sanskrit has three “sibilants” — s’s.  Two of these are very close to each other and sound like “sh” though IAST only uses s’s with diacritics to differentiate between them. So I added h’s to those two s’s to make them easier to read while keeping the diacritics.

Sanskrit DiacriticsCommon books (as in “Jaya”) avoid the capitals in Kyoto and keep the “ch” and the “sh” (as my system also does) but they do not use diacritics thus losing many sounds.

So, SES (my transliteration system: Sabio’s Easy Sanskrit) is easier to read and still preserves subtle sounds if the reader wishes to know them.  But I suggest that due to difficulty of pronunciations, the reader ignore all diacritics except the long marks over the vowels which are probably the most important pronunciation issues.

Remember, an “h” in IAST and SES just means to aspirate — to add breath to the sound. And retroflex (symbolized by a dot below a letter) means the tongue is in the back of the throat when pronounced.




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language vs. Dialect

LanguageLanguage, like “religion” or “poetry” and many other such abstract words, has fuzzy borders revealing its construed nature. In the above diagram I illustrated the components of language. Toying with any of these components makes one person’s language different from the next. But as for how we should classify these resulting different languages is complicated. In the diagram below, I put the above components in the right column, then I put terms used to describe different language variants in the left column.

Language Variants

Changes in vocabulary can be a form of “slang” (an alternative word) or “jargon” (a technical term). Change prosody in a language and you get an “accent”. These sub-classifications are easy to understand. But get enough difference in vocabulary and accent and you’ll get another dialect or language.  Change grammar and almost inevitably you get another language. But the definition border is fuzzy — see this wiki article on “dialect continuum“.

“Mutual Intelligiblity” is a major decision in classifying languages: when two speakers can not understand each other, they are said to speak different languages. But this is not a clear line. It is unclear exactly how much of the other language should be unintelligible before it counts as a different language and not a dialect. And further, we have the problem that sometimes person A can understand person B’s language but not visa versa.

Heck, some call their languages different from their neighbors simply due to national identity or ethnicity, even though they are essentially the same. Examples: Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian (all of the Shtokavian dialect).

Similarly, though essentially mutually understandable, the difference of scripts will be enough for speakers to insist that they have different languages and not different dialects. Examples: Hindi (Devanagari script) vs. Urdu (Arabic script)


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language’s Components

Above I have sketched out some of the components of language. Using this diagram, let me discuss two topics.

Learning Another Language

We all start learning new languages by learning new vocabulary. Next we may add some grammar. But a large vocabulary and rich grammar are not enough. As you can see, to really have fun in another language, there is lots more to learn which is not often in text books.

Poor accents, for instance can be the result of the learning not paying attention to rhythm, stress, and intonations which are all rule bound in languages — and vary between dialects and ideolects of that same language. Next, add gestures and posture and a native speaker may begin to understand you even better. Add rhyme, alliterations and more, and you are cruising for fluent. Finally, understand the history of a language, the etymology of words and various uses over history and your have entered the native speaker’s linguistic playground.


The action and phonology aspects of language are fantastic at communicating feeling and emotion. Written poetry, not using these two parts of language, is handicapped and poets must rely on style, rhythm and phonetics to try a make up for that loss but are inevitably susceptible to a larger degree of subjectivity — something poetry readers can deeply enjoy. Depending on its use, however, subjectivity is both a weakness and a strength in poetry.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The History of The English Language

History_of_EnglishI created this diagram to help me learn this material better and hopefully it helps others who learn like I do. I created it after consulting several sources on the history of English Language: my main information source was The History of English.

Here are some links to help explore items on the chart:

Question to readers: Any corrections, suggestions or thoughts?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Defining Religion: Ninian Smart

I can’t stop emphasizing that “religion” is a contrived word and not a thing to be discovered. Thus, not surprisingly, people (scholars and lay folks alike) put forward all sorts of conflicting definitions for religion. Even Sabio Lantz offered a Syndrome Model in 1999. This is not to say such contrived words aren’t useful, but we need to recognize them for what they are.

Ninian Smart

Ninian Smart

The definition model I have illustrated above is Ninian Smart’s, a Scottish pioneer of secular religious studies who took his stab at defining “religion” and created this 6-dimensional definition where he describes 6 ingredients or flavors that comprise the mix of what we call religion.

A 3 Quark Daily article (where I am banned, if you’ll remember) used Smart’s model to test if Internet-Centrism is a religion or not.  The conclusion of the article is not important to me.  But instead, keeping in mind my previous “Religion as a Pejorative” post, we can see that the ways Internet-Centrism is likened to religion has negative connotations.  “Religion” is used to point out the weak sides of “Internet Centrism”.

But heck, most groups of people would qualify as religious for having stories, community, rules, rituals and experiences between them — according to Strong’s definition.  My definition, on the other hand contains a few more criteria to narrow the application of the word and thus to exclude the broader use of the word “religion”.  Either way, it is fun to play with definitions, but remember, people are inventing them, not discovering them.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The Present Moment: a Buddhist fetish

NOWHaving jumped in and out of Buddhist circles many times over the last decades, Glenn Wallis’ critique of a common pet sound bite used in Western Buddhism rings totally accurate to me: “be in the present moment”. I never liked the phrase, felt it mistaken and certainly knew it was an excuse not to think or justify some unrelated point.

Here are some of the values Glenn claims the phrase is used to signal:

  • an attitude of quiescence
  • passivity in relation to social formations
  • privileging pristine understanding over messy active analysis
  • a sense of superiority
  • belief in utopia

Consensus Buddhism” is the term David Chapman uses to label the sanitized, idealized, and romanticized forms of Buddhism permeating the West. In Glenn Wallis’ article he uses the term “X-Buddhism” to describe something similar, though these two authors approach their critiques of Buddhism differently. But in case you read Glenn’s article, I thought you’d like to know the jargon.

Is there value to recognizing and taming the infatuations people can have with their future or their pasts that can be crippling? Yes, but X-Buddhism goes way beyond this simple insight and uses “the present moment” phrase as a rhetorical trope. I recently ran into the Christian phrase “tough love” being used as a rhetorical trope also. The use of this Buddhist phrase struck me as having similar signaling function to the Christian rhetoric in that the both exceed any factual claim and are instead used primarily as manipulative signals.


Pic credit: explosion borrowed from here to make the illustration.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

“The Bible” & Papyrus


The word “Bible” is used in several ways.  Let’s look at some background to the word.

Egyptian writing in the 2000s BCE was done on the pith of a plant called “papyrus”. Paper, on the other hand (developed in China around 100 BCE).  The Egyptians called the plant “paperaa” which meant “of the Pharaoh” since apparently he owned a monopoly on its production.

Papyrus RouteThe Greeks, in importing papyrus products, called the food products of this plant “papuros” but the nonfood products (scrolls, baskets …) they called “bublos” after the Phoenician city of Byblos from where it was exported.  But “Byblos” was the Greek slaughtering of the Phonecians real city name of “Gubal” (currently Jubayl) which meant “well” or “origin”.

The Greek word word “book” comes from their name for Gubal, where they got their material (papyrus) to write on.

“Paper”, interestingly, also comes from the greek work “papuros” even though the papyrus plant is not used to make paper but instead, paper production was developed in China around 100 BC and only made it to Europe in the 1200 CE to eventually replace both papyrus and parchment (animal skins) .

Returning to the word “Bible”, since Christianity has a book they value above all others, that book was simply called “The Bible” or “The Book”.  So the phrase “the Bible” means:

  1. sacred collection of books used by Christians and Jews
  2. and by extension: the sacred collection of books of any religion

Since the Bible is the source of Christian theology, doctrine and authority,  the word “Bible” eventually was enlarged to also mean:

3. any authoritative book (Oxford dictionary)

    • a book considered authoritative in its field
      (The Free Dictionary)
    • a publication that is preeminent especially in authoritativeness or wide readership
    • any book, reference work, periodical, etc.,accepted as authoritative, informative, or reliable

Reader Challenge:  Give some examples of this general use of the word “bible”.


See other “Word!” posts, here.


Filed under Linquistics

Relativism in Language & Religion

Sapir-Whorf-GermanForeign languages have changed my perspective on the world. Or was it the use of foreign languages in foreign lands that changed me? I think it was the latter. Japanese, being outside my Indo-European Language Family, really stretched my mind and gave me new ways to organize thoughts. But I never felt handicapped with being able to say what I wanted to say in any language.

Language Relativism” is a belief that languages, by the nature of their very structure, embody a worldview and cause a fluent speaker of the language to carve up their world differently from speakers of other languages, especially if the other speakers are from languages of another language family.

“Language Relativism” is highly controversial. As perhaps you can tell, I fall on the “trivially true” side of the spectrum on this issue along with Steven Pinker and others. But very bright people disagree with us.


I am continually amazed at the parallels between linguistics and religious studies. Indeed, it was seeing how other religions were doing exactly what my religion was doing that opened my eyes to my own religion.  Seeing that the functions of other religions differed only in trivial ways the the functions of my faith that caused me to start leaving Christianity. See my post: “Hinduism was my Downfall“.

I don’t view religions as being primarily about beliefs but about how these beliefs can be used by the body of believers to serve social and psychological functions shared by us all. But certain religious thoughts and practices can change a believer to be very differently from another believer too. So as for Religious Relativism, I think significant differences actually do exist. So I guess when it comes to Religious Relativism I am a bit more to the right on the above scale.

By the way, “Language Relativism” is also known as the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis — more on that later.

Questions for readers: Do you see parallels here like I do?  Where do you fall on the scales.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language Families


Dividing up Languages

Linguists divide up the world’s languages into families. Above is a map showing the world’s top ten language families and below is a table showing their subgroups. I ranked the top 10 languages by the number of present speakers as of November 2013. My data was taken from Ethnologue and map from wiki.  Looking at Ethnologue: here are the language families (there are dozens) and here are the number of speakers. The map and table shows the name of the family, the percent of world speakers for whom it is their native tongue and then the number of individual languages in that group.


Jumping Language Families

Trust me, for any of you who can speak fluently more than one language fluently, you have never studied a “foreign” language, until as an adult, you have learned a language outside of your mother language’s family group.  For instance, my mother language is English.  I first studied German, then dabbled with Greek, then learned to speak/read/write Hindi & Urdu.  At that time, I thought my language skills were pretty broad.  But all those languages are Indo-European.  And when I landed in Japan, I quickly found out what “Language Family” meant.  In Japanese I had to twist my linguist brain into completely new knots.

Choosing the Top Ten

I arbitrarily chose the top 10 languages and arbitrarily chose what qualified as “top” by the number of speakers (not land covered).  If my arbitrary choices excluded your favorite language or seems to minimize it, then tough luck I’m sorry. Also, for sake of size, I left the Americas off the map because the only top 10 language family there is Indo-European.  Remember, as of today there are 7,105 living languages — hard to include them all.



Filed under Linquistics

“Faith”: four uses


My diagram above illustrates four of the common uses of the word “faith“.  Trust and Hope tend to be emotional uses of the word while Loyalty and My View (“my religion”) tend to be uses which reflect identity. The potential overlapping of these uses should be obvious.  The multi-conflicting uses of “faith” often leads to unnecessary confusions when people of conflicting agendas use the word in debate.

The two emotional uses of faith, trust and hope, both have a wide spectrum of feelings/meanings attached to them. The type of trust that people are imagining when they use the word “faith” varies from trust in counter-evidence (this is clearly the type of religious faith that irks atheists) to trust based on high-evidence (this is empirical faith).  Atheists often forget that everyone (themselves included) have trust for things or people for which the have low evidence to base that trust.  Theists, on the other hand can either brag about their blind faith (trust in light of no-evidence or even counter-evidence) or, like many liberal Christians, claim that all their trust-faith is based on sufficient evidence.

The hope use of “faith” likewise has a spectrum of feelings.  One can be hopeful in a worried, fretting and scared way — that is anxious-hope that is fragile.  Or, a person can be optimist by either temperament or training and have an optimistic-hope, expecting the best with an emotional resilience.

I have also wrestled with these nuance of  “Faithin this earlier post where I also try to help people avoid arguing over the word “faith“, but instead to see the emotions and identity issues that are connected to various uses of “Faith”.  “Faith”, like all words, has many uses which cause all sorts of confusion between users — especially if those users are prescriptivists who are committed to convincing others that only their use is the correct use.  Prescriptivists buy into the illusion that words have definitions.  Dialogue is easier when people understand that words carry many meanings/uses and for effective communication those words often need to be re-negotiated.  Language evolves, fluxes and varies highly between users.  There is only “correct” language when those in power enforce it, otherwise, language is naturally fluid.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion