In December, a clip went viral on Indian social media which showed Bollywood actor Varun Dhawan at a cinema roundtable referring to “Kannad cinema”. Immediately, a number of filmmakers from the South corrected him in unison: “Kannada”.

Dhawan wasn’t alone. If you’ve been on social media, you could not have not have missed the vigorous North-South squabble over the final vowel in South Indian proper nouns such as the names of places and languages.

A matter of schwas

What’s happening? Are Hindi speakers going out of their way to disrespect the Dravidian languages? And why is such a minor issue – a misplaced “a” – creating so much political and cultural heat?

As it so happens, by itself, Hindi speakers pronouncing words like Kannada, Kerala and Karnataka without their final vowels is not a malicious act or, in fact, even an error. It is the correct pronunciation in Hindi.

Some phonology. All Brahmic scripts in the Indo-Aryan family of languages have an inherent vowel. In the case of Hindi, it is the shwa: the same vowel as in the English “cut”. As it so happens, how and where a shwa can occur in a word is governed by a complex set of phonological rules in Hindi. In the word पलटन (<palaṭana>, platoon) for example, the shwa is pronounced after the first and third consonant but not the second and fourth. However, if we add a long vowel to that and make it पलटना (<palaṭanā>, to flip), the inherent shwa will now skip the third consonant ट, <ṭ>.

Like almost all rules of language, Hindi speakers are never explicitly taught these rules. But such is the magic of language for the human species that toddlers and small children end up learning them by hearing how their parents and elders use these rules and imbibing it themselves. So strong is this learning that beyond childhood, it is very difficult to completely unlearn these phonological rules.

As it so happens, one of the most prominent phonological rules in Hindi is the deletion of a final shwa. While a shwa can occur within a word, Hindi speakers can’t (with a few exceptions) pronounce it at the end of a word. This rule becomes very obvious given that Sanskrit – a language that is not only an ancestor of Hindi but that modern Hindi tends to borrow many words from – has a lot of final shwas. Think of the Sanskrit pronunciation of the Hindu god Rāma. Hindi speakers, unable to pronounce the final shwa, end up deleting it, ending up simply with Rām. Siddhārtha, the man who would go on to found Buddhism, becomes Siddhārth.

Hindi is not alone in this. All Indo-Aryan languages have some sort of shwa deletion rule. Bangla too deletes the final vowel of Rāma. However, since each language has its own rules, Bangla keeps the final vowel of Siddhārtha (although its inherent vowel is an “o”: so Siddhartho).

Naturally, like with Rāma, when Hindi speakers come across words like Kannada, Kerala and Karnataka, unable to pronounce the final vowel, Hindi speakers delete it as is the phonological rule of the language.

The Hindi Devanagri script is also not very helpful in this regard since shwa deletion is not marked in Hindi spellings (the name of the script itself is spelt “devanāgrī” in Devanagari but pronounced “devnāgrī”). Hindi speakers simply guess where the schwas are with the confidence that comes with being native speakers. While it is pronounced Rām, the Hindi word is actually spelt Rāma (राम). A so-called correct or phonetic spelling would use a Nagri device for muting the inherent vowel: the halanta (राम्). But since there can never be a final shwa in Hindi, adding a halanta is redundant and Hindi speakers simply lop it off in their heads.

If one forces a Hindi speaker to pronounce the final vowel in a word like Rāma, at best what she will be able to come up with is Rāmā (रामा). However, whether Rāmā is phonetically closer to Rāma than Rām is a matter of debate. And, of course, the bigger point is whether Hindi speakers need to measure their language with another. Rām, like Kannad, is native to Hindi and that by itself should be enough for Hindi speakers.

The Indo-Aryan languages of South Asia. Credit: CC BY 3.0

So why the controversy?

By itself, each language having different names for the same thing is so common that it rarely becomes contentious. For example, the Germans call they country Deutschland and to the Chinese, their homeland is Zhangguo. However, English-language exonyms like Germany or China are uncontroversial.

Unlike English and Chinese, of course, Kannada and Hindi exist in the same country. However, even in that case, the debate on Hindi pronunciations is unusual. For example, the language known as “Bangla” to its native speakers is called “Bengali” in Kannada. However, it creates no controversy.

The only parallel to this culture war within India is the anger at English names that has cropped up in recurring bouts since Independence. After Independence, the English names of towns and districts such as Cawnpore and Poona were replaced with spellings that reflected their pronunciation in the state language. (Outside India, Singapore is now the standard bearer of the native English pronunciation of the popular Indo-Aryan toponymic suffix “pur”).

Notably, names such as Kanpur, Kolkata or Mumbai have always existed in their state languages. But now they exist in English too.

Clearly, what is happening with Kannada vs Kannad is a version of this. Many Dravidian speakers want Hindi speakers to adopt the Dravidian pronunciation of proper nouns and abandon the native Hindi standard.

The common thread here, of course, is that both English and Hindi are seen as languages with inordinate power in India. English through colonial rule and then a post-colonial class divide; and Hindi through efforts to impose the language on non-Hindi speaking states using the efforts of the Union government in Delhi.