Borrowed Vocabularies

The best part of being multilingual is how it enables you to enjoy the interplay of words across languages. For someone who loves sounds, especially the sounds of different words, and revels in the wonder of those sounds-as-words making meaning, what can be more fascinating than discovering how words or phrases from one language find their way into another and what they mean in their new moorings.

Some of the stories around the usages detailed in Farrukh Dhondy’s book, Words: From Here, There and Everywhere or My Private Babel, are insightful; all of them are entertaining. It’s a random collection, as Dhondy confesses in the introduction, of words and phrases that intrigued him, and he set out to discover their journeys and stories. That many of them are profanities or scatalogical should interest quite a few readers in the way that they seem to have captured the imagination of the author himself! Not all are funny ‘ha-ha’ but all are certainly curious. Like this one.

“One of the phrases commonly used for attractive women by Parsi friends and acquaintances was ‘mailaan-o’, the ‘o’ denoting the plural. So one might say ‘I’m going to the races tomorrow to bet on the horses and appreciate the mailaan-o’ or ‘How was the wedding? Lots of gorgeous mailaan-o?’ I thought the word was Gujarati or, at worst, Gujarati slang. It isn’t. It’s a corruption of what Parsis heard the British sahibs call their memsahibs when they addressed them as ‘my love’!” It’s another matter that ‘mailaan/mailaan-o’ sounds an awful lot like ‘mahila/mahila-o’, the Hindi word for woman/women (this is not in the book).

There is a theory that very few people in India are strictly monolingual – except perhaps for those living in distant, isolated communities undisturbed even by vote-catchers in election time and anything else from the outside world. Indians have facile tongues (I mean this in an entirely positive sense) and are generally comfortable with languages. Most speak or understand at least two languages, many do many more, depending on where they live. They may not be as comfortable with reading and writing them, but they can converse fluently in them, often switching from one language to another in the course of a conversation; adapting ‘foreign’ words, then, is de rigueur.

This special ability lies at the heart of Dhondy’s book – his own felicity with English, Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu and possibly several others. Certainly, he has an ear for them. Only a polyglot would take delight in words and their transformations through geographies and semantics. In that sense, it could be said that this is a book for those who love words, or the sound of words.

Even if you are not a logophile, I would recommend reading this book, if only to experience the simple yet amazing way language develops, the way sounds intersect with meaning to create new experiences and contexts and expand the scope and capacity of language. It also knocks a warning on the door of purists who try to dictate what’s allowed and not allowed in a language in order to retain its original state. How does the original purity matter when languages grow through exchanges? Significantly, it shows how not to be afraid of languages, especially new and unfamiliar ones.
Did the author intend all of this? His introduction certainly doesn’t say so. All he says in his brief note is: “The anecdotes around them (words and phrases) are really all that is unique about this collection. The phrases and words I have chosen are ones that have presented themselves to me in speech or writing, ones with origins I have wondered about because they are very commonly used and their etymology rarely discussed, or because of the contexts in which they presented themselves to me.”

Surely he could have pushed the envelope further. It’s not likely another book like this containing all this content so relevant to its specific readership will be published very soon. The best we can hope for is that when the book is reprinted – I hope it is –Dhondy will step out of his comfort zone to include words/phrases from other languages as well. If only Dhondy had stepped on the gas just that bit more, the book would have been of interest to a far thicker cross-section of readers and served a much larger purpose – of breaking down barriers. This is the one big drawback of Words.

Take the way contemporary Tamil speakers use the phrase ‘chance-ay illai’. ‘Chance’ is from the English, and ‘illai’ is ‘no’ or ‘not’ in Tamil. So, you would think the meaning is a straightforward ‘No chance’. It is that, at one level. But at another, it can also be an expression of high praise or wonder or great emotion. For instance, you may describe a brilliant play and the response could be “Chance-ay illai”. This is rather like, as Dhondy points out, how “the current usage in rude England to express approval of anything is, ‘It’s the dog’s bollocks!’… Why the testicles of a mating dog should connote perfection…will have to remain a mystery.”

A language enthusiast will pounce on Words to rediscover some things they may already be aware of, and learn new things. Take the name of the citrus fruit, the mosambi. Quintessentially Indian, we’d say. To make it easier for tongues that find it hard to roll the word around, meaning specifically the Anglo-Saxon world, its equivalent was found in the descriptive ‘sweet lime’. As Dhondy explains: “This has become its ‘English’ name, and that’s how it’s referred to, sold and advertised – as though it is a recognised English fruit. It’s a perfectly appropriate label as it is sweet and it does turn, as does a lime, from a raw green skin to a ripened yellow. It’s much larger than a lime, but then we are told, size doesn’t matter.”

He goes on to tell us that this ubiquitous Indian fruit is a Portuguese gift they imported from their eastern territory in Africa; it was therefore called the ‘Mozambique orange’. Mosambi, clearly, was just a pronounciation away, further simplified to mosumi by some lazy others!

We normally take doggerels and songs, especially those that have come down to us over the ages, unquestioningly. (Until, of course, you wake up one day and say ‘What?!’ as you hear your grandchild lisp “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, And down will come baby, cradle and all…”) Dhondy, however, takes a closer look. Those of a certain generation will remember Johnny Walker’s song from Pyaasa which goes “Maalish teyll maalish champi! / Sar jo tera chakraye / Ya dil dooba jaaye…” The author puts these famous lyrics in their context: “The process of massaging the head is called ‘champi’, as in the opening line of the lyric, and is the origin of a word first used in English in the eighteenth century: ‘shampoo’. The connotation of massage has almost disappeard from the Western meaning, except in very ardent saloons, but the idea of cleanliness…remains.”

The inextricable connection between culture and language shines through the book. In fact, Dhondy refers to what he calls “cultural dyslexia”, by which he refers to the inability to pronounce a certain sound or combination of sounds, although he is at a loss to provide an explanation for it. As he says, quoting an example, “Another inversion of consonants, owing to the fact that this compound consonant form is not commonly found in Hindi or Urdu, is the use of ‘gn’. So very many taxi or rickshaw drivers will call a traffic signal a ‘singal’.” This is like how some people consistently say ‘aks’ instead of what to others seems a perfectly straightforward ‘ask’. (By the way, you will hear ‘aks’ quite a lot in England too.) Or how some tongues simply cannot produce the ‘zh’ sound as in ‘pazhaalusta’ (‘please’ in Russian) or ‘vaazhaippazham’ (‘banana’ in Tamil). The degree of difficulty is of no consequence as readers of this review would themselves have discovered.

A book such as this, which also weaves in elements of what speakers can or can’t (as in, they can enunciate certain sounds and they cannot certain others), is a booby trap of inverted or in-your-face snobbery. Words trips up occasionally here, sometimes evoking the tired cliché of the North India-South India debate. Why else, in a chapter (‘Knocked Out’) about the excessive use of abbreviations (“The AICC’s loan to AJI which was passed by the AGM did not disclose the YI’s shares…”), would there be this paragraph?
…there was a curious picture of an elderly man wearing a green shawl and a ridiculously large gold garland. The caption under the picture said BSY launches KJP…I read the accompanying article. It said that Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa had launched the Karnataka Janata Party. Perhaps the initials in this instance should be welcome. Or should the august politician be called by a pet name, like ‘Boo’ or even ‘Bo-si-yed’ as in the disgraced Chinese politician Bo-si-lai?

I leave it to the reader to react (or not) to what is being implied. The comment about the initials is valid and interesting in the context of the book. “V or NV?” is a question you might get asked in some parts of India – meaning, vegetarian or nonvegetarian, perfectly legitimate. What’s not quite so relevant to the subject of the book is the underlying suggestion about the supposedly complicated name and the rather irreverant or inappropriate pet names suggested. Incidentally, Yeddyurappa is routinely shortened to Yeddy in Indian newspapers.

Tucked away between the short, straightforward but cleanly written chapters you will find one or two that pop out. One of my favourite chapters is ‘Time Past and Time Present…’ for the lyricism with which a familiar object – peanuts – is evoked. Such passages reveal the observer and the writer breasting the tape ahead of the journalist, all of which describe Farrukh Dhondy.

The peanut vendors, with the nuts wrapped neatly in the recycled paper cones carried in cloth bags on their shoulders, had invented a peculiar name for the monkey nuts. Instead of shouting ‘peanuts’ or ‘moong-phali’ they would pass through the compartments shouting ‘time pass!’ – a name the commuters adopted… for some whose journeys from one end of the line to the other may take two hours, the shelling and consumption of a cone of monkey nuts would help pass the empty time.

Descriptions such as these also lead to questions on whether English is the language from which most words are adapted. What about words coming into English – we know all about veranda and jodhpurs, but did you know that ‘Blighty’ meaning ‘England’ came from ‘vilayati’ meaning ‘foreign’ in Hindi? And what about words from English that has leached into other languages? Now that Dhondy has given us the first instalment of Words, I would strongly urge him to give us Words Too, a bigger and more encompassing instalment.

That one could well go beyond words. The other day, my niece, her friend and I feasted on a delicious sweet coconut wrap in a Chinese restaurant. It seemed to be second cousin to the modak or kozhukkattai, beloved of Lord Ganesha, yet it was different – it was Chinese. Now that’s one kind of journey that would sit well in Words Too! Chance-ay illai! And you know I mean the very opposite of ‘no chance’

Published on HimalMag

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