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The Sphoṭa theory of language:
a philosophical analysis



by Harold G. Coward, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd. 1st ed. Dehli 1980, reprints Delhi 1986, 1997. ISBN:81-208-0181-4, as given in Google book preview.

Downloaded and edited by U Kyaw Tun, M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.), Not for sale. No copyright. Free for everyone. Prepared for students of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR .

UKT: In this paper and others downloaded from internet, I find it helpful to transliterate Sanskrit into Myanmar using IAST (International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration) and Skt-Devan. From Skt-Devan I derive Pal-Myan or Bur-Myan with which I am more familiar. Then, I could interpret or comprehend better. Of course, there are bound to be pronunciation differences between Skt-Devan and Pal-Myan, but since what we are after is the deeper meaning of the textual content of the book, I think it is just a price to pay and we can do nothing about it.


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04. Language in the Sphoṭa  approach - p063

Passages of note in this file:

UKT notes

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04. Language in the Sphoṭa approach

UKT: Sphoṭa (Skt: स्फोट, the Sanskrit for "bursting, opening").

Against the above background of the Brahmanical and the Naturalistic traditions, let us now outline the Sphoṭa theory of the Grammarians and the particular merits claimed for it.

We have seen that for the Brahmanical thinkers śabda is both a valid source of knowledge and the means by which such knowledge may be communicated to others as verbal testimony. Emphasizing this latter function the early Grammarians Pāṇini and Pata˝jali describe śabda primarily in terms of the spoken word or speaking itself (Vāk). (fn063-01) In the first verse of his Mahābhāṣya, Pata˝jali defines the word as "That on the utterance of which there is common understanding regarding objects (saṁpratyaya)." (fn063-02) This definition of śabda does not intend the identification of the word with the physiological production of speech. As Murti has pointed out the distinction between word (śabda) and sound (dhvani) is basic to the understanding of language in all Schools of Indian Philosophy. To take the physical sound as the word is to confuse entities of two different orders, like the confusion of the soul with the body. "The word, like the soul, has a physical embodiment in the sound and is made manifest through the latter, but the conveyance of meaning is the function of the word; the sound only invokes the word." (fn063-03) If the word, or śabda, is only manifested and not constituted by the vocal sounds or dhvani, the question then arises as to the exact nature of this śabda which is manifested. We have seen according to the Naturalistic Schools, that just as we create names for our children and various discoveries and so initiate new conventions, the origination of all words should be understood in a similar way. In this way of thinking all words are the result of convention. Where human convention is not allowable, the divine convention of God may be invoked -- as is [{p063end}]

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from the letters and and revealed by them, which causes the cognition of the meaning. (fn067-01)

In addition to such deductive argument, the Grammarians also appeal to common experience. The sphoṭa or unitary word-meaning, they argue, may be proved to exist in that it is an object of each person's own cognitive perception. When the word go (गो {gau:} 'cow') is pronounced there is the unitary perception or simultaneous cognition of dewlap, tail, hump, hoofs, horns, etc. in the hearer's mind. This perceivable sphoṭa, says the Grammarian, is exactly how Pataābhāṣya in his Mahābhāṣya defined "word" (taking "go" as his example) as that sound which when pronounced results in the simultaneous cognition of dewlap, tail, hump, hoofs, horns, etc. Verbal communication between people is only possible because of the existence of this sphoṭa or word-meaning which is potentially perceivable by all, and revealed to each individual by speech sounds.(fn067-02)

Although the conception of sphoṭa, and the arguments of this theory need to be examined in greater detail (see Part II), the above brief discussion suggests both a logical consistency in the Grammarian arguments and a persuasive appeal to our cognitive experience of whole meanings as grounds for selecting the sphoṭa theory for serious study. Using Kantian thought as a model, Murti further describes the significance of the sphoṭa conception as follows:

In linguistic apprehension, as in other cognitions, there is the interplay of two factors of different levels - the empirical manifold of sense-data (the separate letters or words in this case) and the transcendental or a priori  synthesis of the manifold which alone imparts a unity to those elements which would otherwise have remained a mere manifold.(fn067-03)

In this way of thinking the sphoṭa functions exactly like a transcendental category of the whole. It is through the sphoṭa, which is activated by the pronunciation or hearing of the separate letters or words, that the meaning of the sentence is manifested as a whole. [{p067end}]

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[UKT: End of chapter 04 text.]

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Footnotes : Chapter 04

fn063-01. See S. D. Joshi, Pata˝jali's Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya, p. vi. fn063-01b

fn063-02. T. R. V. Murti, "Some Thoughts," p. 10. fn063-02b

fn063-03. Ibid., p. 11. fn063-03b

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fn067-01. S. D., S. p. 211, Kunjunni Raja notes that sphoṭa should be translated
  by "speech-unit" rather that "sound" (as Cowell does above) to avoid confusion
  between sphoṭa and dhvani. Op. cit., p. 143. fn067-01b

fn067-02. Ibid fn067-02b

fn067-03. T. R. V. Murti, "Some Thoughts," p. 17. fn067-03b

UKT: End of Chapter 04 footnotes.

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UKT notes


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End of TIL file