The theory of phonemes in Mīmāṃsā (and Nyāya)

Phonemes are real entities and the most basic units of speech. Mīmāṃsā authors distinguish phonemes (varṇa) from their phonic manifestation, i.e., sounds (also called `phones’ in contemporary linguistic theory).

Linguistic communication is possible exactly because phonemes are unchangeable. Sounds, however, are changeable and are considered the cause of differences in local accents, etc. Words are strings of phonemes, arranged in specific sequences, just like sentences are string of words.

Mīmāṃsā authors are involved in an ongoing polemics with Nyāya authors about the nature and characteristics of phonemes. Traces of this polemics can be detected already in the Mīmāṃsāsūtra, in a section (MS 1.1.6–23), which has been suspected (see Frauwallner 1961) to be a slightly later addition, insofar as it deals with the nityatva `fixedness’ of phonemes and not just with the topic of the fixedness of the word-meaning relation, which is the only element being really essential for the Mīmāṃsā theory of language. In fact, MS 1.1.5 and then MS 1.1.24 deal with the necessary fixedness of the relation linking linguistic expressions and their meanings. Why would Mīmāṃsā authors also enter into the moot topic of the fixedness of phonemes? It is possible that, as reproduced in the very Mīmāṃsāsūtra, the topic is indeed triggered by (proto-)Naiyāyika objections aiming at showing that phonemes are nothing but sounds, produced each time by the speakers, just like any other sound.

Thus, the polemics with Nyāya (or proto-Nyāya) authors starts with a different understanding of two crucial terms, namely nitya and varṇa. For Mīmāṃsā authors, varṇa indicates the phoneme, as opposed to its phonic realisation, called dhvani. Nitya indicates, as usual in Mīmāṃsā, the fixed nature of phonemes, which cannot be altered by human interventions. By contrast, for Nyāya authors, varṇa indicates exactly the phonic realisation and it is distinguished from dhvani only insofar as groups of phonemes are conventionally linked to a meaning. Nitya indicates for Naiyāyikas temporal eternity, which cannot be attributed to sounds, since one knows out of experience that sounds cease soon after they are produced.
Mīmāṃsā authors reply that phonemes can’t be ephemeral, since if phonemes were nothing but ephemeral sounds, one could not recognise them and therefore linguistic communication —which depends on a fixed link between signifier and signified— would be impossible. Naiyāyikas answer that what one recognises is the universal shared by all single ephemeral sounds

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4 thoughts on “The theory of phonemes in Mīmāṃsā (and Nyāya)

  1. “Real entities”? I don’t agree. If by “real” you mean physical, then they are not. Unless if you mean to include a purely neurophysiological and chemical account of consciousness. If by “real” you have another meaning in mind, such as “mental” or “semantic” then you are into a different set of quite difficult discussions.

    Sound is real. A phoneme is a semantic-logical construction. When Matilal was making the distinction, he would refer to the first, sound, as a “phonic blast.” That clearly points to the physical reality of a phonetic act, i.e., sound vibrating the vocal cords. What Patanjali calls “dhvaniḥ.”

    I am puzzled that you assert that phonemes are unchangeable. Language changes all the time, between speech communities and even in one individual at different times. Phonemes change too, in the same circumstances, sometimes gradually, sometimes fast. For example, I’ve noticed that some contemporary English speakers say not /bikoz/ but /bikəz/. (Example at 1:44: First time I heard it, I didn’t quite understand it, and “curs” (wild dogs) came to mind. Now I do understand it. The /kəz/ with ə has become phonemic for me.

    I am not convinced that the “varṇa” of Mīmāṃsakas is truly “phoneme” as understood by contemporary linguistics (minimal pair, etc.). I believe that varṇa retains some connection with the idea of a syllable or even a written glyph. Or am I wrong? Do the Mīmāṃsakas do the minimal pair test? Maybe with anvaya and vyatireka? There is something along these lines in the Mahābhāṣya, but Patanjali never gets the whole way to a phoneme theory.

    • Hi Dominik, thanks as usual for the interesting comment. Some first thoughts:
      —What you say about phonemes changing would be interpreted by Mīmāṃsakas and many modern linguists (I discussed the issues with Giovanni Ciotti) as regarding phones (the phonic realisation of phonemes) not phonemes. So, the same Italian phoneme /s/ could be pronounced differently in different regions or by different speakers, but it remains the same phoneme. By contrast, in other languages the pronunciation of it as /z/ makes a different phoneme, since there are minimal pairs etc.
      —”Real” translates vastu or vastutaḥ. This means that phonemes are not extracted a posteriori out of a truly individed sentence or word, but that they are autonomously existing. They are the minimal units of speech, although they are not carriers of meaning.
      —Mīmāṃsakas refer to pairs in which only a phoneme changes, such as pīna and dīna (Tantrarahasya, chapter 3), although I agree that the theory of varṇas is not based on that. However, I would strongly claim that the connection with glyphs is absolutely absent in the Mīmāṃsā account. They also regularly distinguish 4 varṇas (although there are two syllables) in words such as nadī.

      • Perhaps my example was misleading. The point was that I didn’t understand the /bikəz/ when I first heard it. The phonic variation had gone past the point of “minimal pair.” If I heard /bikoz/ and /bikəz/ and had no trouble understanding that they were the same, then yes, that’s two phones but one phoneme. But doesn’t my incomprehension point to a breakdown of that phoneme?

        But perhaps I’m simply wrong. However, I am sure that with more thought and experience one could easily find cases of shifting phonemes.

        The metaphor behind the word “vastu” is a building. So in “vastutas” there’s an implied reference to the physical world.

        Your remarks are very interesting and clarify things a lot. I must think more.

        Warm greetings!

        • Thanks again, Dominik.

          As for “because”, I would say that the minimal pair procedure works only within a given community of speakers. Therefore, /l/ and /r/ are allophones for a Japanese speaker, but not for you or for me. I am sure that for a given community of, e.g., Canadian-English speakers or Under-18 British-English speakers /o/ and /ə/ can be allophones in a specific environment. Thus, I would say that the phoneme remains the same, although with different allophones manifesting it. But I am happy to admit that this theory sees language outside of its historical development and that I see your point (after all, /i/ before vowel in Latin became something else in various neo-Latin languages, thus giving raise to new minimal pairs).

          Vastu is a very interesting topic (I wrote a paper on the difference between vastu, artha, piṇḍa, vācya etc. in Jayanta). In the philosophical śāstras I know better, I would say it means “real” independently of its being physical. Accordingly, Buddhist thinkers of Dharmakīrti’s school claim that apohas are “vastu” whereas universals are not. Naiyāyikas say the opposite.