Skip to content

CHAPTER 1 – The Speech-sounds

CHAPTER 1 – The Speech-sounds

How do words arise? What is their source? Where do they come from? Which are earlier, things or names? Are words merely labels? Or do they express, in some way, the essence of the things they name? Is onomastics, a scientific study of the origin and forms of words and names, possible?

At first sight, these questions appear to be simple to answer and useless to raise. Man is a social being. He has fears to express, a mate or mates to attract. He has to warn, to make signs, to show off, in order to survive. Given some intelligence and organs of articulation beyond those of brutes, it is obvious that man should invent some kind of a system of signs to facilitate mutual com- munication.

In any case, what is this question of primacy of words or things? Is it not obvious that things come first and their names come afterwards? Things are real; words are airy. That which we call a rose, by another name will smell as sweet. We use a small portion of our speech to give names to even a smaller portion of the things of the world. There are an infinite number of things in the womb of time and far-away spaces waiting to be named, just as there are things, images and emotions in our minds and hearts without a name and a local habitation. But the lack of names does not diminish their reality or importance. Names are an accident— and, some would say, an unhappy accident—in the life of mankind. Animals manage to live without a word-language and consequently without wars and propaganda and lying com- mercials and ads. Man too has lived without a language or, at least, with a very rudimentary form of it, in the past. He may do so again in future when either because he has descended to a new barbarism as a result of internecine wars or because he has so evolved that the present plethora and babel of names, made up of words of dubious and imprecise meanings, gives place to exact mathematical signs and equations.

In any case, what do we gain by raising the question? What is its utility? Man’s language is given and that is the end of it. We might discuss the grammar, syntax, structure and peculiarities of a language but any discussion beyond that, into its so-called deeper origin and significance, can only be an idle speculation.

But the question is not as simple as that. Those who have given thought to this subject have found in speech and words a deep mystery. To all appearances, a word melts or evaporates into thin air as soon as it is spoken but in reality it has a subtle, inner life. A word is like a thought, seemingly insubstantial but in reality incarnating a deep truth of mind, life, and consciousness. Words change and even melt and die but when we go behind appearances we find that they have seed or core meanings which persist through time’s ups and downs, wear and tear.

It is widely admitted that speech and psyche are intimately connected. Therefore, the question has great meaning for those who are attracted by the need of self-discovery. Any apparent lack of utility of this study will not deter a serious inquirer. If mind and speech are closely linked, it will be a great thing to understand this link and feel the innerness of speech. Then speech will no longer remain an outer ornament or even a utilitarian tool invented to facilitate a certain purpose. Rather, it will seem to take birth and grow from some inner, psychic centre or centres. Language will no longer be a collection of disparate words and signs, but something like a tree, its different parts coming out of a common root, and held together in the unity of mind. It will no longer be the mind’s tool or invention, accidental, arbitrary and detachable, but its indispensable expression, necessary and inevitable.

It is obvious that the problem which we have set out to study is not an easy one. It involves exploration beyond the frontiers of the mind in that twilight zone or rarified atmosphere where thought tends to cease and melts into silence. The study calls for patience and intuitive feeling, for forces and processes which are subtle, which lie behind the outer appearances of things.

Apart from the prospect of gaining knowledge of some import- ant facet of our mind, we have also another aim in making this enquiry. Hard is the knowledge of the good and names are a great part of that knowledge, believes Plato. Our purpose is to understand that aspect of the language in which it incarnates the higher reaches of mind, and expresses the deeper truths of the heart.

Language has not merely expressed man’s fears; it has also expressed his sense of mystery. Again and again, man has sung of Gods and Divine Life and his idea of the Good and the Beautiful in sublime speech. This sublime speech, these inspired words, he has treasured as his veritable heritage, his Vedas. But in the passage of time, man’s thought-habits and speech-mores change and the inspired words become difficult to understand. Can a study of language, in the manner we have indicated, help us to recapture the meanings of older scriptures? Can this study help us to understand the deeper life of man, his vision of Gods and the Good? Can this study throw some light on religious consciousness in general and the cherished old scriptures in particular? For example, can we understand the mentality of the seers of the Vedas—humanity’s oldest extant scripture—by studying their language? Or can we understand the import of their language by entering into the state of their mind?

This kind of enquiry is particularly important at a time when there is a general distrust of words. The distrust comes not only from logical positivists but also from preachers who claim to teach higher truths. A reasonable warning against the misuse of words and language is apt and necessary. The ‘letter killeth’ was stressed by all teachers. But some new teachers go to absurd lengths in denouncing all scriptures. In fact, at times it appears that their only claim to religious leadership consists in their sweeping denunciation of scriptures. Their teaching is steeped in negativism and denial but in the process they create their own scriptures for their own followers.


The best way to begin the inquiry is to refer to a dialogue by Plato, Cratylus, in which he discusses this very problem with a view to understand the mystery of speech. He does not claim to have solved the mystery, but he does succeed in deepening the enquiry and in making several valuable suggestions. In this dialogue, one character, Hermogenus, doubts if “there is any principle of correctness in names other than convention or agreement”.1 Another character, Cratylus, from whom the dialogue takes its name, holds that things have names by nature or, at least, names have by nature a truth to express, and, though not everyone knows how to give a true name, nor are things and men always called by their true names, there is a truth and correctness in names which do express the forms of things and which is the same for the Hellenes as well as for the barbarians.

Socrates agrees with the second position and shows why. Let us, he says, suppose that we had no voice or tongue, but we wanted to communicate. Then like the deaf and dumb, we should imitate the nature of things with our hands and head and the rest of the body: the elevation of our hands to heaven to express highness and upwardness; letting things drop down to the ground for heaviness and drowsiness. So as limbs imitate things in order to express them,2 similarly, in some subtle way, words and vocables also imitate things to express them.

Socrates explains the point further. He says that as all objects have sound and figure and may have colours too and the arts which are concerned with them are music and drawing; similarly each thing has an essence too which could be expressed in letters and syllables.

Socrates says that we must first break a word into its primary letters. Just as a musician first considers the power of elementary and then of compound sounds and then proceeds to the con- sideration of rhythm, similarly, we must separate vowels and consonants and mutes and then see whether they imitate things of nature. On considering this he finds they do.

Like ancient Indian thinkers on the subject, Socrates also finds that the sound rh (letter rho) expresses motion and that it is an excellent instrument for the expression of that idea. In this sound, primitive men observed that “the tongue was most agitated and least at rest”. Therefore, it is actually used in words which mean flowing, trembling, striking, crushing, breaking, bruising, crumbling, whirling. Similarly, in pronouncing sounds repre- sented by letters psi, phi, sigma and zeta, there is a great expenditure of breath; therefore, they are used in the imitation of notions like shivering (psukhron) and seething (zeon). The sound n seems to be sounded from within and, therefore, to have a notion of inwardness. Hence, we find this sound in words like endon (in, within), and entos (inside, within). The sound / has a liquid quality and, in pronouncing it, the tongue seems to slip; therefore, it is found in words which mean smooth, level, sleek and slip. Alpha is the best for the expression of size, eta for length, because “they are great letters”. The o sound is round; therefore, it is found in words that mean roundness.3

So, according to Socrates, speech should be broken up into its elemental constituent-sounds which according to him have different expressive values. Socrates does not develop his sugges- tion and merely takes up individual words and names, mostly of _ Gods and moral qualities, for his illustration and elucidation. Therefore, we are left to fend for ourselves and see what we can make of this suggestion. But before we take up this point again, let us look a little more closely at the speech-sounds of a language.


There are about 3,000 languages in the world, two-thirds of them spoken by only a few thousand or even a few hundred people. Twelve languages—Chinese, Hindi, English, Russian, Spanish, German, Japanese, French, Italian, Malayan, Portuguese and Arabic—together cover an overwhelming majority of the world’s population. Even these languages belong to larger language-groupings. For example, eight of them belong to the Indo-Aryan group of languages with many points of contact between them.

One would have thought that in these languages we would find a vast number of man’s possible speech-sounds which, theo- retically, are limitless. But in reality, all language-groups in the world have between them no more than a thousand sounds. Normally, the speech-sounds in any language never exceed sixty.

The English language has only 26 letters, though they do the work of 55 phonemes including 21 vowel sounds. A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech that serves to distinguish one utterance from another in a language. One language may make distinctions which another disregards; hence different languages have dif- ferent phonemes.

In classical Sanskrit there are 48 articulate sounds, including 13 vowels (not counting pluta or protracted vowels), and 35 consonants. Besides these, the Vedic language had two more sounds. It also divided vowels into uddatta (acute), anuddtta (grave) and svarita (circumflex).

In 1919 the Chinese Ministry of Education brought out a set of 39 phonetic letters. Most of these have their equivalents in Indo- European languages, though their clustering to form words is different in the Chinese language. Also, besides consonants and vowels, a Chinese word has a third constituent—a tone.

The Japanese language too has a simple phonetic structure. It has 5 vowels and 19 consonants. Vowels can be lengthened or combined to make diphthongs and some of the consonants change their sound-value in association with other sounds.

Even these 50 or 60 speech-sounds which a language uses are not all used equally. The potentiality of some sounds is exploited more fully than that of others. Some of them are used intensively, others sparingly, and yet others rarely if at all.

In the English language, the letters e, t, a, o, n, i, r, s, and h belong to the high-frequency group. These nine letters between them account for 70 per cent frequency, that is, in a passage containing 100 letters, 70 of them are likely to be these nine. The letters d, l, u, c and m belong to the medium-frequency group, accounting for 16.5 per cent frequency. The letters p, f, y, w, g, b, and v belong to the low-frequency group of only 11.5 per cent. The letters j, k, g, x and z belong to the rare-frequency group, accounting for only 2 per cent.

This picture is somewhat inaccurate since we have given the frequency-use of different letters rather than of different sounds, which do not coincide in the English language. The letter e which represents the highest frequency, namely 13 per cent, could represent more than one sound and could also be represented in more than one way. It could be represented in 16 different ways, by ee as in fee, ea as in eat, ie as in mien, ei as in seize, ey as in key, eo as in people, i as in pin. Similarly, the sound sh in she is represented in several ways in words like sure, mission, Asia, issue, nausea, special, ocean, machine, conscience, schedule, anxious. But we hope that the two tendencies, one letter standing for several sounds and several letters expressing the same sound, cancel each other out and our frequency chart is broadly true of sound-values.

$$Dr. Gauri Dharmapal was kind enough to prepare for me the frequency-chart of Sanskrit letters as they appear in the Slokas 11- 30 of the Second Chapter of the Gita. From this we find that the letters a, t, a, n, i, y, v, r, e, s, and m belong to the high-frequency group. Even within this group a, which tops the list, has two and a half times the frequency of t, the second in order, and almost eight times the frequency of letter m, the last in order. Letters m, §, 0, d, h, u, c, p, h, k, bh, 7, j, n, th, s, and ai belong to the medium- frequency group, the first of these being four times more frequent than the last. Letters dh, u, r, au belong to the low-frequency category; and the rest to the rare-frequency group including the cerebral mutes which are even rarer. Here one may also refer to the frequency-chart given by Dr. W.D. Whitney in his Sanskrit Grammar, commuted from a larger selection of passages drawn from literature of different categories and different epochs. The point all these charts make is that, though a language uses many speech-sounds, it does not attach the same importance to all of them.

Not only do sounds occur with different frequency, but they also associate differently and appear in different combinations and clusters in different languages. For example, io may be more frequent in one language, oi in another. Similarly, some letters may appear more frequently in the beginning than in the middle or at the end of the words. Frequency, place, and grouping of sounds tell a lot and influence the quality of a language and, perhaps, also enter into the meanings and associations of words.

All these sounds are divided into two kinds: vowels and consonants, as we have already seen. Vowel sounds are spoken primarily with the help of the larynx. Consonants, on the other hand, are formed in the cavity of the mouth above the larynx with the help of the palate, roof of the mouth, teeth and lips. These are called the organs of articulation. Consonants themselves are divided into guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, and labial groups, each group taking its name after the organ which helps to produce the sound. So all manifest speech is characterized by constriction, by closure, at one or more points in the breath channel.

$$All these sounds have their individual qualities. Some are hard, some soft, some nasal, some sibilant. Some are short, some long, and yet others still more protracted. Some are acute, some grave, some aspirated, some voiced. Some are sharp, penetrating, hissing while others are deep and resonant. Some require a complete stoppage or closure of the organ of articulation, others do not. In pronouncing a in car, the size of the mouth-opening is five times that of pronouncing the sound u in moon. All vowels and some of the consonants like J, m, n, r, s, z can be prolonged indefinitely; but sounds like b, p, t, d, k, g cannot be prolonged. They are produced by completely stopping the exhaled column of air at three points. They are of extremely brief duration. But there are others of longer duration. They are called continuants, spirants, or fricatives.

Some sounds roll in the mouth, others reverberate. Some are round. Each sound has its peculiar stress and accent.

Besides these qualities, the speech-sounds also carry a subtle atmosphere of their own. They have movement, warmth, vibration, aura—even temper, personality and character.4


This seems close to the view of Socrates and to support his thesis. In this view, speech-sounds are not merely physical; they represent psychic qualities, even ideas, which enter into the making of a name. How it happens, we do not know. Perhaps in giving names to objects and notions we choose, by an unconscious process, speech-sounds of such qualities as also render the qualities of their referents.

The idea is interesting but not without serious gaps. Could we really derive the rich vocabulary of a language with its hundreds of thousands of words from such a limited base of meanings? The meanings—if we can “really call them so at this stage—of speech-sounds are general but those of names specific. Perhaps the qualities of speech-sounds could lend a particular character to a language, and give it a certain ethos, but that they could give a whole or a major part of the vocabulary will need a good deal of proving.

There is a cruder but more popular version of this theory which also derives the names of things from ‘sounds’ but not in the same way. In the Socratic view, sounds have qualities and meanings which they try to match with the qualities and meanings of objects. In the other view, speech-sounds have no such active and dignified status. In this view, names are echoic; they derive from vocal imitation of the sounds associated with things and actions named. Not only words like buzz, hiss, click, crack, creak, croak, crash, gnash but also words like pigeon, pipe, chirp, hark are considered imitative in origin. A language has hundreds of words of this kind.

But even this must be regarded as an insufficient explanation. Firstly, because not all things, actions, and ideas have sounds of the kind which could be physically reproduced, though some of these ideas and things could be very eloquent in another sense of the term. So, how could their sounds be imitated when they have no such sounds in the accepted sense of the term?

Secondly, a sound seems to adjust itself to any fact, object or experience. Some say a pig is a pig because it is so dirty. But if we reflect over the matter a little, we would find that the word pig smells not because of its sound but because of its referent. Headache to a Bengali sounds like jhan-jhan; to a Hindi-speaking person, it also sounds like bhan-bhan. Tak-take la=l, flashing red, seems to a Bengali to translate in the language of the sound a deeply held quality of the colour red—(or perhaps it is not a true imitative word at all, but merely tries to name a striking quality by a striking word)—but it does not seem so to non-Bengalis. The same is true of many other Bengali phrases like cak-cake-roddur (bright sunshine), jhak-jhake a=lo (dazzling light), phur-phure haba= (gentle breeze).

Thus it would appear that a speech-sound does not bring any quality or meaning to a name; on the other hand, it derives its quality from the thing named. Or at most one could say that a name and its referent absorb each other’s qualities and meanings by a process of osmosis. They live in a kind of give-and-take and tend to be coequal. Like water, which takes on the form of the vessel in which it is poured, a sound takes on the shape, colour, and smell of the object it stands for. A sound is vastusa=rupyam, it takes on the form of the thing it stands for.

Thirdly, speech is more than grunts, hums, hoots, wails, cackles, chuckles, snorts, squeaks, giggles, and gnashings of teeth. These may explain words for an elementary and primitive order of life, but not words standing for the higher reaches of life, mind and intellect.

Thus onomatopoeia does not go very far in explaining the origin of names. It also offers little help to the views of Socrates. In fact, in certain essentials, it distorts them. In onomatopoeia, speech-sounds are no more than what they appear to the physical ear; in the thinking of Socrates, they are ideas, powers, and expressions of the mind. In the echoic theory, the name of a thing consists in the vocal imitation of the sound associated with it. To Socrates, this gives no true name. “People who imitate sheep, or cocks, or other animals” are not naming them, he says. Yet he does not rule out imitation altogether; only it means a different thing in the context of his thinking. There, a word does not imitate the sound of a thing, it imitates its ‘form’ or ‘essence’; it expresses “the essence of each thing in letters and syllables”, as he says.5

What should we understand by these statements? Socrates seems to say that every speech-sound has a specific idea to convey, however general; and when this idea also agrees with the idea conveyed by an object or action, we have a true name. For example, the sound r suggests, according to him, as we have already seen, the idea of motion; and he gives several words in his tongue which contain this sound and also mean motion or things in motion. This is how names are given by true legislators, or if we prefer to put it in more impersonal terms, come into being through the operation of an unconscious wisdom.

But this position too is not without its objections. Firstly, if r has such an unalterable meaning and quality, it must show it not only in the Greek language but in every other language too. Secondly, in any language including the Greek, there are words suggesting the meaning of movement but incorporating different speech-sounds. Go, walk, move, jump, fly, glide, come, spin, amble, evolve, descend, ascend are some examples in the English language. Similarly, a sound could enter into words meaning the same general idea but it could also enter into words meaning quite opposite ideas. For example, the sound r enters both into run as well as rest, the two standing for opposite ideas. Thus it seems to be difficult to find a visible correspondence between a system of speech-sounds and a system of objects and ideas, broad or detailed. Can we meet this objection?

Also, what to make of Socrates’ other suggestion that names express the forms and essences of things? How do they do it? And what exactly does it mean? Socrates himself does not adequately discuss these questions. But perhaps his suggestions could acquire clarity and depth by referring to the Hindu thought on the subject.


The old Hindu seers had reflected deeply on many important questions concerning man, his being, his world, his speech. According to them, whenever the mind thinks of anything, it also invokes its corresponding form. The form has an essential sound or name attached to it. In fact, according to these seers, all phe- nomenal existence is na=ma-ru=pa, names and forms. Of these two, names are even more important than forms. An object is merely an outer expression, a material representation of the more internal and essential na=ma.

The Hindus had also a well-developed theory of speech, va=k. According to this theory, speech exists at various levels, in different modes, and in different states of subtlety. Beyond the ordinary spoken level, it also exists as thought, as seed ideas. At these levels, it also includes within itself the objects and actions it names.

But before we take up this theory and look at it more closely, let us first see what the modern scientists have to say about speech.

According to the science of Acoustics, speech, as we ordinarily use it, is multiplied 300 times by the resonant effect of the larynx as the sound passes through it. Similarly, sounds become articu- late speech as they pass through different organs of articulation like the tongue, palate, teeth, lips, when the air passes through the cavity of the mouth.

So, in a way, the basic sounds, the articulate speech-sounds as indicated by the syllabary or letters of a language, are not as self- sufficient as we thought them to be.

So, where do the sounds reside before they acquire audibility and amplitude through the larynx and articulation through the cavity of the mouth, and become modified into guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, and labial sounds? The only valid assumption is that they exist as incipient speech, as prefiguration of speech and not the actual speech as we know it. In this state, speech is probably held in an undifferentiated form; at least, it cannot have the kind of differences that we know and infer from ordinary speech-sounds. At this stage, speech and words must reside in the mind as inclinations or intentions.

Also, at this stage, the sounds are not distinct; and yet the principle of distinction must be there in a seed form. For, what the larynx and the mouth-cavity add is acoustics, volume, audibility, vocability and articulation. But the spirit, the principle of dis- crimination, the principle of unity and difference must be there working all the time from behind. The differences in speech- sounds are most likely there, but they are, at this stage, held in abeyance.

Some of the activities beneath the threshold of the conscious mind, almost physiological and nervous in nature, have recently been recorded by the growing science of electronics. It has been found that the afferent and the efferent parts of the physiology of the human brain, or man’s receptive and expressive centres are intimately related. Whenever a man sees or hears anything, he also tries to imitate it, reproduce it and express it in one form or another. Afferent sensations start efferent impulses. Any act of perception sets up a nervous tension which seeks release through expression. So every act of cognition invokes a mental disposition which expresses itself in some lingual form.

Though this proclivity alone will not explain the birth of a word or name, it is obvious that the sound exists at a more subtle level than we ordinarily know. Even at the level of empiricism and scientific experiments, it exists at least at two levels—audible and inaudible, obvious and relatively hidden, manifest and relatively unmanifest.

$$But the Indian sages go further and enumerate four levels of speech of increasing subtlity—vaikhari, madhyama=, pas^yanti and para=. The vaikhari level is the level that we ordinarily know, where the sound is formed, s^abda-nis+patti. Its seat is the throat. Behind it, and supporting it, is the madhyama va=k with its seat in the heart region. It cannot be heard by all but the more attentive can hear it by closing their ears. It can always be heard by the inner ear, s^rutigocara. Here the sequence and form, kramaripa, are not the same as we see them in ordinary speech. Beyond this lie two other levels, pas^yanti= and para=, with their seats at the navel, na=bhi, and the solar plexus, mu=la=dha=ra, respectively. They are beyond the ken of the ordinary mind and they can be seen only by Yogis in states of deep trance. In pas^yanti=, there is no sound but only meaning, dyotita=rtha. In this state, the speech is indivisible, avibha=ga, and the forms and sequence are fused or concentrated, sarvatah samhrta-krama, as in a seed. In para the speech is established in its own luminous form, svariipajyotih, and in its original, primal form before any modifications start. Here sound becomes silence, aSabda, and only a potentiality, avyakta.

But between this noumenal and essential existence of a sound at the unmanifest level and the sound on the phenomenal and mani- fest level, there are many steps and many processes. According to Panini’s Siksa, quoted by Mrs. Annie Besant and Dr. Bhagavan Das, the Self first cognizes and formulates intentions by means of buddhi; then it inspires manas with desire to speak; manas strikes kayagni, body-fire or nerve-force; that, in turn, sets in motion marut, wind or breath; which first moves to the chest, then rises to the palate and finally passes to the mouth, producing articulate sounds classified according to tone, time, place and effort.6

But the meaning of a word does not reside in this last, visible part, in the spoken and audible, fourth limb of a word; rather, it resides in the subtlest portion of the word, in that condition of a sound which, as we have seen, is different from and beyond the syllables, varndatirikta, but still manifested by them. In this status, the word is without any outward expression, without any vocal limbs, niravayava, is permanent, nitya. Indeed, in this status, it is the cause of the world, jagannidanam, and is Brahman Itself.

But for those whom this kind of speculation does not interest and also for our immediate purpose it is not necessary to go this far with the Hindus. It is enough to recognize the next subtle level which a little introspection on our own part can reveal and which scientific instruments can measure. It is enough to say that sounds exist at two levels—as speech-sounds as we ordinarily know them, as guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental or labial; and on the more subtle, unmanifest level, where these distinctions are still in abeyance.

This could meet the objection to Socrates’ theory that different sounds could not stand for different specific ideas as all kinds of ideas are expressed by all kinds of speech-sounds in different languages and even in the same language. For, at the subtle level, a sound represents the general essence of several sounds at the same time. It exists in a form where it could be expressed by different speech-sounds and syllables at the same time. At this level, the sound is not labial or dental or palatal or cerebral or larynxial, yet it could be represented by any such sound without making any difference.

This fact may explain why there are different words for the same thing or the same or similar sounds to express different things and ideas in different languages and in the same language. At the subtle, essential level, the sound to express a particular object or idea is the same; but at the gross, phenomenal level, its forms and disguises could change from language to language and even in the same language. The essential sound could stand for several phenomenal sounds. A race chooses one sound rather than another according to its own genius, inclination, growth, and law of karma. A language develops the potentiality of a seed sound according to its genius and capacity.

In his discussion, Socrates also reaches a point where he too draws the same conclusion but he does not pursue the subject far enough. He gives the simile of smiths who do not use the same iron in making instruments for the same purpose; but as long as the ‘form’ is the same, the instrument must be good even though the material varies and the smith himself may be a barbarian. Similarly, a name-giver, whether he be a Hellene or a barbarian, is to be deemed wise, “provided he gives the true and proper form of the name in whatever syllables”.7

So even according to Socrates, there is something more to a word than its syllables or outer sound. Its true meaning resides in its proper ‘form’, which lies beyond its syllables.


The above theory may explain that a subtle sound represents several speech-sounds but the question still remains: how do sounds whether subtle or gross represent the attributes of things and objects?

We have already answered the question by implication but let us now do it more explicitly and expressly. Let us also attempt our answer in the language of Samkhya. According to Samkhya, the world derives from the mila-prakrti, inadequately translated as Nature in English. Prakrti in its downward evolution towards manifoldness, at one stage takes to two paths. With that quality which is called sattva, in which light predominates, it becomes the subjective world. With this part it creates the antahkarana, the buddhi, the ahamkdara, the manas, the senses. With the other quality called tamas, translated as darkness, it becomes the objective world, the world of tanmatras, and the five elements. So, Janus-like, prakrti is two-faced, one face turned towards the subject and the other towards the object.8 But the two worlds, seemingly opposed, are not different; they are aspects of the same original reality. They take their birth from the same womb. They are involved in each other and they leave their echo and image and vibrations behind in each other. We could, therefore, probably reasonably conclude that the sound at its subtle level expresses the subtle vibrations and qualities of an object. At this subtle level, the two pick up and enter into the vibrations of each other. The vaikhari sound represents the body, the physical vestment of a word. But the subtle sound, the soundless sound in the word, represents the soul, the inner meaning. The first is subject to change, to the wear and tear of time; the second is permanent. The second does not change when the first changes nor ceases to represent it.

But due to one reason or another a word may lose its inwardness or it may have been invented to represent a thing’s more outward appearances and qualities; in such cases the word will be a shell, a body without soul. Every language has plenty of such words.

This may also explain Socrates’ observation that not all things are known by their true names. Every idea has a true form and an appropriate sound. But as nations become unresponsive to the inwardness of things, they may lose the capacity of knowing things in their true forms and knowing their true names and sounds. They only know a thing by its outermost aspect, and therefore by its outermost form and name. Increasingly, they live in a shadow-world, made of shadow-ideas, expressing shadow- forms and shadow-names. Perhaps our intuition that names do not represent things but are artificial labels is true in this sense. We live in the midst of shadows of things, names and forms, not with true things and forms and names.

  1. ‘Cratylus, 384, The Dialogues of Plato translated by B. Jowett. 

  2. All languages have a system of signs made up of bodily gestures. We have gestures of approval, appreciation, anger, disapproval, fear, repentance, distress, beckoning, obscenity. We speak, threaten, supplicate, greet and pray with our hands, face and eyes, and vote with our feet. These gestures go into the making of many phrases in a language. In English we have, nodding or shaking the head, turning up one’s nose, shaking the fist in defiance, holding one’s head high, winking, pouting, pulling a long face, face to face, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder. There are phrases like highbrow, browbeat, underhand, warm-hearted, eye-opener, eyeful, ear-splitting, prick up one’s ears, elbow one’s way, cold- shoulder, faceless, glad eye, hand in hand. The last phrase has a perfect Chinese equivalent in which two hands are shown together to designate a ‘friend’.

    In this connection, read a very interesting article, ‘Gesture’ by F.C. Hayes, in the Encyclopedia Americana. The article mentions for the Spanish language a dictionary, Diccionario de Modismos, which lists nearly 300 phrases in which the hand alone figures. Similarly, for the English language also, a small dictionary like the Webster’s New World Dictionary, gives more than 70 uses for the word hand, 58 for foot, 35 for face, 57 for eye, and 32 for nose.

    The Indian classical dance has perfected this gestural language. Through it, it expresses very mood or bhava, relates stories from the epics, expresses some of the highest ideas. In fact, sometimes this gestural language could be most economical, most eloquent. A seated Buddha, a Tribhangi Krsna, or a Tandava Siva tells more than whole volumes of books. 

  3. Cratylus, 426-7. 

  4. $$In Sanskrit literature, according to certain theories of rhetoric, syllables express particular flavours, rasas. Cerebrals (, th, d, dh, n, § and s) express virile sentiments; so do the first and the third syllables of different vargas (k g, cj, td, p b) when combined with their second and fourth syllables (kh, gh, ch, jh, th, dh, ph, bh) and accompanied by r before or after. Compound words intensify the sense of the virile sentiments.

    On the other hand, the first four syllables of different vargas (except for the cerebrals which ought to be avoided altogether), when combined with their nasals (7, 7, n, m) express softer sentiments. Even r and n, when they are whole and simple to pronounce, do the same. Too many compound words have the opposite effect according to Sahitya Darpana.

    The syllables have even their ‘sex’ and ‘caste’ according to the Tantras. Vowels and simple consonants are female; sibilants and aspirates are neutrals; gutturals are priestly; cerebrals, palatals, and dentals are warriors; labials and liquid are traders; sibilants and aspirates are workers. Gutturals are used for invoking Gods; palatals and dentals for giving call to action; labials and liquids for propitiation and persuasion; sibilants and aspirates are used in certain forms of black magic. 

  5. Cratylus, 423. 

  6. The Bhagvad Gita translated by Annie Besant and Bhagavan Das, 6th Edition, Adyar, 1973, p. xxi. 

  7. Cratylus, 389-90. Emphasis added. 

  8. The old seers always discovered an intimate relationship between different orders of Reality. The Upanishads always established correspondences between ~ the inner and the outer, the cosmic and the individual, the higher and the lower, between the Gdhidaivika and the Gdhibhautika and the Gdhyatmika. For example, they linked Eye and the Sun, Speech and Fire, Breath and Wind, Mind and Moon. (Chandogya Upanisad, 3.18)

    These pairs meet and mingle constantly. They originate in each other and go back into each other. Yajfiavalkya says that the voice of a dead man goes into fire, his breath into wind, his eyes into the sun, his mind into the moon, his hearing into the quarters of heaven, his body into the earth, his soul into space. (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 3.2.13)