'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

'Alcyon' - Greek Or Latin?

Long ago. I chose Latin as my optional language for two years at junior college (the Pre Degree course as it used to be called in those days). There were many who asked me very curiously in those early days: "Have you learnt all the Latin alphabets?" My answer usually was a rather smug "There is nothing to learn there! Latin alphabets are the same as in English; in fact there are less letters - no 'k', no 'y' and no 'w'"

A couple of years ago, in one of the earliest posts in this blog, I wrote: "iste bunu seviyorum" cannot be Latin because 'y' as in seviyorum is not there in Latin"

Very recently, I met a gentleman who is among the founder members of a company called 'Alcyon Engineering'. I asked him about the rather unusual name of the company. He said: "'Kingfisher' is our favorite beer. And 'Alcyon' is a Latin word which means 'kingfisher'"

I asked further: "Are you sure it is Latin? It feels more Greek to me"

The gentleman smiled and said: "Does it make a difference?"

I persisted: "Actually, I used to know some Latin - and I have no Greek. The letter 'y' is not there in Latin. So, I would say it has to be Greek"

He said he would read up on the word again.

Thanks to that meeting, and the 'net', I have just found that my Latin alphabet knowledge had been rather limited all along.

Merriam Webster says: Halcyon means either (1) kingfisher or (2) a bird identified with the kingfisher and held to nest at sea about the time of winter solstice and to calm the waves during incubation. This second meaning led to the phrase 'halcyon days' to mean a calm, peaceful, happy, prosperous... era. The word 'halcyon' itself is Latin and derives from Greek 'alkyon' or 'halkyon' (note: alkyon must be spelt: 'alpha- lambda- kappa-ypsilon-omicron-nu' in Greek)

(Wikipedia adds: In Greek mythology, Alcyone (pronounced 'alkioni') was a demi-goddess who turned into the halcyon bird)

Although my guess that 'halcyon' originated in Greek was correct, I was rather surprised to see 'alcyon' being its Latin derivative - Why the 'y'??

I read the Wikipedia article on the letter 'Y'. It says: 'y' was borrowed into Latin from Greek. Greek appears to have developed some redundancy - two 'i''s the iota and the upsilon, which is also called ypsilon (pronounced ipsilon). In Latin, 'y', which is ypsilon came to be known as the 'Greek i' and even today, the Latin-based languages such as Italian, Spanish, French and so on refer to 'y' as the 'Greek i'. In Latin languages, 'y' usually used only when transliterating a Greek word with an ypsilon in it; in all native words with 'i' sound, 'i' is used, not 'y'.

So 'y' is there in Latin after all although pronounced identically to 'i'; and it has been there almost from the very beginning.

'k' also has a similar story - it is the Greek letter 'kappa' borrowed into Latin. Let me quote a bit from Wikipedia:

"Latin abandoned the use of K almost completely, preferring C. When Greek words were taken into Latin, the Kappa was converted to C. Some words from other alphabets were also transliterated into C. Therefore, the Romance Languages have K only in words from still other language groups. The Celtic Languages also chose C over K, and this influence carried over into Old English. Today, English is the only Germanic Language that productively uses hard C in addition to K.

Some English linguists prefer to reverse the Latin transliteration process for proper names in Greek, spelling Ceres as "Keres", for example. And the writing down of languages that don't have their own alphabet with the Latin one has resulted in a standardization of the letter K for this sound, as in Kwakiutl."


Note 1: From the above, we can infer that the Greek 'alkyon' could simply have gone to Latin unchanged - or as 'alcion'. But, 'alcyon', as a transliteration, seems a case of doing things by halves - 'k' is converted to to 'c' but 'y' is untouched. And this transliteration has corrupted the pronunciation as well - 'halcyon' is pronounced 'hal-sE-&n' with 'k' going to an 's' (note: the 'h' in the beginning of 'halcyon' might well be the quite universal phenomenon of 'ha' sound replacing an 'a' at the beginning of a word and vice versa).

Note 2: Now I remember mentioning to 'Gyani', a National Geographc article about the ancient Greek city of Mycenae. He had remarked, in his own sagely way: "Ah, Nandu! It is not 'My-seen-ay'. It is 'Mikenai'!"

Note 3: This upsilon-ypsilon (y-u) thing seems weirder than I thought. For example, Wales is called 'Cymru' in Welsh language. But the pronunciation is nothing like 'sim-roo'. It is more like 'koom-ree'! Come to think of it 'oo' as in 'book' and 'ee' as in 'deep' are not that far apart in pronunciation. Tamil language has plenty of examples. 'veedu' (home) is often pronounced almost 'voodu' in collocation at least in Madaras Bashai. Even 'vidu' ('leave') goes to 'vudu'....

Monday, March 19, 2007

'HariPanchanana' - What a Name!

I do not think Shakespeare's take on names - "what is in a name.." and so on and so forth - makes much sense outside the context in which Juliet found herself then; even the Bard might not have intended her remark to apply universally. Names matter; period.

Sadly, when it comes to naming things, I am no Adam. Even 'Anamika' is a reflection of my failure to find a suitably catchy title for this blog. When I attempted writing a play (posted here long ago, then taken offline for further work) I was never happy with the names I chose for characters and kept changing them to the point of looking downright silly. Anyways, here I talk about one name from literature, which to me is as close to perfect as possible - 'Haripanchanana'.

The plot of 'Dharmaraja', a pioneering historical romance in Malayalam involves the intrigues and subversive activities launched against the royal family of Travancore by two brothers, sworn to bloody vendetta. The brothers are actually identical twins; their most striking stratagem involves pretending they are only one man. One of them (either of them, to be precise) poses as a Tantrik named 'Haripanchanana Swami' who has the supernatural ability to be present at two places at the same time; this is all too easy to achieve since they are ready-made doubles to each other. Although the brothers' schemes are ultimately defeated (in a rather weak anti-climax), their powerful anti-hero characterization leaves a lasting impression.

My interest here is in the fake Tantrik name assumed by the twin brothers. Obviously it is a double name - Hari + Panchanana - like so many other common Indian names like Rama-krishna, Sankara-Narayana and so on (a double name is quite appropriate in a story of doubles, right?). Hari is among the hundreds of names of Vishnu and Panchanana is Siva (literally it means the one with five faces; the faces of Siva represent the five elements of the universe). So, the composite name invokes the two most powerful Gods in a syncretic union, which is unprecedented although quite orthodox in its derivation. Finally, more remarkably, *both* 'hari' and 'panchanana' are also synonymous with 'lion'!

Tailpiece: Though the twins are identical in appearance, they are very different temperamentally. The elder of the two is angry, vengeful and given to violent outbursts; he is sometimes called 'Ugra', the wrathful. The younger is sober and peaceloving and is part of the plot primarily due to fraternal love. He is called 'Shanta', the tranquil one. And 'Ugra' and 'Shanta' refer also to the two aspects - destructive and beatific - of the Narasimha Avatar of Vishnu. And Narasimha is in form half man and half lion!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

An Argument With Amartya Sen - Some Women's Day Thoughts

This lengthy post has 3 parts.

Part 1:
Note: By argument, I do not mean opposition - I do not hold opinions opposite to those presented by 'the Argumentative Indian'. And it is not just Sen, my argument is on (not against) one of the points made by 'India: Economic Development And Social Opportunity' which Sen coauthored with Jean Dreze.

In the chapter, 'Gender Inequality and Women's Agency' in the above work, there is a section, 'Two Misconceptions'. I quote from Sen and Dreze and offer my own arguments in numbered footnotes:

"To begin with, we should deal with two misunderstandings that arise from time to time in popular discussions of the issue of low female-male ratios in India.
The second misinterpretation concerns some alleged 'Muslim influence'. The reasoning, in so far as there is any, is that female-male ratios in India tend to be particularly low in the north-west of the country, which is geographically close to Islamic countries, has been underMuslim influence for a long time and even now, has a large Muslim population.---- (1)

A glance at the figures immediately exposes the fragility of this hypothesis. The state of Kerala which has the highest female-male ratio among Indian states (1.04 in 1991) comes second in the proportion of Muslims in the population. The state with the lowest percentage of Muslims (1 percent) is Punjab which has had the lowest female-male ratio among all Indian states until overtaken by Haryana in 1981. Haryana itself has a very low Muslim population (4%). ---- (2)

We can take a closer look at this whole issue by examining the extent of gender bias in child mortality rates among Hindus and Muslims in different parts of India. .... (graph shown)
... two points. First, regional contrasts in the extent of gender bias in child survival are far more striking than the contrast relating to religious identity. Specifically, the relative survival chances of girls are low in large parts of Northern India (including Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Bihar) and this applies whether they are Hindus or Muslims. Secondly, there is no evidence of any overall tendency for the female disadvantage to be particularly large among Muslims." ---- (3)


(1) Dreze and Sen allege there is a school of thought which blames the Muslim influence for the poor condition of women in India. But they have not given any references to substantiate this allegation. They assert "the reasoning, in so far as there is any, is that female-male ratios in India tend to be low in the north-west..." again without revealing who formulated this 'geographical' argument. Of course, then they proceed to debunk this 'sourceless' argument in some detail.

(2) The *present* low percentage of Muslims in Indian Punjab is an accident only due to the Partition and the so-called 'population exchange' that accompanied it (just as there hardly are any Hindus/Sikhs in and around Lahore now, although together they were more than 40 percent of the population in 1947; Amritsar city, which has very low number of Muslims now, then had a slight Muslim *majority*). Going back half a millennium, the very emergence of Sikhism owed a lot to the Sufi saints and Muslim influence. So, just because there are *now* very few Muslims in what has become Indian Punjab, centuries of strong Islamic influence on this society simply cannot be dismissed.

(3) The primary conclusions drawn from the graph are accurate. But, one can still argue: North, where the lot of women is a lot poorer, is also that part of India which was ruled by Muslim sultans, emperors and nawabs and where the Muslims (at least till 1857) had power and influence (on policy-making, among other things) far in excess of their share in the population. Kerala, despite its present large Muslim population, never went thru a period of Muslim rule and sustained domination as was experienced by the North and Deccan (raids by Tipu Sultan etc. were ephemeral phenomena and their real impact is a matter of dispute). So, the comparatively higher status of women in Kerala (allegedly) enjoy could well be attributed to the absence of Muslim policy-making.

Indeed, I have a more fundamental difficulty with this argument of Sen and Dreze: if the *present* lot of two communities is equally bad (or good for that matter) in any given region, I
doubt if one can appeal to just this fact and conclude that neither party influenced the other over centuries of co-existence. To give another example, the literacy rates among the Hindu and Christian communites of Kerala are largely equal at present (they are certainly comparable); but it is universally acknowledged that Kerala education has benefitted heavily from the (disproportionaly large) efforts of Christian missionaries.

Part 2:
Note:Sen et al are not directly involved any further with this post.

While a student in Hyderabad, I used to read in papers regularly about accidental burning incidents, which almost invariably affected young married women, often fatally. It was almost always implied that (at least) most were dowry-related murders or suicides. Among the many such cases documented in the papers, almost all concerned Hindu (definitly non-Muslim) women. This in Hyderabad which has a large Muslim population (around 40%?).

I wondered: "there are hardly any Muslims among these hapless young women. So, it appears they are clearly treated better by their community.". I raised this subject in a discussion at our university. One friend argued: " Let me only talk about the suicides. They indicate a revolt, a certain lack of acceptance of ill-treatment. The Muslim women may be so thoroughly subjugated and enslaved by their men that they cannot even contemplate suicide as a means to escape from their

Part 3:
A friend of mine once told me of an acquaintance of his (whose community will remain unspecified): "When his grandfather got married, he had to pay a solid sum of money *to* his in-laws. But in the very next generation, his father got a solid dowry *from* his in-laws."

Does this 180 degree flip in the direction of cash flow really imply a corresponding flip in gender equations/inequalities?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Snow - A Personal Discovery

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." - 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude'

"You wanted to see snow up close, right? There!" said the Dutchman, pointing some distance off our trail.

I could make out a white patch on the grassy forest floor. "Is it?" I said, not entirely convinced. " That looks like a patch of rock, all white, perhaps powdered limestone!".

He points at yet another patch just ahead: "Here is another bit of your rock powder! Check, if you don't want to believe me."

"Hieronymus! It is not that I don't want to believe you!. In this green jungle, I just don't expect snow to be lying around. And it is not all that cold out here... anyways, let me check!"

I approached and touched the 'rock'. It was very chilly. And it was loose and grainy. I picked up a handful of the stuff and it was pretty much something like crushed ice; slowly it melted in my hand - it was actually snow!

I turned excitedly and told my fellow-traveler: "Hey, I am gonna write somewhere about my discovering snow, and sure enough, I will write about a certain Hieronymus who showed it to me!"

Note: The above incident happened many years ago. Maybe it was 'packed powdered snow' that we saw (Wikipedia lists many forms of snow). I have hardly seen snow since then; and yes, Hieronymus (that is not *quite* his real name although we used to call him so) appears to have built up a solid career in academics.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A 'Pit Stop'

'Balancing Life', Sunil's blog (link on the right panel), has listed *this* blog among 'Interesting Pit Stops'. I did not know what a pit stop meant so did some online searching.

Here are some of my findings:

1 - a stop at 'the pits' during an automobile race In motor sport, a pit stop is where a racing vehicle stops in the pits during a race for refueling, new tires.... The 'pits' usually comprise
of a pit lane which runs parallel to the start/finish straight ...

2 - a stop (as during a trip) for fuel, food, or rest or for use of a restroom.

3 - a temporary deviation from a direct or usual course. Eg: "a career pit stop...where he worked temporarily in between TV jobs"

4 - a popular slang for a toilet break.