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Maithili linguistic research: state-of-the-art.


Maithili, a descendant of the Magadhi Apabhramsa, is an eastern Indo-Aryan language. According to an estimate (Davis 1973:316), it is spoken by approximately 21 million people in the eastern and northern regions of the Bihar State of India and the southeastern plains, known as the tarai, of Nepal. As a matter of fact, it is not easy short of a new linguistic survey of Bihar to ascertain the exact number of the speakers of Maithili in contemporary Bihar. Ever since the first Indian census for the Bengal Presidency in 1872, censuses of India have tended to underreport the figure lot Maithili-Maithili being erroneously viewed as a dialect of Hindi, or of a spurious language and a chimera called Bihari. For example, the 1961 census figure of less than 5 million (4,982,615) Maithili speakers in Bihar is, regrettably, grossly inaccurate vis-a-vis the figure of more than 9 million (9,389,376) estimated by Sir George Abraham Grierson as early as 1891 (Brass 1974:64). In a guesstimate of raw 1971 census figure arrived at by adding up the total population of the districts of Purnea, Saharsa, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur, Bhagalpur, Monghyr (half) and Santhal Pargana (half), G. Jha (1974:4-6) argues that around 23 million (22,998,706) people speak Maithili in Bihar. Adding up the. Nepal 1971 census figure of 1,327,242 Maithili speakers to the population of Maithili speakers of Bihar, a total of more than 24 million (24,325,948) speakers may be said to speak Maithili in India and Nepal. In a yet further survey of the 50 most-spoken languages in the world, carried out by Grimes (1996:588) and reported on the Internet, it is stated that Maithili occupies the position of the 40th most-spoken language in the world and that it is spoken by 24.3 million `first language speakers' in India and Nepal.

Demographically, Maithili is the second most widely spoken language of Nepal and the constitution of Nepal recognizes it as one of the `languages of the nation' (rastriya bhasa) of Nepal. True, Maithili is not yet recognized as an official state language of Bihar; nor has it been included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Maithili, however, has been recognized as an autonomous modern Indo-Aryan language of India by the Sahitya Akaderni since 1965. Today, Maithili is recognized as a distinct language and taught as such in the Indian universities of Calcutta, Patna, Bihar, Bhagalpur, Mithila and Benares, and the Tribhuvan University of Nepal. Maithili is also taught as a school subject in the secondary schools of India and Nepal.

Since Hindi is used as the medium of instruction in north Bihar schools, most literate Maithili speakers of Bihar are bilingual in Hindi. By the same token, the literate Maithili speakers of Nepal are bilingual in Nepali--Nepali being the medium of instruction in the schools of Nepal. Literate Maithili speakers in the Nepal tarai also tend tO be bilingual in Hindi due to constant travel across the border in india for social commerce and preponderant use of Hindi newspapers, magazines, and films. However, the illiterate rural masses of Maithili speakers in India and Nepal are by and large monolingual.

On the boundaries of Maithili, a number of modern Indo-Aryan languages are spoken: Bangla in the east, Bhojpuri in the west, Nepali in the north, and Magahi in the south. Within its own territory in India, Maithili has both contiguity and contact with Santhali--a Munda language. During 14th to early 18th centuries, Maithili also came in close contact with Newari (a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the Kathmandu Valley) and it, in fact, occupied a pride of place in the royal court of the Malla Kings of Nepal.

Within the boundaries of India and Nepal, Maithili is characterized by considerable internal, regional, and social, especially caste variations (Yadav 1995, 1999) -- the full extent of which has not been adequately surveyed since Grierson (1883-87). The standard of spoken Maithili is tacitly identified with the speech of the towns of Madhubani in Bihar and Rajbiraj in Nepal.

In the course of its history, Maithili has developed a number of innovations that set it apart from other neighbouring languages. For instance, Maithili has almost lost the OIA gender system. Modern Maithili has no grammatical number either. Maithili has also developed overwhelming honorificity distinctions in its pronominal system as well as an uncharacteristically complex verbal agreement morphology, not shared by other Indo-Aryan languages of India and Nepal.

Phonetics & Phonology

Prior to my undertaking research work on an experimental phonetic study of the Maithili language in mid 1970's, the nature of phonetic research was epitomized in the following rather uncouth and highly impressionistic accounts of phonetic facts made by Sir George Abraham Grierson and Dr. Suhhadra Jha.

Grierson (1881a: 5-6) wrote:
 The pronunciation of the vowel a [[??]] is peculiar. It is not so broad as
 in Bengali, but on the other hand it is broader than that of the neutral
 vowel in High Hindi. I know of no sound exactly equivalent to it in any
 language with which I am acquainted. The best way of describing it is by
 saying that it is halfway between the o in not and u in nut, when preceded
 by a hard guttural check, and followed by a soft labial check. It thus may
 be said to he the u of cub, rounded or the o in cob, neutralized.

Subhadra Jha (1941:436)wrote:
 Short [i] may be about 1/3 away from the Cardinal [i] towards the Cardinal
 [e], and approaches a central place ...

Grierson (1935: `Introduction', xvi-xvii) wrote:
 As a further guide to the pronunciation of Indian names and other words
 occurring in this translation, I advise readers not acquainted with
 oriental languages to produce all vowels as in Italian and all consonants
 as in English.

Subhadra Jha's 1941 paper is, to the best of my knowledge, the first synchronic study of the phonetics and phonology of Maithili according to the principles of modern descriptive linguistics. In that study, Jha argues for fifty-six "essential" phonemes of Maithili: to him every grapheme is a phoneme. Later, in his monumental work, S. Jha (1958) discusses the historical development of the Maithili sound system and provides diachronic explanations for the synchronic usage. Govind Jha (1974, 1979) also provides an insightful account of the sound system of the Maithili language.

My doctoral dissertation, entitled Maithili Phonetics and Phonology and submitted to the University of Kansas, USA, was completed in June 1979. It was published in the form of a book of the same title in Germany in 1984. This book is the first full-length phonetic study of Maithili; the experimental methods used in this study are mainly acoustic and fiberoptic in nature. In it, I have presented a description of Maithili sounds in a generative phonological framework gaining in invaluable insights from articulatory as well as acoustic parameters. I have argued that Maithili has 8 oral vowel phonemes and 26 consonant phonemes. All vowels can be nasalized underlyingly--thus increasing the number of vowel phonemes to 16. Only the back vowels are rounded. Length is not distinctive in Maithili -- although the Devanagari script in which Maithili is now written does provide separate graphemes for long and short vowel sounds. In this study, I have also argued that a number of sounds, i.e. [[??]], [n], [s], [s], [r], and [w] and [y] should more appropriately be described as `marginal' phonemes for a number of reasons the details of which I will spare you at the moment. Please note that these so-called `marginal' phonemes are in fact phonemes of Sanskrit and it has been customary to treat them as phonemes of various modern Indo-Aryan languages, including Maithili. For more information, the reader is referred to Ingemann & Yadav (1978) and Yadav (1976, 1979 ab, 1982, 1984 abc).

The main contribution of Yadav 1979/1984c, however, lies in a fiberoptic and acoustic analysis of voicing and aspiration in Maithili. Research for this study was carried out at the Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut. In this study, made to investigate the temporal course and width of the glottis during the production of four types of Maithili stops and affricates and two types of resonants occurring in various positions, the results show that the voiced-voiceless distinction correlates with the adduction-abduction gesture of the larynx. The study also suggests that glottal width is the key factor for aspiration and that sounds which are produced by a combination of vibrating vocal cords and aspiration should, in tact, be called `voiced aspirated' consonants.

In 1984, Sunil Kumar Jha completed his Ph.D. thesis entitled A Study of Some Phonetic and Phonological Aspects of Maithili and submitted it to the University of Essex, UK. The thesis is as yet unpublished, although parts of this scholarly study have been published in journals in India and Nepal. Sunil Kumar Jha also has an experimental bearing on his work; most of his data are kymographic, spectrographic and oscillographic in nature. In sum, barring a few minor issues, Jha's work is a continuation and in effect confirmation of most of my major findings reported in Yadav 1979/1984c.

In 1996, Mithilesh Mishra completed a doctoral dissertation entitled Aspects of Maithili Phonology and submitted it to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA. I have not yet availed a copy of it. But all indications are that his work is a study in non-linear phonology of Maithili.

Morphology, Syntax and Semantics

The first grammar of Maithili was written by a firangi: I am of course alluding to George Abraham Grierson (1881a). The chief merit of this work lies in the fact that it accorded Maithili the position of an independent language. In 1883, Grierson's valuable paper entitled `Essays on Bihari Declension and Conjugation' was published. In 1885, Grierson attempted a sketch of the Maithili grammar based on the texts of two songs ("taken down from the mouths of two itinerant singers in the Nepal tarai" p. 17) -- popularly known as the Git Dina Bhadrik and Git Nebarak, published in Germany. The major contribution of Grierson, however, lies in the very extensive dialectal survey of what he called "Bihari", published during 1883-1887. A consummate summary of all the major findings of Grierson was later published in Grierson (1903/1968).

The earliest Maithili grammar by a native scholar, and written in the manner of the ancient Sanskritic tradition, is that of Dinabandhu Jha. Written in Maithili, D. Jha's grammatical treatise is entitled Mithila-Bhasa-Vidyotana and was published in 1353 sala/circa 1946 A.D. The Vidyotana is written in the form of sutra, followed by explanations thereof in a rather heavily Sanskritized and abstruse Maithili. The Vidyotana has a long Dhatupatha (1949-50) appended to it in the truly Paninian manner. D. Jha's 1948 paper may be described as the first morphological study of word formation in Maithili; it presents an interesting account of reduplication in Maithili and attempts to provide a semantic explanation for all such two-word combinations.

Subhadra Jha's The Formation of the Maithili Language was published in London in 1958. It is the earliest and the most exhaustive diachronic description of Maithili to date. In it, S. Jha has undertaken to trace the history of Maithili from the Old Indo-Aryan period and has labored assiduously to assign Sanskritic etymologies to practically all forms of Maithili. For a contrary view, emphasizing the Santhali (i.e. Munda) influences on Maithili and for limitations of S. Jha's far-fetched Sanskritic etymologies, I would simply refer you to two reviews of this classic work by De Vreese (1962) and Southworth (1961). In my 1984 paper entitled `Maithili Phonology Reconsidered', I have also argued that S. Jha's data on modern Maithili should be used with care and even caution for any serious historical as well as phonological research on Maithili (Yadav 1984b).

One of the earliest attempts to describe the morphology of the complex verbal system of Maithili was made by Govind Jha (1958). In this study G. Jha sets out to show that the presence of a multiplicity of optional forms in Maithili verb conjugations does not lead to the conclusion, arrived at by Grierson, that Maithili is probably a "partially cultivated" (1881 a: 50) language. As a matter of fact, G. Jha takes strong exception to Grierson's phrase "partially cultivated" and goes on to claim (rather than demonstrate) that "all the different forms of [the Maithili] verb have and are used in different shades of meaning" (1958:169). Ten years later, in 1968, G. Jha's Maithilika Udgama O Vikasa appeared. It is the first full-length historical account of Maithili written in Maithili, and therefore it deserves our praise and admiration. In 1974, G. Jha's Maithili Bhasa Ka Vikasa was published, which, though elaborate in detail, owes much of its information to G. Jha's 1968 study. G. Jha's Uccatara Maithili Vyakarana was published in 1979. In Yadav (1996), I have stated: "After Grierson, it is the most noteworthy contribution to the field of Maithili linguistics" (p.8). Written in Maithili as a textbook for students and teachers at the university level, this work offers fresh insights into the application of linguistic principles in the analysis of a modern Indo-Aryan language.

In the mean time, in 1972, Indira Junghare published a paper entitled `The Perfect Aspect in Marathi, Bhojpuri and Maithili' with an aim to ascertain the genetic relationship among these languages. Her conclusion is that these three languages are indeed genetically related and belong to the Outer Group of Indo-Aryan languages as suggested by Grierson. In Nepal, linguists from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Davis (1973) and Williams (1973) published two valuable papers on Maithili syntax and semantics, both written in the Tagmemic framework as propounded by Kenneth L. Pike. These studies, based on the field data collected in the village of Ghorghas near the town of Janakpur, make significant contributions to the analysis of Maithili clause and sentence patterns.

The first linguist to describe the syntax and semantics of the Maithili language in the transformational-generative and relational grammar framework is Udaya Narayan Singh. This he did in his Ph.D. dissertation entitled Some Aspects of Maithili Syntax: A. Transformational-Generative Approach and submitted to the University of Delhi in 1979. The thesis is as yet unpublished. Singh has published a number of scholarly papers on aspects of Maithili language and linguistics, in particular, Singh (1980, 1986).

Ramawatar Yadav also published a number of papers on Maithili morphology, syntax and semantics. The ones that may deserve mention are: (1985, 1991 & 1998). R. Yadav wrote a paper on sociolinguistics of Maithili (Yadav 1999a). R. Yadav also wrote a book-length description of Maithili (Yadav 1996). Research for this book was carried out in two phases. An initial draft of the grammar was prepared during my term as an Alexander-von-Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow in 1983-84 at the Department of Indology, University of Mainz, Germany. The final draft of the grammar was completed during 1989 as a Senior Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, USA and again as an AvH fellow at the Department of General and Indogermanic Linguistics, University of Kiel, Germany. Very recently, I have also contributed an invited submission in the form of a chapter on Maithili in a book entitled Indo-Aryan Languages to be edited by George Cardona and D. Jain (Yadav 2001).

The first linguist to assess the implications of movement rules for the theory of Government and Binding as propounded by Noam Chomsky is Yogendra P. Yadava. This he did in his doctoral thesis entitled Movement Rules in Maithili and English: Their Implications for the Theory of Government and Binding, submitted to CIEFL, Hyderabad in 1983. His thesis is now published under the title of Issues in Maithili Syntax: A Government-Binding Approach in 1998. Prior to it, Yadava published a number of articles, in particular, Yadava (1981, 1982).

Since the publication of Dinabandhu Jha (1949-50) and Govind Jha (1958), a number of linguists have studied the phenomenon of complex verbal agreement and honorificity distinctions in Maithili in detail. Prominent among these are: Udaya Narayan Singh (1979 b, 1989), Gregory T. Stump & Ramawatar Yadav (1988), Ramawatar Yadav (1995, 1996); Balthasar Bickei, Walter Bisang, and Yogendra P. Yadav (1999), and Yogdenra P. Yadava (1996, 1999).

Mention may be made of Bal Krishan Jha's unpublished Ph.D. thesis entitled A Descriptive Study of Maithili Language in Nepal and submitted to the University of Poona in 1984, Nabin Chandra Mishra & Shivakant Thakur (1984), and Dhirendra Nath Mishra (1986).

Mention may also be made of a number of native grammarians of Mithila. Prompted by the intense desire to teach Maithili to students in schools and colleges in Mithila, native scholars of Maithili have produced a number of textbook grammars. I mention six of them here, but there may be more. These are:

1. Ramanath Jha 1955/1971 Maithili Bhasa Prakasa

2. Balgovind Jha "Vyathit" 1966/1981 Adhunika Maithili Vyakarana

3. Dayanand Jha 1976 Maithili Vyakarana evain Racana

4. Yugeshwar Jha 1979 Maithili Vyakarana aora Racana

5. Bhola Lal Das n.d. Maithili Subodha Vyakarana

6. Anand Mishra n.d. Mithilabhasaka Subodha Vyakarana

To judge the above works from the point of view of linguistic considerations would be simply unfair as these do not purport to be scholarly studies. I may just want to draw your attention to one point. In spite of Ramanath Jha's (1955/1971:19) firm assertion that there is a total absence of sandhi rules in Maithili (".... Mithilabhasme ehi niyamaka carca nirarthaka"), all the other works cited above discuss sandhi rules in detail.


If there is one aspect of Maithili linguistic study which has suffered immeasurably from tremendous neglect, it is the lexicographical study of Maithili. As of today, no satisfactory Maithili-English, English-Maithili; Maithili-Hindi, Hindi-Maithili; Maithili-Nepali, Nepali-Maithili dictionary is available. The publication of Govind Jha's (1999) [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] A Maithili-English Dictionary is therefore a welcome addition to the scanty list of Maithili dictionaries on the bookshelf.

The first Maithili-English dictionary was published by Hoernle and Grierson (1885; 1889), while the first Maithili-Hindi-Sanskrit dictionary/word list (24 pages only) was published by a native scholar Bhava Nath Mishra (1914/1322 sala). The first well-known and complete Maithili-Maithili dictionary was published by Dinabandhu Jha (1950), followed by a two-volume complete Maithili-Maithili dictionary by Govind Jha (1992, 1993) and by another complete Maithili-Maithili dictionary compiled by Mati Nath Mishra (1998). In the mean time, Alice Davis's Maithili-Nepali-English-dictionary was published in 1984 and two fascicules of a total of 11 proposed fascicules of [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1973, 1995) have been published by Jayakanta Mishra. I have had the good fortune to review the dictionaries of Govind Jha (1992), Jayakanta Mishra (1973, 1995) and Mati Nath Mishra (1998) and these reviews have appeared in different journals in India and Nepal (Yadav 1994, 1999b, 2000).

A closer scrutiny of the dictionaries published thus far reveals that there are a number of critical issues that the lexicographers of Maithili need to resolve with a modicum of accuracy, and I might add, elegance. Take, for instance, the issue of head words and their relationship to other words. A commonly observable practice in lexicographical methodology is that head words usually take the form of single words, abbreviations, or affixes, while multiword units and morphologically related words are listed under the headword -- assuming that they are closely related in meaning. Thus, for example, Govind Jha (1993: 45) represents the single word entry [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] `nose' as a headword and subsequently lists, under the head entry, a number of subentries with the use of a tilde to avoid reduplication of the headword and to save space in the dictionary, e.g. [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and so on. Jayakanta Mishra (1973, 1995) on the other hand, observes the practice of overdifferentiation and chooses to compile practically all the attested forms (from the printed works of Maithili literature upto 1860 and beyond) as `separate' entries-irrespective of the morphological and/or semantic relationship that might obtain between a head entry and its subentries.

I will illustrate this point with the help of a sample verb entry [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] `to satiate' from Jayakanta Mishra (1973). On pp. 28-29, J. Mishra lists a total of 11 separate attested verb entries (i.e. [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in addition to the head entry [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In all 11 cases, J. Mishra cross-references each of these fully inflected verb form entries repeatedly to the infinitive-headword [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and thereby not only adds to the bulk of the dictionary and renders it rather cumbersome but also misses out a significant generalization of the Maithili linguistic insight that these 11 so-called separate headwords are after all morphologically as well as semantically related to the headword [MAITHILI TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

Indeed, the basic problem that confronts a Maithili lexicographer is: what form should the head entry take? Put differently, should the head entry consist of verb stems/roots alone (as is the case in the dictionaries and lexicons of Hoernle & Grierson 1885, 1889 and Dinabandhu Jha 1949-50)? Or, should the head entry consist of verb infinitives (the linguist's darling) ending in --[[??]] b or eb (as is the case in the dictionaries of Dinabandhu Jha 1950, A. Davis 1984, Govind Jha 1992, 1993 and Mati Nath Mishra 1998)? Or, alternatively, should the head entry consist of fully inflected verb forms (as is the case in Jayakanta Mishra 1973, 1995)?

Another equally important issue relates to the writing of core meanings and definitions of a word and providing examples of usage thereof in a dictionary. The success of a lexicographer is measured in adroitness and skill with which (s)he gives the meanings of/defines a word in a dictionary. Usually, the convention is to strictly confine oneself to the use of a limited set of "defining vocabularies", consisting mainly of highly frequent words in the language. Thus, for example, The Cambridge International Dictionary of English (1995) contains approximately 100,000 words and phrases arranged under 50,000 headwords, but definitions are written using a controlled vocabulary of under 2,000 basic word forms.

Maithili lexicographers tend to ignore this convention by and large and are persistently prone to usingrather "high" vocabulary to define a word. The problem is further exacerbated by an acute lack of a word-frequency-count study in Maithili. After all, to date and to the best of my knowledge, no lexicon of say 2,000 most frequent words in Maithili is available.

Finally, a word about grammar in the dictionary. More and more dictionaries today tend to reflect contemporary thinking and knowledge on aspects of grammar. In other words, recent development and insight into grammatical theories and descriptive tools/labels are covertly and occasionally overtly couched in the manner in which head entries and subentries are arranged and their meanings and definitions provided in a dictionary. Unfortunately, a major blemish of a number of Maithili dictionaries (and I don't wish to name any individual lexicographer here) is that they provide highly inadequate and even inaccurate grammatical information.

As we all know, dictionary making is an extremely arduous, time-consuming, and painstaking endeavor. On top of it, there is always room for improvement-- so much so that as early as 1755 Samuel Johnson wrote:
 Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to
 escape reproach and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to
 very few.

Concluding Remarks

Maithili shares a common core vocabulary with other Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi and Nepali. As a matter of fact, over 90% of Modern Maithili vocabulary is Indo-Aryan. Modern Maithili, however, diverges from earlier Indo-Aryan in a number of ways in that a few newer traits have emerged. Modern Maithili is characterized by loss of number and gender. It has developed profusely overwhelming honorific distinctions; and, at the same time, it has developed a highly complex verbal agreement system. These recent developments have led modern-day linguists to conclude that Maithili is a distinct language. As early an investigator as Sir George Abraham Grierson (1881 b `Preface': v-vi) observed that:
 The native language of every Bihari ... is as different from Hindi as
 French is from Italian ... but it [Hindi] is not, never was, and never can
 be the vernacular of Bihar. History and the laws of philology alike decide
 against it, and experience has shown how Norman-French never became the
 vernacular of England.

Finally, I may want to end my presentation with a word of appeal to the scholars of Mithila. Ever since Paul Brass did his field work in the Maithili-speaking areas of Bihar (Brass 1974) and brought to the fore the sad lack of "the forging of the bonds of community necessary to the building of a common Maithili consciousness" (p. 115) and even drew our attention to the sociological and political reasons leading to the failure of the Maithili Movement vis-a-vis the Punjabi Movement and the Urdu Movement, other Western scholars have revisited the area only to harp again on the sore theme. Thus, Richard Burghart (1996) talks about "a quarrel" in the Maithili language family and reports on the Maithil Pundit's obsession with the caste exclusiveness and a micro-region called the panc kosi area. In his own words, "... it is clear that the quarrel in the family of Indo-Aryan vernacular can never be sorted out; it stems from conflicts in the heart of Maithili political culture" (p. 408). An American social worker, Claire Burkert, who runs an INGO under the rubric of Janakpur Women's Development Centre also talks about this preoccupation, and adding to the high caste-low caste divide a new dimension of man-woman divide, she raises a million dollar question: "Who is in charge?" (Burkert 1997).

I would like to utilize this occasion to urge the native Maithili scholars to dispassionately engage themselves in the task of scientifically analyze the sociology of Maithili speech. I would also like to exhort the scholars employed in the Maithili departments per se of various universities in Mithila to cross their fences as it were and carry out research on aspects of Maithili language and linguistics. After all, as Claire Burkert would have it, "Being Maithil is more than speaking Maithili, or chewing pan and quoting Vidyapati" (1997:251)

Colophon: This is a slighly modified version of the Kameshwar Singh Memorial Lecture, delivered at Maharajadhiraj Kameshwar Singh Kalyani Foundation, Kalyani Niwas. Darbhanga, Bihar, India, on November 28, 1999.


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Author:Yadav, Ramawatar
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Date:Jan 1, 2000
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