The Sa-Sha-Sh Conundrum

I often wonder what makes parents decide the names of their children. Our parents named the three of us- Anshu, Manish and Ashish. Now there is nothing wrong with that. In fact when you say the names together, you might find a sort of lyrical tune to it too. Try saying it.

But that’s not where the problem lay. These names, when written in Devnagari script, will read: अंशु , मनीष, आशीष. So these use two of the three Sa sounds in the Hindi language. The real issue was that both my parents grew up and studied in Bihar. Where half the population will pronounce the three letters in the Hindi varnamala (स, श, ष) identically. It all sounds like sa. So in effect, for our entire lives, our parents called us: अंसु, मनीस and आसीस. My perennial bone of contention was: why name your kids something you cannot pronounce correctly! That too all three!

My mother would retort saying that, of course I can say your names correctly. And then proceed to say ‘Ansoo, Manees, Aasees”. Aargh. And if I complained too much, her acerbic tongue would lash out: ” If you say too much of sssshhh, some baby around you might pee and do su-su with all that ssshhhing!”. There was no way you could counter her arguments.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the Hindi language, there are three S sounds: स, श, ष . It depends on how you move your tongue in your mouth. When my mother taught me Hindi, she would say दन्त स, तालव्य श , मूर्धन्य ष . Of course she would pronounce all three of them स!

The names tell you exactly how to pronounce these consonants. स (दन्त=teeth) is a consonant which is pronounced by directing a stream of air using your tongue towards teeth which are held closely together. श (तालव्य=palate) is a consonant which is articulated with the straight tongue raised against hard palate. ष (मूर्धन्य =retroflex, turn backwards) is a consonant which is pronounced with the tongue curled back and articulated between the alveolar ridge and hard palate.

I grew up in the south of India, where they get these nuances of pronounciation absolutely right. While we in North India struggle with three simple S sounds in ‘सुद्ध’ Hindi, most of us are aghast to learn that Tamil has three N sounds (ந,ன,ண) and even tougher L sounds (ல,ள,ழ). For those of you who say Tamil stylishly and wrongly, the correct pronunciation is Tamizh (தமிழ்) . Zha(ழ) has no equivalent in either English or Hindi, and it is pronounced by touching your tongue deep inside your palate. Our fun time to test fluency in Tamizh was to ask people what to call a banana. It is pronounced வாழைப்பழம் (vazhaypazham), where a novice North Indian usually ends up with a contorted tongue!

A guide to Tamil phonetics

While we struggled to understand these complicated phonetics in Tamil, life took us to Maharashtra, where we discovered another L sound () and more confusing J sounds in Marathi. Never having studied Marathi in school, I still don’t know when to pronounce ‘jha’ or ‘zha’.

Such a complicated world of phonetics! I always grumbled when my parents called me Ansoo. But now that they are no longer around, the love in that mispronounced name is sorely missed.


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