Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Partial non-word homophones

partial-homophones-nonwords Even the simplest of homophones are open to question due to accent differences. Things get more contentious with clues that split the answer into fragments and serve only one of those fragments as a homophone.

For example:

FT 13788 (Redshank): Russian boss doesn’t start split, say, using scorn (7) SARCASM
[t]SAR (Russian boss, without start) CASM ~chasm (split)

The second part of the answer [CASM] has been clued as a homophone, but that part is not a dictionary word by itself.

Are non-word homophone clues fair?

They're certainly accepted by the major UK crosswords, including the Times.

Solvers' reactions are mixed, though. Such clues can be tricky to solve as the intended spelling/pronunciation of a non-word is not fixed.

Further complexity is added when the pronunciation of the homophonic fragment is different from its pronunciation in the full answer.

FT 13638 (Loroso): West Indian batsman said, of life, that playing the game leads to natural selection (8,2,3,7) SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
SURVIV (sounds like Sir Viv – West Indian batsman)  (OF LIFE THAT)* TEST (game). Here, SURVIV is a homophone of 'Sir Viv', but SURVIV in SURVIVAL does not sound like 'Sir Viv'.

In general, clue-writing contests appear to be critical of clues using non-word homophones.

An interesting comment by Roger Phillips while judging a Times clue-writing contest for the word BERSERK:

Some clue used the partial homophones “bursar” and “burrs” for the BERSER and BERS parts of the answer respectively. Since these are not words themselves, they have no established pronunciation, so I compared the alleged homophones with the relevant part of BERSERK (in either of its two pronunciations). In both cases, the first vowel sound isn’t a perfect match, being a stressed “eu” (as in French “deux”) in the two candidates but an unstressed schwa in “berserk”.

What do you think of partial non-word homophone clues?

Solve These

FT 14029 (Loroso): Bill reportedly sick during party, a minor faux pas (10) P_______L_
Times 24964: Test some articulated with hesitation for several years (9) T__E_____
Times 24023: Child left men with lover reportedly (6) O_____

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012



While looking up something about homophones on the net I discovered an interesting word "oronym" - a neologism for homophones that span multiple words. Oronym isn't listed in any of the standard dictionaries but Wikipedia has a page on it that says:

This particular '-onym', oronym, was invented by Gyles Brandreth and first published in his book The Joy of Lex (1980). This term also featured in the BBC programme Never Mind the Full Stops, which also featured Brandreth as a guest.

Oronyms also find a mention in Steven Pinker's popular book The Language Instinct (p155):

We simply hallucinate word boundaries when we reach the edge of a stretch of sound that matches some entry in our mental dictionary. This becomes apparent when we listen to speech in a foreign language: it is impossible to tell where one word ends and the next begins. The seamlessness of speech is also apparent in "oronyms," strings of sound that can be carved into words in two different ways

Oronyms share a similar chain of consonant and vowel sounds, but they are typically composed of words cut at different points in the phonetic strings. Some examples:

Any [grey day / grade A] would be bad news for this professor.
I don't know how [mature / much your] people enjoy such a show.
The good [can decay many ways / candy came anyways].

A cryptic clue based on oronyms:

Guardian 25491 (Orlando): I holler out loud for something to eat in parlour (3,5) ICE CREAM
sounds like I SCREAM (holler out loud)

Another closely related word is "mondegreen", mostly used for misheard song lyrics. The word "mondegreen" was coined in 1954 by author Sylvia Wright. As a child, Wright heard the fourth line in The Bonny Earl O'Moray (a Scottish ballad) as "and Lady Mondegreen" when the actual line is "And laid him on the green". Fun With Words gives more examples of mondegreens and Man-Bol has a user-generated collection of Hindi mondegreens.

Solve These

A few oronym-based clues for you to solve.

Sunday Times 4482: Naked swimmer reportedly a cure for depression?  (3,4) N__ ___L

Times 24557: Having excellent vision, join team for audition (4-4) L___ ___D

Times 25185: Lack inspiration as cartoonist, say, for too long (5-3) D____-__T

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Why Hindi and cryptic crosswords do not mix

hindi-crosswords Have you seen or heard of a Hindi cryptic crossword? I have not.

The scarcity of cryptic crosswords in Hindi is not surprising. Most cryptic wordplay techniques as we know them in English are not easily plugged into Hindi. Let's look at why, and explore other types of wordplay that may work in Hindi.

The problem of precision

Cryptic wordplay essentially operates on:

  • the arrangement of letters in words
  • open ends in pronunciation
  • variety in word meanings

How well do these map to Hindi?

Short word lengths => reduced letter arrangement options

The Hindi character set has 48 symbols (13 vowels, 35 consonants) as opposed to 26 in English. This has a condensing effect - sounds that take 2 or 3 letters to express in English (cha-, tha-, etc.) require only a single character in Hindi (च, थ, etc.). Also, Hindi words are spelled not with letters but with syllables. Vowels get latched on to consonants, consonant clusters are written as conjuncts.

The outcome of it all is that it takes far fewer characters to write a word in Hindi than in English. An English word of length 6 letters typically uses 2-3 characters in Hindi. This limits the wordplay options available to the setter.

Written as pronounced

Since the Devanagari script is phonetics-based, the case of words with the same pronunciation and different spellings does not arise. This more or less rules out the homophone clue type.

Fewer words with grammatical variety

English has a rich vocabulary of words with multiple meanings. The most deceptive cryptic clues come from words that shift parts of speech.

Word meanings in Hindi are a lot more fixed. One has to strain to think of Hindi words with more than one meaning, plus it is harder to craft smooth clue surfaces for them. Hindi clue for पिया (drank/sweetheart), anyone?

Gender specificity of nouns => trickier surface reading

Every noun in Hindi has a gender; verbs and adjectives change form according to this gender. You live in an अच्छा घर (achha ghar – good house) but drive an अच्छी गाड़ी (achhi gaadi – good car). Synonyms of the same noun can have different genders: हवा (hawa – air) is feminine but पवन (pavan – air) is masculine.

To create a clue in which the surface as well as cryptic reading is grammatical, the Hindi crossword setter has an additional dimension to take care of – the gender agreement of verbs/adjectives with nouns. When the clue's definition is masculine, the setter is restricted to masculine forms only in the wordplay. The English crossword setter has no such constraints with common nouns.

Lack of standard cryptic abbreviations?

Cryptic abbreviations are a necessary tool for the setter to encode short segments of the answer. The Hindi crossword setter, as far as I can see, does not have access to a large enough pool of handy abbreviations. I'm possibly ignorant about this one but other than a few like musical notations and days of the week, I can't think of many crossword-friendly standard abbreviations in Hindi. Those commonly known ones are either translated from English or are not much use in a cryptic clue.

Randomly listing some English abbreviations and their Hindi equivalents:

  English Abbreviation Hindi Abbreviation
  AM प्रातः
  BA बी.ए.
  NO. क्रं.
  i.e. जो है कि
  e.g. जैसे कि
  U.P. (Uttar Pradesh)
M.P. (Madhya Pradesh)
उ. प्र.
म. प्र.

This isn't making it any easier for the Hindi cryptic setter, is it?

These clue types appear hard to work with in Hindi:

charades: Unless the word is a compound word, splitting a Hindi word doesn't easily give other meaningful words. No wonder that while playing dumb charades, the "break the word" option is followed frequently with a call to "switch language".

containers: Without support of abbreviations, content/container segments are tough to clue in Hindi.

anagrams: Hindi words aren't as amenable to anagramming as English. At best the anagram is a simple rearrangement of letters within the same word. Can you think of a Hindi word that leads to many anagrams / multi-word anagrams? [We can sort KRISHNA in a variety of ways - A SHRINK, HIS RANK, KHAN SIR, etc. Try कृष्ण?]

homophones: Hindi words are spoken exactly as they are written.

Other tricks like false capitalization do not translate either as Hindi has no upper/lower cases.

Different Beasts, Different Handling

If it doesn't work one way, try another. Here are some ideas to make cryptic crosswords in Hindi possible.

Making the most of Hindi-friendly clue types

The short length of Hindi words is of great advantage with clue types that function on a letter-by-letter basis. 

acrostics: Certain letters dominate the start and end of words in a regular Hindi sentence, like ka / ha / ra / ma . If the answer contains such letters, the acrostic clue type offers many options to the cryptic setter.

hidden words: Words can be smoothly concealed in natural Hindi phrases.

deletions, letter picking, letter shifting, letter exchange, substitutions: Many new Hindi words get generated by the twist of a single consonant or vowel. Anything to do with single letter movement is easy for the setter.

cryptic definitions: Couplets with end rhymes sit very well with Hindi. Riddle-like clues in couplet form might be excellent as cryptic definitions in a crossword.

Script normalization

Hindi follows the abugida writing system of treating a consonant-vowel sequence (syllable) as one unit. If each syllable is counted as a single cell entry, checking and connectivity in a crossword grid become hard to achieve.

Crossword grid makers have found a way out of this problem with "unicode normalization" – i.e. separating the vowel from the consonant for the grid fill. The same workaround could be extended to the clues – treating the consonants and vowels as separate units for wordplay. 

Dialect-based wordplay

This might cause a few ruffled feathers but wordplay on regional dialects is an interesting area waiting to be explored.

Bilingual wordplay

If the game is extended to allow literal Hindi-English translations, very innovative clues are possible.

Here's a bilingual clue by Vinod Raman for the word TAU:

Devi Lal: "Chautala shayad chala gaya" (3)

How brilliant is that surface! We just have to be willing to weld Hindi content with English cryptic grammar: shayad (perhaps) as anagram indicator and gaya (gone away) as deletion indicator.

Your thoughts?

Update (24-Oct-2013): A year after this post was written, Kishore and I created an 11x11 Hindi cryptic: Shuddh Desi Cryptic Crossword – in Hindi.

Solve These

Hindi cryptic clues for you to solve. Enjoy and write your own.

भारत और पाकिस्तान के बीच उत्साह (3)

गुज़र गया? प्रेतात्मा! (2)

आख़िरकार फौलादी, लगभग पूरी पकड़ के साथ वर्ग पहेली हल करते हैं (3)

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