compound analysis in e-texts

George Thompson thompson at
Mon Sep 2 14:29:47 EDT 1996

Jakub Cejka and Luis Gonzalez-Reimann are of course both right to point out
the difference between writing system and language.  This is especially
true in  cases where the writing system is clearly much later than the
language which it transcribes [as in the case of devanAgarI and Vedic
Sanskrit].  But one frequently encounters the folk linguistic view that
identifies these two very different things [think of the complex magical
relationship between Arabic -- as language and as script -- and the Koran].
DevanAgarI has taken on this sort of magical relationship with Sanskrit
not only for traditional Hindus, but also for Western devotees as well.  I
have been told rather bluntly by this or that member of this or that
spiritual group that Sanskrit should not be studied in any other written
form than the devanAgarI. To study it in Romanized script seems somehow

While it is not an issue for an oral tradition like Vedic, in a literate
context, the relationship between writing system and language may not be
quite as arbitrary as that between devanAgarI and Vedic.  In a literate
context, a writing system may have an obscure but nevertheless a
significant semantic [semiotic] value.

To take one instance [in fact the one that started this thread]: our modern
habit of marking word boundaries with a space [as opposed to the devanAgarI
habit of overlooking them].  Our habit compels us to seek word boundaries
and to mark them.  A writer [or reader] using devanAgarI is not so
compelled.  As a result, with our writing system, we operate with a more or
less "padapATha" image of text, whereas with devanAgarI, we at least have
the option of visualizing a saMhitA text, an uninterrupted flow.  One
possible result of this difference is that the metaphor "flow of speech"
may have more semantic power or charge or resonance in the devanAgarI- than
in the western- mind [so to speak].  The devanAgarI would appear to be
closer to an oral sensibility than the modern writing system [since the
metaphor is older than scripts, at least in India: it is certainly a
prominent Vedic metaphor].

Frits Staal has argued, provocatively and I think rightly, that linguistics
in India "did not originate  *in spite of* the absence of writing but
*because* of it" [in Arch. europ. sociol. 30, 1989; the starred passages
reflect Staal's italics].  Perhaps it can be said that devanAgarI reflects,
more closely than a western romanized script, *something* in the language
itself, though I can't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it is
meta-language, since a writing system presupposes a conception of language.
In any case, I think it has something to do with our problem of whether or
not to analyze text [compounds, sandhi, etc.].

George Thompson

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