bahuvrihi

Here’s a word suited for some silver-tongued polymath, some big-vocabulary linguistic high muck-a-muck. You can be sure that its appeal would be greatest to big-head eccentrics, even as it is itself a headless exocentric.

Really, does this seem like a bit of linguistic heavy breathing? Oh, you don’t know the half of it!

Let’s start with its appearance: it’s a sort of high-tail or fright-wig kind of word, with those ascenders sticking up kind of like your hair might when you see it.

Or when you hear it. It’s all voice and breathing, and the sound of it takes me back to junior-high-school days and the sound of some adolescent bully breathing intimidation into my ear. But you see those h‘s? Well, it just so happens that in Sanskrit – yes, this word comes to us from Sanskrit, a language with a panoply of sounds that could frighten Alexander’s army – the phoneme here written as h was voiced. In fact, anywhere in a Sanskrit word you see an h, it was voiced… except at the end, which is just the place in English we never put a /h/ sound.

I’ll let you wrap your head around that a little. Yes, a voiced version of /h/. There’s an International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for it, but it won’t come through in ordinary character sets, so I’ll leave it. But what, exactly, is the voiced counterpart of /h/?

Well, one British book helpfully described it as the sort of noise a small boy makes to try to startle you. I rather think most people would approach it more by the medium of panting or heavy breathing. Imagine you’re a pervert on the phone… now say (lustily) “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,” making sure to keep the voice involved throughout. That’ll give you some idea.

In the context of this word, what it really means is that the vowels before the h‘s are extended with a breathy quality. And it happens that the first /i/ is long, which in Sanskrit actually means long – that is, like the short one but taking up about twice as much time. So you’ve got a couple of vowels that get a chesty quality at the end, then melt into the next vowel – and the last one is almost like a pervert’s slow giggle, “eeee(h)ee”.

But this word is an English word now, so maybe don’t actually try to say it the old Sanskrit way… you’ll be taken for some sweaty-palm mouth-breathing lowbrow, I daresay.

Oh, and what does this word mean? Well, I’ll start by telling you that it’s an example of what it names (rather like other, newer linguistic terms such as eggcorn). Bahu means “much” and vrihi means “rice”, and put together they make a word for a rich man – a “much-rice”. And they also make a word for words that put an adjective and a noun together to name something that the two words actually describe rather than name – like lowbrow, which refers to someone to whom is attributed a low brow, rather that referring to a low brow itself. The compound is exocentric: it focuses on something external to it.

We actually have a lot of cases of this in English. I’ve sprinkled a few throughout this note, as you may have noticed. We also have some terms that originated in this but aren’t viewed as such now. One such is high muck-a-muck, which comes from hayo makamak, meaning “plenty food” and referring to a rich person – very much like bahuvrihi itself.

4 responses to “bahuvrihi

  1. I’m not a linguist, but I don’t understand all the fuss you make about the ‘h’ in Sanskrit. It’s a perfectly normal sound. According to Wikipedia, the voiced glottal fricative is very much a part of standard (RP) pronunciation of English at least for some speakers, as in the word “behind”. I can’t distinguish between the way I’d pronounce ‘h’ in Sanskrit and the way I’d pronounce it in most English words, but perhaps I’m pronouncing English incorrectly. 🙂

    Also, only one vowel in “bahuvrihi” is long (IAST bahuvrīhi, IPA approximately /bɐɦuʋriːɦi/). The first vowel is short. But perhaps English speakers pronounce it incorrectly. 🙂

    • My mistake on the long vowels – looked it up but misremembered. I’ll correct that. With regard to English speakers saying it incorrectly, they do regardless; most English speakers, of course, can’t deal with actual long/short distinctions; they’re among the harder parts to learn of pronunciation of those languages that have them.

      There are a number of things that English speakers can say but aren’t aware that they can say. Many English speakers think they can’t say a velar nasal at the beginning of a word, and are thrown into fits by Russian words such as borshch and shchi. Getting them to realize they know how to say them is often quite a chore. English speakers readily know when to say aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops, for instance, but are not usually consciously aware that they are making the distinction, and have to be shown that they are doing so with the aid of paper held in front of their mouths (intro linguistics courses, anyone?). And that voiced “h” is likely to take some explanation for a great many speakers. Especially ones who, like most North American English speakers, have a very definite idea (and general realization) of /h/ as invariably voiceless.

      • Nice comment.

        I guess you’re right about syllable length being hard to learn for English speakers (just as the tonality in East Asian languages is hard for outsiders). Conversely, it is certainly the case that stress is hard to learn for (Indian) speakers of syllable-timed languages: most of us tend to either stress all syllables equally, or put stress according to Indian rules, e.g. on the penultimate syllable in ‘development’.

        Also, I must retract part of what I said about ‘voiced h’ being perfectly natural: I listened to a sound recording of ‘voiced h’, and it does seem odd. But then again, it doesn’t sound very much like what Sanskrit pandits would say either. 🙂 I guess English speakers hear Sanskrit h as voiced (that is, it falls on the “voiced” side of the classification). For something similar in the opposite direction, as someone who knows nothing about linguistics, I find it odd that despite the claim that retroflex consonants are not found in English, Indians usually hear “retroflex” consonants throughout English (e.g. in “today”) — that is, the ‘t’ and ‘d’ are mapped to retroflex rather than dental, the only two choices for them in Indian languages. (Saying this makes me suddenly suspect whether IPA transcriptions tend to have a European bias, reflecting what Europeans “hear”. :p)

        Great blog and a clever post, BTW. 🙂

  2. Pingback: butternut | Sesquiotica

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