Konkani Saga in the Roman Script

The Konkani language is written in many scripts. Ricardo Cabral’s latest offering, Konkani in the Roman Script: a Short Grammatical Study, is a welcome addition to the limited bibliography on the subject. It maps out Konkani’s saga from the time Roman script made an entry into Goa, in the sixteenth century; and more importantly, the book earnestly proposes a modified script.

Before elaborating on the historical “Romanization process”, Cabral looks at fragments of the linguistic history of the mull Goenkar (original natives): the Gauddas and Kunnbis living around the foothills of the Verna-Nuvem plateau. Stating that “the first dialect that has to be taken note of is the Gaudda/Kunnbi dialect”, the author goes on to list its salient phonetic and syntactical features.

Konkani developed a complex structure comprising dialects from the North (up to Malvan) and South (up to Mangalore), with Antruzi, Kunnbi, Shashti, Bardezi and Koli forming the central group. As a result of the immigratory waves from the north and south of the present-day territory of Goa, different dialects of Konkani got integrated down the centuries. That was the position at the time the Christian missionaries began what would turn out to be a grand linguistic enterprise. The Jesuits and the Franciscans naturally chose to write in the Roman script, which was common to Portuguese, Latin and English, and was easier to print.

Cabral traces three developmental phases of Konkani in the Roman script: first, what he calls the Eureka phase, “when all things for the foreign missionaries were objects of wonderment” (16th-19th centuries); then, the middle or Bombay Blast phase (end of 19th to mid-20th century), for the then British Indian metropolis was the nerve centre for Konkani productions in the Roman script; and finally, the modern, consolidation phase (mid-20th to early 21st century). Noting that it was not simple for the missionaries to transcribe the sounds, much less standardise the orthography, Cabral gives examples of how writing in Konkani evolved from being heavily dependent on Latin and Portuguese phonology to trying to find an independent script in contemporary times.

It is not clear why Cabral titles the second chapter “Etymology” when it deals with word or lexical classes as in a traditional grammar. Verbs are then treated more in detail in the third chapter; and it is only in the fourth chapter that we catch a glimpse of the alphabet. It is not always easy to find apt English examples to illustrate sounds in Konkani; quite understandably, the pronunciation chart of vowel-and-consonant sounds in Konkani (ê; fuloi) and their respective phonetic illustrations in English (say /eɪ/; ‘boy’ /ɔɪ/) has a few mismatches.

Whereas the phonetic transcription of some Portuguese words needs to be revisited (e.g. fixo is not /fikso/ but /’fiksu/), the author is right about how hard and soft sounds can make or break. For instance, in church and elsewhere, readers and speakers often fail to distinguish between killo and kil’lo, mellem, mel’lem and mell’lem. Cabral’s table of allophones thus comes across as a valuable learning aid for a language loaded with a variety of phonemes and graphemes.

The general reader is sure to enjoy the chapter on word formation. Cabral elaborates on three types of Konkani words: primitive, derived and loaned. ‘Reduplication’ is an interesting, largely onomatopoeic, process that Konkani words have undergone, giving us picturesque words like khoddkhodd (shivering), davon-davon (hurriedly), poishean poiso (every paisa), and so on. Cabral gives a sprinkling of loan words from Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Kannada, Portuguese, French, Marathi, English, Tullu and Hindi. However, the cited ghurghuret (water pot) is not originally a Konkani word but corrupted from the Portuguese gorgoleta.

In chapter six, ‘Morphology’, Cabral lists hyponyms, homonyms, homophones, polysemes collocations, and so on. And whereas in chapter seven, we find a conventional treatment of Syntax, with a good dose of illustrations, the subsequent chapter tackles a relatively new area: Generative Grammar. Cabral deserves credit for the structural analysis undertaken, by devising much needed test-frames for sentences and tenses in the language. It is a brave effort to modernise the grammatical approach to the Konkani language.

In the said chapter, Cabral also presents a modified alphabetic principle, in an attempt to rationalise the Roman script for Konkani; he highlights the differences between x/sh; i/y; d/dd; t/tt; n/nn and proposes the tilde as sole nasal marker, allowing m and n to be used exclusively as consonants. His makes a compelling case for well-defined orthographic rules, a step in the right direction.

In the penultimate chapter, on Ergativity, Cabral correlates Konkani with Latin and Sanskrit. He states that, there being no formal passive voice in Konkani, past and perfective tenses double up as seemingly passive in some tenses of transitive verbs. He indicates three ways to tell between transitive and intransitive verbs in Konkani. His catalogue of over 300 transitive and intransitive verbs, with their exceptions and meanings in English, is a ready reckoner.

At the end of a full course meal, the closing chapter, titled ‘Miscellaneous’, is a veritable dessert. It offers close to a hundred idiomatic expressions; several figures of speech; interesting proverbs; many puzzles and riddles (parkhonni/umanni); person and place names in Goa; and a handy glossary of a thousand Konkani words. Much as the book could do with tighter editing and better proofing, readers are sure to be charmed by its final chapter.

Ricardo Cabral, PhD, a teacher educator by profession, who retired from the Goa State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) and has authored two books on education in Portuguese Goa, is deeply concerned about how Konkani in Goa has to reel under tremendous pressure from India’s two official languages: Hindi, given the large-scale immigration of its speakers; and English, given the Goan penchant for the language. He fears that soon there may be very few Goans speaking Konkani. Hence his effort – “to make the knowledge of Konkani available not only to those who want to learn the language but also to those who want to learn about the language, especially Goans in the diaspora” – is something that Goa ought to be grateful for.

KONKANI IN THE ROMAN SCRIPT, by Ricardo Cabral (Panjim: Qurate Books, 2023. Rs 735/-)

First published in Revista da Casa de Goa, Series II, No. 27, March-April 2024, pp. 63-65