Considering the oft-considered consideration that, “English is a bhery phunny language”, Namakhalaal Mr Bachchan’s top order verbal unleashment stays tops across common conversation even decades since Bollywood officially endorsed the extent of funniness the English language lends itself to.
Very funny then and as punny now as the proficiency and intent of the speaker, spoken English, the way we know it and the way many would have us know, enthrals with vagaries sometimes hilarious, sometimes misleading, sometimes downright offensive but mostly…different…in a different sort of way. Its manifest boon or bane, ultimately, depends on how varied our reasons for speaking it are and where we speak it − all, always, ultimately, considerably considerable.
While non-native speakers continue to cook its broth most relentlessly, only those who have had personal experience with the in-house battering of this phonetically challenged dialect, mother tongue, or not, can sympathise with the fact that the murder spree of Queen’s English is a heritage that is as old as the very origins of its speakers.
History not-withstanding, the scope for sheer variety underscores the speaking fraternity of its faithful, where strong accents make for individual languages in their own right. So while there is the Geordie or the Brummie from its land’s own, we heb our own ramifications, that stand proud, as far as the empire stretched then and as rampant as its influence has spread since.
Compounded by phonetic similarities between words among the multiple languages we speak, while they hold no semantic parity, the results of their combinations become epics in themselves.
Hold that in your mind while I relate this rather unfortunate event - one from a long list that, dear readers, I am sure you will be able to add to, given our transcontinental existence today and the requirement that it creates to converse in a language that to most of us is, essentially, foreign.Someone declares at a wake, “… inde naake vurrk ille” (today I will get no sleep). It is but natural to wonder, even aloud, why someone not even remotely related to the deceased should go without sleep prior to the funeral. Turns out, the exclamation was a classic dual language utterance, where “vurrk” was actually the English word ‘work’ used as itself, but articulated in his typical accent. After much confusion among the guests, when the situation got quite out-of-hand, someone was kind enough to intervene and clarify what that sentence originally intended to convey. It goes thus: “inde naake work ille”, meaning quite simply and unpretentiously, ‘today I do not have (to go to) work’.
Can you imagine how foul uncontrollable guffaws would have seemed with the head of the family lying in a coffin two teak chairs away? Let us not even venture into the predicament of the mourning widow and the distraught children.
So you see, language mutilation is not obliged to protocols of any sort and if you are suddenly humming, "why this kollaveri di...", it is because, in the wake of habit and opportunity, anything vurrks.
And.It is always very sentimental.
The enthusiast will plough on. And you dare not interrupt. Especially on a busy road when the only one available to ask for directions is a modest enough youth revvinga 1985 converted van, loaded with live chickens. He will vigorously point left on the fork in the road that bears right and insist that to get to where I need to be in less than 15 minutes, I should go “striiiiitu”.
Decode time. Going ‘straight’ would take me into a road with no point of return until four kms on that traffic heavy stretch, going ‘right’ would steer me out of the city. So, trying my diplomatic best, I enquired again. Enthusiastic, confident and even more persuasive, pat came the reply, “go to Striiitu, Medem”. You might have heard this a million times before but there was no way I could break his heart. Yet, experience told me to make for a polite getaway, urgently.
While I drove away relying merely on the compass of instinct and sheer common sense, the bridge (breeze) rand (ran) through my airz (hair). The chaos outside, tasted my resolve and I hated the test of the orange flavoured water, a friend had most kindly forced upon me on another such mercurial day.
Was I flummoxed, though? On the contrary, it was another heartening testimony to why progress will always make its way.
For, if connecting effortlessly on a local level is important for me to become an integral part of the framework that will now be home, and speaking in the regional language properly counts for a valiant effort (guilty and not proud), there is this rank of greater valiants that also dares to dream big. Like us, and in fact sometimes more than us, they know that prosperity rides on cultural amalgamation. They have seen it happen and they are part of that wave. So while no one can take away from them, their staunch roots of identity, they are forever eager to adapt to and adopt every semblance of a prosperity that makes them more one with the rest of the world.
Make way now, for the Truce of Necessity. Having never had to speak a word of English (or any other language but their own) to get by, born and bred in happy naadusand oorus, and then even more happily married off to jobs, prospects or spouses in Amreeka, Staitsu, Kennaada or Brimanghaam, there is an increasing community dealing with ‘first exposure’. These newbies neither identify with the land they have been transported to nor with the hair-raising (not funny) cultural adjustments that will have to be made in the land of the white, light white and not so light colour tones. Never mind the spectrum of expectations that come around them. But if one must fetch that first meal, one must speak. Their speak.
Mismatch? With absolutely no offence to anyone, if what takes your imagination now is a tight, coconut-oiled braid cascading down Rapunzel style, swaying frantically left-right-left-right on a small NYC street, as the owner it sprouts from, hollers, “staaap” to the taxi approaching, only to be stood up, you are not kidding! Mercie for nothing, but, maybe, just maybe, she missed out the slight roll of the rrrr there, as in ‘staarrrp’, because ‘stop’, simply said in whatever accent, would go uncomprehended in that land of otherwise ‘wunnerrful’ people.
In his classic matter-of-fact fashion, a friend puts it quite rightly when he says, “When someone learns English for the first time, abroad, there is only one way he can speak it”. This deems true for any language, really. The oddity of an Indian rural upbringing, spouting, for instance, a heavily accented Yankie-twang, is but an occupational hazard.
Provokes some thought there and a reflection upon how much importance we should warrant the ‘correct’ way of speaking an acquired language that is in itself an occupational hazard.
This new English speaker might not get as much attention for his accent where he learnt it first, as for his skin colour and deference, but when he comes home to his people and mingles with the more urbane crowd where language barrier might never have been much of a challenge, his manner and style of speech, far removed from his strong origin, make him the perfect laughing stock. Says a new NRI holiday maker, “Even if he is aware of this, is there much he can do?” And those that will not admit to such ‘picking on’, cannot honestly deny it either. Where his accent is ‘at home’, he is an alien. Where ‘he’ should be at home, his alien accent makes him the butt of jokes.
To turn this dilemma on its head, let me remind you of another nasty joke from the other side of the west – the world of crumpets and tea. Remember Big Brother UK? And remember that embarrassing slur cast upon the diplomatic visit of the UK premier to India? The landmark ‘declaration’ by the reigning Ms Great Britain of the time, with her Liverpudlian scouse and seriously impaired articulation skills, concluded that Shilpa ‘princess’ Shetty, “can’t even speak English properly”. Even the very British anchor of the show couldn’t stifle her sheepish giggles at that and much air time was devoted to lame damage control. But, who is to tell?!
What is right and what is wrong? With the multitude of different accents that English is spoken in Britain itself, when someone walks into an east London hardware store and makes a quick Scottish request for “fork handles” only to be handed ‘four candles’, who is to dictate to the rest of the world, what constitutes the right way of speaking it? Why do we get so miffed when someone tells us that “here, in India” we pronounce p-a-s-t-e-l, as “paste-al” and not ‘pastl’ (‘a’ pronounced as in pat) as the expert would have it said? When, after constant correction, someone decides that English is not her mother tongue and she is “verrrry-vell-thankyou” without more badgering, why does that tiny group of phonetic experts, that constitutes an equally tiny fraction of the entire English speaking world, get so offended? Whatever happened to ‘respecting regional differences’ and ‘majority wins’?!
Though I believe that every effort should be aimed at perfection or somewhere close to it, falling short at something as nebulous and transient as lingual ability and accents, mainly due to regional deflections, should be the last thing to linger on. After all, the British themselves, sometimes, struggle to follow strong modulations among their own. The French are graciously forgiven and the Italians are fondly imitated. Let us spare ourselves some flak – we are culturally and racially much more diverse than anyone in the west. This must be acknowledged. On a lighter note, revel, but keep the humour mutually palatable because many among us who speak a foreign tongue would really much rather not do so at all.
Above the underlying determination to rise beyond the ordinary, these light moments of comic relief (in afterthought, even the worst situation brings a smile to anyone), make every bead of sweat, worth the while.
Living in India, these moments come on a platter with the maid insisting on “making you tough” (making dough for me) – she has to learn English per force because she has two “foreigner houses” to go to after mine, to “cook them”. Being in Bangalore, the triumphs come along at particular traffic junctions. My, now, familiar-face cop insists on replying in English, relentlessly flourishing his modest linguistic prowess over a language (imported, like his Malaysian ‘Ferrari’ jacket) that he clearly looks up to, for every query I put to him in my equally laughable Kannada. It provided moments of immense comedy initially (to both parties) but now, I have a different take on it.
The local vernacularisation of a language from a land far, far, away, creates something ‘different’. Not ‘wrong’. The localised diction and usage ̶ more far-fetched the better ̶ makes it worth the while. In this very common situation today, where education, aspiration and resolve come together, every time you come across a deflection, multi-lingual, grammatical or phonetic, it gets you. It is worth the vile.
While we rave about the extinction of ancient pure languages like Latin or our own Sanskrut, English’s non-phonetic conformity and scope to coin phrases that can mean anything depending on how they are used ensures that however mongrelised it gets, it will always survive. Blame it on the far-flung British colonies and effects thereof, ‘color’ it tan or ‘colour’ it teal, throw in a ‘psychedelic’ range (with a p) or trace in a ‘cyclic’ pattern (without a p), this language will prevail. With every new accent and word that gets added, to its ever-expanding palette and dictionary editions, the more popular it will grow as a linguistic choice.
As long as you get it and as long as it vill be spoken, in all its forms, all considered, ultimately, it will always be, English.
And talking of contortionist phrases, let me leave you with a line from a card attached to a loving letter I received this week. Sitting pretty on my mantelpiece, the cover picture is a beautiful, textured graphic print of the Alps, with the words, “Peace and merriment” calligraphed across its width. On the inside page, amidst all the smilies, the handwriting reads: “This joyful season, may you be full of it. Much love… ” Seasons Greetings, everyone. □