Words have a way of waking your mind. Funny words, especially rude ones, make children explode, and the child trapped in the adult giggles aloud. Last summer, lulled nearly to sleep by the sun on our outdoor swing, (heavily weighed down by a non-alcoholic beer in my hand and a big baby in my belly), I was smiling at the wonderful words spun by Henry James, who wrote his last novel, The Golden Bowl, not far from where I now live.
Suddenly, I am attacked by an unfamiliar word.
“Bumfuzzle! Bum, Bum…”
Our three-year-old daughter streaks past, splashing into the paddling pool shrieking “bumfuzzle!” I nearly leap, spilling pale stinking bubbles down my big bump. I am lost for words; quite, in fact, bumfuzzled, but I don’t know it yet. Befuddled? It sounds onomatopoeic and, appropriately, it means to be confused.
When we listen to words, they often will reveal their meaning to us. But “bumfuzzle” had me flummoxed. Later, as I explained my messy appearance to my husband, he laughed and showed me a television advertisement for British telecom company Three UK’s Singing Dictionary campaign, which had probably got in my daughter’s head. It showed a well-dressed, conservatively-collared and white liveried choir, singing aloud the word “BUMFUZZZZZLE” in earnest. It was brilliant. It woke my mind to the lengths language has travelled in several hundred years.
We lose and gain language daily. We invent text-speak, we make up words. We change usage according to predictive text.
Fascinatingly, it is contemporary English dictionary compilers who have encouraged the making of virtual language maps through documentary programmes like the path-making Balderdash and Piffle (BBC, 2006), which renew an interest in the life of a language, by tracing the origins of words. In India, we have no equivalent map-making culture. We must. Primarily, for the genesis of English into ‘Inglish’, as an art form almost. English, as we use it in India, is not only unique, but worth celebrating. It is being studied at the University of Oxford as a popular development, as is the evolution of ‘Hinglish’ and other apparent corruptions (Banglish, etc) of the Queen’s English into something more; whether at televised events like the Indian Premier League (IPL), where most Hindi words appear in English Roman type and transliteration, or in errant conversations on the train doing ‘timepass’ with friends. And yes, ‘timepass’ is a valid verb according to Professor Craig Jeffrey (Timepass: Youth, Class and the Politics of Waiting in India, 2010, Stanford University Press). Currently at the forefront of researching the evolution of English in modern India at St John’s College, Oxford University, he teaches an undergraduate human geography programme, mapping ethnographic trends. Even if ‘timepass’ is not used in ‘proper’ English, in India it is widely used and understood as a valid way to waste time.
Looking at the spanning branches of the language tree, we see where Sanskrit and English diversify. But they are, in fact, rooted together. When he was an amateur language scholar and a deeply devoted student of India studies, Sir William Jones (co-founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, January 1784) hunted for the means to expose the links between these languages when he arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a Supreme Court judge in 1783. He chanced upon the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and announced to the world that he had ‘discovered’ the equivalent of The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were held by the Romantics and Early Victorians as foreshadowing all literary progress. In the 1780s, Jones upheld the ancient, as yet untranslated, Sanskrit texts as finer in composition and relevance than anything the world had seen (John Keay, India Discovered). Jones went on to teach himself Sanskrit to promote his fortuitous discovery of these yet-unknown, unheard of treasures.
It may seem peculiar to someone who has not lived in London, or spent time in the UK, that not everyone uses the Queen’s English in England, let alone the other subjuncts of the kingdom. Professor Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison) sang eloquently about this in the 1950s adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion, the wonderfully musical My Fair Lady.
An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.
Oh, why can’t the English learn to set a good example to people whose English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!
If only Higgins had asked Colonel Hugh Pickering (essayed by Robert Coote), a fellow phoneticist, who in the film has just returned from India, about the state of the English language there. He would have assured Higgins that it is alive and evolving, faring far better than in America. They could have added a whole new verse to the song about Wren & Martin grammar usage. Then the song would have ended differently. Maybe like this:
Now take the case in India, Where we should have no fears.
Why, from Calcutta to Bombay, They’ve been using it for years.
They’ve even invented new words
And multiplied it two thirds. In fact in India English consistently reappears.
The fictional Colonel Pickering discovered in excess of 200 distinct languages, apart from dialects. It is worth mentioning here that a more expansive list, including the 22 ‘scheduled’ languages, stands at 461 spoken languages, including 14 considered extinct across the subcontinent today (www.ethnologue.com ). But no language map acknowledges the predominance of English as a common link. We even write Hindi in English letters so that more of the population will understand it. The letters of the English language go further in the subcontinent, even with non-English readers.
(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)