Pakistanis believe Bollywood’s language is Urdu (and what Vajpayee speaks is Hindi). Indians think Bollywood is Hindi, and what PTV speaks is Urdu. Hindi/Urdu is actually the same language, Hindustani, made alien because it’s written in two scripts. Most of Urdu’s sounds come from Sanskrit. It isn’t even possible, for instance, to write the word phool, flower, in Arabic.

Linguist: Gulzar uses the Persian script. Raj K. Raj / Hindustan Times

This is because the letter P is missing in Arabic, which is strange, because it seems an easy sound to produce. Another basic sound Arabs don’t have is G, and McDonald’s signs in Arabic advertise the “hamburjer" in Dubai.

Arabs cannot spell Pakistan, and might pronounce it “Fakistan" or “Bakistan". Pak is Persian and means pure.

Parsis always had P, and when Persia was conquered by the Arabs, the letter was accommodated into the Arabic script by adding two dots to ?(B) and inventing ? (P).

Phool cannot be written in Gujarati either because, influenced heavily by Persian through trade, Gujarati uses the sound F instead of Pha. Phool is ful in Gujarati, but that word does not properly communicate the pendulous weight of a flower.

Sanskrit does not have F, and it must be modified for Hindi by putting a dot under Pha. Bollywood’s Gulzar (whose name comes from flower) writes in the Persian script and is keen that we claim all Hindustani words through active use of the dot under Devnagari letters like K, Kh, Gh, J, S and A. These sounds are only missing from the alphabet, not the language. However, only cultured Indians can properly pronounce qaaf, khay and ghain.

Plato is known to Indians by the beautiful name Aflatoon. How did Plato become Aflatoon? His name in Greek is actually Platon, meaning wide. English spells him through Latin, which drops the N.

We got the word from Muslims and, as we have seen, Arabs have no P and so his name begins with F. The reason for the A at the beginning is that “fl" (as in flower) is not a naturally occurring sound in Arabic, and the alif, or A, eases us into the word by separating F from L: Af-latoon.

Those who believe V.S. Naipaul cooks up anecdotes to fit his theories will find evidence of this in his book Overcrowded Barracoon.

He quotes a professor of literature in north India as describing his curriculum thus: “We begin with Eshakespeare" and then “the Romantics. Eshelley" and then “Esomerset Maugham".

Also Read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

It is impossible that a north Indian will say Eshakespeare, Eshelley and Esomerset. Sh and S are both naturally occurring, and commonly used, in Hindi.

Naipaul quotes another man talking about his “estatus", and this is correct. He might have picked up a couple of similarly mispronounced words, like “iskool" and “istation", and then assumed, wrongly, that the problem was with all words starting with S. He then makes up the names that make his story entertaining.

So why do north Indians say “iskool" and “estatus"? Urdu cannot join letters to half-S because Sk and St (like Skanda in Sanskrit) are not naturally occurrent. For this reason, the spelling in Urdu of the word “school" cannot start S+K because that would produce the word “sakool". An alif is put before the S, to ease it into the K, and this produces the easier “askool" or “iskool".

The peasant’s inability to say F explains words like phoren and phillum, which urban Indians use with a laugh. But someone else might laugh at us.

We pronounce the word philosophy as fee-law-saw-fee. But in Ancient Greek f (phi) is aspirated like the Hindi phool and so Plato would know his work as phee-low-so-phee-aa (f???s?f?a). I think this makes the word, and the work, more rustic, more accessible, less intimidating.

Is it possible to truly understand the meaning of words you speak incorrectly? I do not think so, and Plato discusses this in his book on the sound of words, Cratylus.

In Greek the book is Kratulus, because Greek has no Y. The letter Y is just the capital form of the letter u (upsilon). So Cyclops is actually Kuklops. Kuklos is circle, and Cyclops is so named not because of his single eye, but because his eye is round.

Like Greek, Latin also doesn’t have the soft C. And so the Roman orator Cicero is really Key-kay-ro, and the great general who crossed the Rubicon with his armies was Kay-ser, which explains German Kaiser, and Spanish Che-za-ray, much closer to the real way of saying Caesar than our Seize-er.

We say a matter is “sub ju-diss" when sub-judice is actually “sub-jyoo-decay", from the Greek dike which means justice. Jurisprudence requires knowledge of Latin, which our lower judiciary does not have.

Sometimes a word that gets mispronounced changes history. Moses asks God what his name is, and is answered: Yah-weh. God says he has no name and “I am whatever I am" (Yahweh is like our “jo hoon woh hoon"). Because of the difficulty of starting words with Y (Malayalis call the colour “ellow"), Yahweh became Jehovah.

Jehovah is a meaningless word, but it is a name. It gives the Semitic god a personality and a sex. The original being, who I think was pantheistic, was lost and we have the jealous, bearded God of the Jewish commandments instead, angry with unbelievers, homosexuals and women.

The cross Jesus was made to carry by Jews says INRI. We are familiar with the Latin letters, which stand for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, or Jesus the Nazarene, King of Jews. But what Pontius Pilate would have had written was INBI. Because the language of the Roman empire in the east was Greek. And the word for king in Greek isn’t Rex, but Basileus.

Jinnah also saw himself in messianic terms. He changed his date of birth to 25 December so that it fell on Christmas. “Jinnah" is a meaningless word, but the Gujarati word for tiny is jhinhu. I once translated an interview of Jinnah’s given to the magazine Vismi Sadi (20th century) in 1916, and noticed something. Jinnah signed at the bottom in Gujarati, using Jha and the heavy N for his father’s name: Jhinha, derived from Jhinhu. Would Muslims have responded to him differently if they knew his name meant tiny? Unlikely. But why was his father named Tiny? Gujarati babies who are sickly are often given cruel names to ward off death. I knew a man in Surat called Kachra—garbage—and perhaps eventually the word lost its meaning to him.

Alpha and beta are themselves meaningless words in Greek. “Alphabet" is derived from joining the Semitic words alif (ox) and beit (house), used to teach children their ABC.

It’s like coining a word AppleBall.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

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