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Konkani Spellmanship

Posted by on October 10, 2019

Spelling out the rules of Konkani spellings

Unlike most Indian languages, Konkani is not tied to any single script but is written in at least three Indian scripts as well as the Roman script which we have adopted in But while many languages written in the Roman script may not be phonetic languages, Konkani is and as such its spellings are governed by certain rules and conventions which I shall try to explore and explain below.

The bowels of Konkani: The Vowels

I would like to begin with a striking contrast between Konkani and most other modern Indian languages.

It may have struck you some time that Konkani, as written in any but the Roman script, includes the representation and usage of the vowel अ. In fact, most Indian languages do have the अ sound, with one outstanding exception, that is, the Bengali language which doesn’t have that sound (which is why, for instance, they pronounce Vijay as Bijoy, and banduk as bonduk).

And so it is interesting that Konkani as it is written in the Roman script (and as spoken mainly by Goan Catholics) doesn’t have the अ sound at all, the latter being replaced by either o or ô sound much like the Bengali way. For example, कर becomes kôr, and बर्फ is called and written as borof.

Roman script Konkani therefore has the following seven pure vowels:

a , e , ê , i , o , ô , u

Of the above, a, e and o are called open vowels, while the rest of them are known as closed vowels. What that implies will be explained later. But please note that although the above represent seven different vowel sounds, they are just five letters of the alphabet and not seven, and the circumflexes on o and e merely indicate that they represent the closed vowels. In many contexts they may not have a circumflex at all and yet have closed sounds, as will be explained later in this section.

In addition to the above pure vowels, Konkani also has a number of diphthongs, some of which are considered as open and others closed. But we shall first deal with the vowels.

I think it is important to state again that the open vowels are a, e and o, and that the closed ones are ê, i, ô and u. Let me give some examples.

In the word khêll(game or play), ê is a closed vowel. In gobôr(wood ash) both the o’s are closed, even though only the second one is indicated as closed by the circumflex over it. The general rule is that the o’s and e’s in all the syllables in a chain immediately preceding a syllable with a closed vowel are ipso facto closed, and hence they need not have any circumflex over them to indicate that they are closed. Thus, although the o in sotri is a closed vowel, it doesn’t have a circumflex because the syllable that follows has the closed vowel i. Other examples: kodelir (on the chair), hoklechi (of the bride).

Let me illustrate the case by two contrasting examples. Compare the phrase hoklêcho bhav (= the bride’s brother) with hoklechi bhoinn (= the bride’s sister). In hoklechi bhoinn, both the o and the e in hoklechi are closed sounds, yet neither of them has a circumflex because, since the following syllable chi has a closed vowel i, both the o and the e preceding it get automatically closed, with the result that they do not need to be indicated as closed by a circumflex; whereas in hoklêcho bhav, since the o in the syllable cho is an open vowel, while the sound of ê in the preceding syllable is closed, the latter has to be indicated by a circumflex as closed, and once this e is closed the o in the preceding syllable hok also gets automatically closed and need not have a circumflex.

To drive this point home, let me repeat the general rule about when to use and when not to use a circumflex over an e or an o:
All the o’s and e’s in a chain in syllables immediately preceding a syllable with a closed vowel (in the same word) are ipso facto closed, and hence they need not have any circumflex over them to indicate that they are closed. By contrast, if any syllable having a closed o or e is not immediately followed in the same word by a syllable with a closed vowel (as is also the case when it happens to be the last syllable in the word), it has to be indicated as closed by placing a circumflex over it.

One comes across a great number of diphthongs in Konkani. A diphthong is a combination of either two vowels or a vowel followed by y. E.g., the eu in polleunk or the ãy in pãy However, what determines whether the diphthong is an open or a closed one is the nature of its primary or first vowel. Thus eu in polleunk is a closed diphthong (because the e in the eu is closed), whereas the ãy in pãy is an open diphthong because the ã in ãy is an open vowel.

No consonance without Consonants

By and large, the Konkani consonant sounds are basically the same as in most Indian languages except that after centuries of Portuguese influence, lh and nh have slowly got embedded into the Konkani spoken by the Goans, and that too almost exclusively in the Portuguese words that have migrated into Konkani.

However, with regard to all other consonants which Konkani has in common with other Indian languages, certain conventions have evolved over the ages in order to adequately use the Roman script to express all its consonant sounds. Since most consonant letters are used in the same way as in European languages, here we shall only cover those which are employed differently.

The most important of these differences are the consonants tt, dd, nn and ll. While single letters t, d, n and l represent the dental consonants त, द, न and ल (though ल isn’t quite dental) as in most languages, their cerebral equivalents, viz., ट, ड, ण and ळ, which don’t have their proper Roman equivalents, are represented by tt, dd, nn and ll respectively.

We would like to mention here that those aspirated forms of the above dentals and their corresponding cerebrals that are included in the devnagri alphabet, viz., थ, ध, ठ and ढ are represented by placing an h after the corresponding un-aspirated consonant.

The rest of the Roman alphabet used in Konkani needs very little explanation. The letter c is used in Konkani almost always only in conjunction with the letter h, i.e., as ch, to represent the च sound while the letter Q is never used at all, and the letter x is used to denote the sh or श sound.

As mentioned earlier, the Portuguese consonants lh and nh are employed mostly in words that are of Portuguese origin. Examples: kunhad (from cunhado) meaning specifically “sister’s husband”, kulher (from colher) meaning “spoon”, falhar (from falhar) meaning “not in a proper state of mind”, and bunhad which stands for “foundation (of a house or building)”.

A special mention needs to be made though of the letter y. In English the letter y can be used as a plain vowel and as a consonant as well. In Konkani it is used only as a consonant to represent the sound य in the following cases:
a) when a syllable begins with the sound य. Examples: toyar (= ready), mallyêr (= on the loft).
b) when a syllable ends with the sound य, except if it is preceded by a closed e or a closed o, in which case the letter i is used instead. Thus it is used in words like Gõy
(Goa) and mãy , but not in molloi ( = field) or choddoi (= raise).

This contrast is illustrated and thrown into sharp relief in the following sentences:

Tum az boro sokallim utthloi or tum az borem sokallim utthlẽi = you rose rather early this morning. (The o in utthloi and the e in utthlẽi are both closed vowels)

Compare the above sentences with two other similar ones:
To girêst zaloy zalear, tachean mhaka kitem korum yeta? = Rich though he may be, what can he do to me? Or
Tem gelẽy zalear kãy nozo = It doesn’t matter even if she has gone. (Incidentally, the word tem used here is neuter, not feminine)

I will make bold here to make a pertinent general observation. As far as I know, most Indian languages written in Indian scripts are phonetic. And so are Hindi and Marathi, which are written in the Devnagri script. But did it occur to you that Konkani, as it is written in Devnagri today, isn’t entirely a phonetic language?

One main tricky area is where our open vowels e and o come in. Take a simple sentence: “He went”. We would write that in Konkani as: To gelo. But how is it written in devnagri? तो गेलो. Yet how is it actually read in Konkani? It is read as and not as . Bear in mind that such instances aren’t rare, since open es and os abound in Konkani. And I presume we have the same problem where Konkani written in the Kannada script is concerned. The question that comes to my mind is, “Since open os and es are found all over the Konkani language, can the Konkani that is currently written in any of the Indian scripts, be properly called a phonetic language?” Just think about it.

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