भ ஆ శ ಆ

“Привет” I said. That set the mood for the rest of the conversation between my house landlady and me today morning, as we negotiated rent and repairs. Talk to people in their own language and things seem to move along faster. Something I learnt long ago, while dealing with babu’s at Mumbai. Marathi moves paper faster than Hindi or money there. The same applies, from Hyderabad to Helsinki. But apart from revealing the lazy habits of bureaucrats, this also throws light on a small aspect of human nature.

In all this tongue switching and code mixing, I have begun to feel like I don’t belong anywhere at all. I firmly believe that one cannot learn a language unless one is willing to absorb its cultural context. Nor can one profess to know a language just be conjugating all its irregular verbs. Eskimo has over ten words for snow, powdery snow, fresh snow and so on, but curiously no word for just snow. Proto Indo-European supposedly had no word equivalent for ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’. Languages are dictated by narrow walls, of geography and culture and globalization exposes many such interesting quirks contained therein.

Languages are structured and have rules, but they must be dynamic if they are to survive. English freely slept around with any language that was spoken in the British Isles and today shamelessly flaunts its bastard status, but is the Lingua franca of the world (excluding, of course the Chinese sphere of influence).

Supporters of Indian regional languages go to ludicrous lengths to ensure linguistic survival amidst English’s sweeping influence. Pro-Dravidians argue against ‘Sanskritization’ of Tamil abhorring any word of Indo-European origin. Perhaps they would do well to remember that several words for long considered pure Sanskrit have recently been discovered to have Dravidian parentage. Indo-Aryan languages have several unique traits that differentiate them from other indo-European languages, mainly the presence of several Dravidian traits. Sanskrit was barely an infant when Tamil already had two epics in its repertoire. In a peninsula of overwhelming Aryan tongues, Dravidian languages are the neglected children, but Indo-Aryan purportedly was built on a Dravidian sub-stratum. Borrowing terms and code-mixing may give language a unique flavor, but evolutionally they provide a rock solid foothold for survival. The Dravidian language family is unusual in that it shows no relation to any other language family. Proto-Dravidian evolved into Tamil. Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu and Kodava-Takk all seceded from it in the previous millennium.

Indian languages draw from a large pool of languages. Influences range from Persian and Latin to the rarer Elamite*. One often neglects the linguistic diversity that the India holds. Bound together for millennia in the sub-continent, people freely borrowed, snatched and stole, from each other in the pursuit of making the perfect mellifluous language. The future of Indian languages is secure, in that they are not monogamous, but promiscuous. Modern media only accelerates this tumultuous mixing from which eventually order and structure will emerge to form yet another language.

*The Elamite language was spoken in what is now south-western Iran sometime between the sixth to fourth centuries BC. Dravidian languages show a direct relation to Elamite. Some scholars also like to bring in the mysterious Indus valley civilization language under the umbrella of the Elamo-Dravidian family.



Filed under language, matter

20 responses to “भ ஆ శ ಆ

  1. Idling in Top Gear

    I wonder why, if the purpose of language is to facilitate communication, is it that purists (especially of the Indian kind) must always try and find / make new words out of esoteric ones to prevent the loaning of easily understandable “foreign” words. It seems retrogressive and counterproductive to the popularity of the language at a time when the most popular language in the world (English) borrows greedily like a farmer who knows the govt will forgive his loan. Most every language in the world refers to the telephone as “telephone” or something phonetically similar. Tamil, on the other hand, coins a term like “Tholaipesi” when most illiterates could probably tell you where to find a phone before they could tell you what a tholaipesi is! Sorry for the rant.BTW, Pa Russki?

  2. maami

    computer-kaninisoftware enginner-kanini poriyalarblog-valaipadivuemail-valai anjalgenetis-parambarai thanamLike Top Gear says odd that the oldest language keeps inventing new words to enlarge its vocabulary in defiance to adopting other language words like English. Coloquially though Tamil on the streets is a hodge podge of English, Hindi and absurd words.But as you say it always, always helps to melt people when you try to speak their language.

  3. buddy

    @idling: i agree completely. tholaipesi and other terms as maami said only complicate language and ironically deter learners from speaking it!yeah prevyet russki for hello

  4. buddy

    @maami:there was some funny term for irrigation officer in TN some siruneer padhivalar something im not too sure, but that had my family in splits. (i dont get tamil jokes!). vennai maadri uruguva, ava baashai (mozhi?) pesina…

  5. Coconut Chutney

    lol! siruneer is basically another word for piss. => siruneer padhivalar means he who supervises piss.=D I remember this one tamil movie which came in which the characters spoke only tamil. As in, they dont even say "thanks" or "hello" (even while picking up the phone). While the politicos made a huge fuss about how great it was, the movie bombed cause well, no one talks like that!! Great post =D

  6. buddy

    Thanks!not saying hello reaches a new height of language snobbishness…lets not even go there! sure suicide…

  7. sthitapragnya

    Thanks for using Telugu in your title ‘Bhaaaha’ ;)! I don’t want to sound like a purist, but I don’t see a reason why a language cannot invent new words to stretch its vocabulary from its own roots if it can. English borrows extensively because it lacks the roots on which to build its own vocabulary. Even the word ‘telephone’ that Idling pointed out is not of English origin! Even to the English themselves, Old English is as good as a foreign language. Anyway, my point is, although such new words sound exotic and tongue-twisting, it always feels good to know that one’s mother-tongue is not a bastardized language like English. When you address a formal gathering, or write formal letters or a literary piece in your language, wouldn’t it be disgraceful if you used too many words from a foreign language instead of your own? The colloquial language can borrow but the literary language sounds best in its own vocabulary. Also, there was a time when even colloquial Indian languages were largely untouched by foreign tongues. The new words are perhaps just to remind the users of the language that it need not borrow. It’s a question of pride, really, not usage.This is just an opinion and I’m not a purist-language fanatic. I do love my language, Telugu, though!

  8. sthitapragnya

    Sorry typo! It should be 'Bhaasha' not 'Bhaaaha'! There, that was my test in English & I messed it up!

  9. buddy

    Every language must borrow words when it encounters things outside its context. That does not imply a linguistic poverty. English may borrow, but it has a solid grammatical structure. And the borrowed words become pure english in the way that they are used. I can understand how pride disallows borrowing of words, but creating walls to keep language closed wont help it evolve.English and chinese are eating up smaller languages, courtesy globalization. If you cant beat em’join em.

  10. buddy

    and can i call you sp? Thanks :)naaku konjam konjam telugu telusu, shtill learning.not your fault. A and S are next to each other…happens

  11. sthitapragnya

    Call me Karthik. 🙂 ‘If you can’t beat’em join’em’ – How true! But when you can beat’em why not fight’em. Did that even make any sense? Anyway, again, my point being, if a language can produce new words befitting a new context on its own and rewrite its lexicon, then why not? If a language is incapable of doing so, then it makes sense to borrow. Also, let me remind you, that all Indian languages have a stronger grammatical base, if that’s what you want to argue upon. Most Indian languages had large treatises on their grammar even before English began to be spoken in England. ‘Tolkappiyam’ for Tamil, ‘Ashtaadhyaayi’ for Sanskrit, just to name a couple of them. Besides, you said it yourself, English and Chinese are eating up smaller laguages. If Chinese, a neighbour, can produce new words and compete, then so can any other Indian language. We don’t want to let these two languages to wipe out our tongues to be replaced by them, do we? Not that it will happen, but still. If Indian languages can compete on a global scale with new words, then so be it! Again, it only makes sense to borrow something when you don’t have it.

  12. sthitapragnya

    You’ve had too many people agree with you, so I was just trying to play devil’s advocate! 😉 I wonder what Karunanidhi would do if he read your post! He’d probably be looking for you!Enakku konjam konjam Tamil teriyum – also still learning. 🙂

  13. sthitapragnya

    O I forgot! ‘Chhandodarpanam’ a treatise on Telugu poetic meters.

  14. buddy

    Welcome to play devil’s. be warned though, you may meet your match :)The point you make about chinese makes sense, so i suddenly find my foot in my mouth…but karthik, japanese has a whole alphabet system (katakana) just for writing ‘foreign’ words!and yes Karunanidhi and Bal Thakeray have a bounty on my head…

  15. sthitapragnya

    Now, changes in the writing system occur over time. Infact even Chinese characters in use today are a simplified version of the classical characters which were outlawed during Chairman Mao's "Cultural Revolution". Similarly, the Japanese have three different wirting systems, Kenji, Hiragana & Katakana, each of which was introduced progressively. But do you think we need be as radical as to change the entire writing system just to accomodate new words? If we really have to borrow we might as well write the words in the current scripts. Besides, all our scripts have already gone through millenia of changes, or we would still be writing all Indian languages in the Brahmi script, which would be great, as it were, wouldn't it? One writing system uniting the whole country!

  16. sthitapragnya

    O BTW, how much do you think Kalaignar and Balu Bhai are offering? You think I should try? 😛

  17. Idling in Top Gear

    As chutney pointed out, siruneer is piss, so “siruneer padhivalar” = Registrar of Urine! You probably meant vadineer (actually, distilled water but also used to describe pumped water) or vadikaal – irrigation. Interestingly, the Tamil word for coffee is “Kottai vadineer” – you certainly don’t wanna say out loud in front of high schoolers anywhere in TN!To me, a language is what makes sense to a majority of its speakers. By that definition, bus and SMS are more Tamil than paerundu and siru thagaval pani.( Ok, I made the last one up.) @sthitapragnya: Ultimately, building up a fancy and unused/ unusable vocabulary serves no functional purpose. If you take function out and make it about “pride” like nationalists have done for the last century, then everything becomes justifiable. The trouble is that India is a multi-national state, and growth in empty nationalistic pride among the many communities will only lead us to the same fate as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

  18. sthitapragnya

    @ Idling: Alright, for the sake of argument, let’s take the English vocabulary. The Queen’s Tongue, if you will, has over 600,000 words as the Oxford English Dictionary claims, of which more than 2-300,000 are not usable/used in any context whatsoever. And yet, it adds over 25,000 words to its lexicon every year. Need I say more? If English can borrow and expand its vocabulary, which is ‘justifiable’, then so is expansion of vocabularies of Indian languages using their own roots! Admitted that English is a global language of businesses, but how many ‘businessmen/women’ outside the English sphere of influence actually speak it? The Japanese and Chinese can barely construct a sentence in English! But they’re successful in their own right, aren’t they? And don’t you worry about India turning into another Yugoslavia or USSR! Previous attempts at secession (like those by Periyar, Kalaignar etc.) have bitten dust. The Indian fabric is far too strong to be ripped apart just like that. The Partition was a great lesson. We may have differences but not as dire as to tear the country apart.Sorry, I just had to argue on that point! No offence intended! Frunds, frunds! vokay ma? 🙂

  19. swatimala

    informative…though the start was much more prmosing than the end

  20. linguistics paper padichiyo?

    idlichutney: naanga dhaan paper e ezhidhinom 😛

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