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Society | Mind your language

Society | Mind your language
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First Published: Fri, Oct 07 2011. 01 20 PM IST

Imaging by Jayachandran/Mint
Imaging by Jayachandran/Mint
Updated: Sat, Oct 08 2011. 01 54 PM IST
News flash on a website: 2G: BJP demands probe against PM, PC.
The meaning of the cuss word Chutium Sulphate, explained in an online dictionary: “Complete moron, as in, That chutium sulphate can’t drive two feet without blowing his horn.”
Slutwalk’s Indianised avatar: “Slutwalk athhart Besharmi Morcha.”
The synopsis of the forthcoming film Ra.One on its official website: “A father trying hard to ‘fit-in’ in his son’s badass world. A son…trying hard to ‘dude-up’ his dad from ‘aiiiyyyo’ to ‘YO!’. And a mother lost in translation between her husband’s ‘ingeva’ and her son’s ‘Inn’it!”
This is the 21st century sound of urban India. In a republic of 122 languages with more than 10,000 speakers (2001 census), we have entered into a new kind of multilingual anarchy, where a colon-dash-bracket on the keypad has become shorthand for a smile.
Our conversational language has disintegrated into a mess of jargon, idiom, acronyms, abbreviations, cuss words and symbols. When a college girl in Delhi mocks her classmate, saying her “chamki (shining) shoes are so aunty-type”, or an executive in Mumbai tells his colleague that “Your PowerPoint was just jhakaas (superb)”, or a teenager in Chandigarh sings “Zara zara (little little) touch me, touch me”, little do they realize that what they are saying comes from a cocktail of new influences.
The language that we use in our daily lives is an amalgamation of every aspect of modern living. Deep historical and cultural transformations have reshaped the landscape in which it is evolving—from politicians trying to control the language that must be spoken to intellectuals attempting to adjudicate the style; teachers explaining how literature must be understood; book publishers deciding what works with the masses; writers exploring new idioms; radio jockeys magnifying the reach of local slang; and words being shaped for technology. All these forces are merging with us. We are shaping the language, the language is shaping us.
Some celebrate the transformation; others see a crisis.
“Language mirrors society and so there is correct language in so far as there is correct society :),” says US-based Vikram Bhaskaran, who last year co-founded Samosapedia, an online guide to South Asian lingo. In an email chat, he wrote: “At Samosapedia, we celebrate language and all its modifications and imperfections. The multifarious and the nefarious all have a home here.”
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Samosapedia invites readers to sign up as volunteers by exhorting: “Join us, yaar! Create an account, share your words, and maaja maadi! Or else, just linger around, checkout the Daily Chutney and yenjoy!”
Imaging by Jayachandran/Mint
Purists might flinch. “Language is the storehouse of memory,” says Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, who heads Lalit Kala Akademi, a premier art institution in Delhi. “The linguistic mix-up that is happening today is stripping our language of its past. It is reducing us to an eternal present, which is Now, as if nothing happened or was thought before.”
So is language in decline? “Earlier, people were fluent in at least two languages. Today, they can’t speak one full line even in Punjabi,” says Swati Pal, associate professor of the English department in Delhi’s Janki Devi Memorial College. “The SMS lingo has invaded the way we think. The exam sheets are littered with ‘u’ instead of ‘you’.”
One of Maheshwar’s students, Isha Gupta, says: “Our language is as casual as our attitude. Nobody dresses formally in colleges; it’s shorts, sandals and T-shirts. Similarly, there’s nothing official about how we speak and write. It’s our zamana (age).”
“The social changes reflect in our everyday language,” says Aligarh-based Urdu poet Akhlaq Mohammad Khan Shahryar, the lyricist for Muzaffar Ali’s film Umrao Jaan, who received the Jnanpith Award in September. “Inhibitions are disappearing. There is more tolerance for ishq (love affairs). The word ‘sexy’ has become a popular adjective.”
Jaskaran, a class XI student in a south Delhi school who didn’t want his full name used, says, “If my mother has made a good meal, and I compliment her saying, ‘Mummy, rajma-chawal is sexy’, it’s not thought rude.” Within his circle, Jaskaran is known for peppering every sentence with cuss words. “Everyone says ‘chootiya’ all the time,” he says. “When the first of the recent quake tremors hit Delhi a few weeks ago, Jaskaran’s classmate, a girl, SMSed him, saying, “Bhais ki aankh!”
This slur is like a nursery rhyme compared with the chartbuster song Bhaag DK Bose from Aamir Khan’s Delhi Belly. The chorus keeps repeating DK Bose until the reverse pattern loops into the Hindi slang meaning “of the vagina”.
Although earlier generations may have punctuated their speech with swear words, it’s only recently that they have begun encroaching on to popular culture through cinema, music and what we read at our breakfast table. Journalist Indrajit Hazra’s columns in Hindustan Times (Mint is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Hindustan Times) are frequently filled with cuss words such as “KLPD”. “Swear words are like beggars on the street, part and parcel of our lives,” says Hazra. “They are as much of our vocabulary as exclamations like ‘Oof!’ and ‘Hey Ram!’ and verbal ropes like ‘Um’ and ‘You know’. To deny their existence, whether in the garb of propriety or in the form of disapproving shock tactics, is being illogically righteous, both aesthetically and politically. Life, especially public life, is too fucking serious to be left to being talked about through only proper vocabulary.”
“‘Sexy’ and ‘fuck’ are used so indiscriminately that today they are almost non-sexual words,” says Nikhil Yadav, an English professor at Delhi’s Sri Venkateswara College. “Does this mean we are having more sex? I guess so. Are we loosening up in language? Definitely not. There’s no wonderful ‘chutnification’ happening here.”
The term chutnification, implying a certain alteration that produces a taste of truth, was coined by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, a novel littered with Hindustani swear words.
The only memorable chutnification of urban India’s language took place decades ago. The pioneers were two authors who would perhaps not like to be compared with each other: Shobhaa De and Arundhati Roy. As founder-editor of the Stardust film magazine in 1971, De would add common Hindi words to her popular English gossip column Neeta’s Natter. “I enjoyed the liberties we took with language,” she said in an email interview. “When we coined names like Garam Dharam (to describe hot-blooded actor Dharmendra), they became the rage. At the time, we were mocked but it was a zippy, irreverent, wicked masala column that spawned countless clones.”
In 1989, Arundhati Roy wrote the screenplay of the film In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, which won the National Award in the category “Best Film in Languages Other Than Those Specified in Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution”. The most important character in the low-budget production was English as it was spoken in Delhi University in the 1970s. In the film, a flirty college student tells her professor: “Hai sir, I’m so confused, pata nahi kuch samajh me nahi aa raha what to do.”
Years later, Roy wrote an introduction to the script, saying, “It was an enterprise that deliberately and almost by definition excluded most people and most of the ‘market’.”
Today that jumble of English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi leads the market.
Ask author Anuja Chauhan, whose last novel, Battle for Bittora, was described by reviewer Ira Pande as legitimizing “a new vocabulary emerging from the violent collision between Bharat and India that has all the promise of a new lingua franca”. Is it an enriching fusion or a hodgepodge? “The content of what you say is more important than the language you say it in,” says Chauhan. “You could say something very crass or violent or rabble-rousing in perfect Hindi/Urdu like the lunatic fringe in many political parties. And you could say something very pure and reverential in tootaa-phoota (broken) Hinglish.”
There is increasing irreverence for the correctness of a language. “Grammar is for grammarians,” says De. “Language rules are there to be broken at will. I’m all for throwing antiquated usage out of the window and speagging, wridding, thingging like this only!”
The “only” has uneasy vibrations for many. “I detest words and phrases like ‘we do this only’ or ‘anyways’ or ‘I am having a very nice dress’, even if it’s in a direct quote,” says Sanchita Guha, the copy-desk head of Marie Claire, a women’s magazine with target readership in the age band of early 20s to late 30s. “When a young woman is quoted in an article, the way she speaks adds a lot of energy to the piece. While I keep the writing as chatty as possible, it cannot slide into ‘Inglish’ (Indian English). Being chatty does not mean sacrificing style and elegance of language.”
“The idea of correct English is changing,” says Neelini Sarkar, editor at HarperCollins India, who edited Chauhan’s novel. “It’s now acceptable for a character in a novel to say, ‘I’m from Delhi only’. The market is interested in such writing. Readers want a book with a good story, low price and something that’s a light read. Earlier, Indian novelists wrote to prove that they are Indians and yet could write a book in good English. Today, the language of urban India is becoming less self-conscious.”
Are we marching onward to a new grammar-less utopia?
In the popular Dil Se column in HT City, a supplement of Hindustan Times, college students write love messages in which each sentence is an artwork of various languages woven into a mesh of film titles, SMS terms, acronyms, keyboard symbols and Internet slang. One such message should be a compulsory read for linguist professors:
“Kavita, Hope jaan u had taken decision? And jaan take risk but be carefull u dont get caught. Jaan i need exact date if not time when u will come to me. Jaan never take tension of mine m fine, u take care of urself. love you hamesha chuhiya pagal idiot. i need u hugg n kiss. come sweethrt. Rajesh”
What does such eloquence say about us?
“It shows a complete lack of imagination. We are at a stage where we are trying to find new identities for ourselves but clearly we can’t find it in one language,” says Rupleena Bose, a college lecturer at Delhi University who is working on an independent documentary called English-India, which aims to explore the sounds of urban India. “Today everyone is in a hurry, so every word has to be connected to productivity. There is a substitute for every emotional expression of silence; smiley, hugs, brb... ”
Mobile-phone texting and Internet chatting is changing the way we think and visualize our language. Thanks to this parallel mode of communication, we are writing and reading more than we did in the past, but our ability to express feelings has been reduced to jargon and abbreviations. The information and technology overload has greatly affected the ability to concentrate; it is harder to pick up the finer nuances of a language by listening to others speak. “The notion that we can do with fewer words is making us a little less human,” says poet Vajpeyi. “This is intellectual lethargy. Language is becoming a fast food because we are forgetting how to cook.”
Some could be enjoying this food. “SMSes and emails have given us abbreviations and everything sounds like a railway PNR number or the initials of a hit Hindi movie,” says Chauhan. “One new phrase I love is the ‘main’. ‘We will have other items also, par biryani main hoga.’ Or, ‘Ram Teri Ganga Maili’ mein, waterfall shot was the main. But I’m not an unabashed fan of the khichdi language.”
“As we sit in our offices eating lunch al desko, indulging in a bit of Social ‘Not’working—tweets, likes and wall writing—it is easy to see that the English language has changed,” says Steven Baker, who works with the British Council in India as a language trainer and has appeared in Bollywood films. “In this 24x7 culture, we should not waste time blamestorming these changes, but accept that language growth is a constant and complex evolutionary project. When sociologists look back at some of this new vocabulary that has entered into daily use like carbon footprint, credit crunch, staycation, and subprime, it will provide a snapshot of our times.”
That language could also be beautiful—and not merely a tool to communicate—is becoming an idea for Luddites. In the past, a painter might have depicted our speech as a meadow of trees, streams, waterfalls and rainbow. Today, it would most likely be a high-rise with glass cabins. “Language is becoming consumerist, to be used more as a module for specific career choices than a web of words and expressions,” says Prof. Yadav. “It’s this premium on a fixed, limited kind of communication skill that is the danger. Students are dropping out of accredited courses to take calls in funny accents.”
Many young Indians effortlessly switch between two or three languages, or combine the vocabulary of both in the same sentence. In India’s linguistic history this has been a tradition and continues today—“a phenomenon reflected in Bollywood releases like Double Dhamaal, Always Kabhi Kabhi and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan,” says Baker. “Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas is an epic in Awadhi, a Hindi dialect, but it has more than a thousand words in Arabic and Persian,” says Vajpeyi.
The irony is that today people are unable to speak even one language really fluently. And English has been raised to an elevated position at the cost of other vernacular languages.
“This is not a bad thing,” says Aatish Taseer, an English novelist who speaks Urdu in a perfect Old Delhi accent and is taking Sanskrit classes. “The Indian linguistic scene has for 20 centuries been composed of many languages. The idea of a hyper-glossia, or a high language, has existed from the advent of Sanskrit. That place was filled by Persian, and is now occupied by English. What is different is what Sheldon Pollock describes as English’s ‘scorched earth’ relationship with the languages operating below it. Many people have ended up bezubaan today, that is without a language they can read easily in, one to whose music they are sensitive. An entire generation of Hindi/Urdu readers, my grandparents’ generation, produced children who could no longer read or even speak those languages.”
WTF, or shall we say, Bhais ki aankh!
mayank.s@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Oct 07 2011. 01 20 PM IST
More Topics: Language | Society | Words | English | Hindi |