Daily Archives: November 6, 2010

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.

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