Thursday, November 18, 2010

Language Timothy!

Language Timothy!
If that catch phrase made you smile and you recognise it from a reasonably awful BBC tele series called Sorry! you belong to my generation. And this blog post will make a lot of sense to you. So what, you may ask, does an 80s TV series have to do with being forty something? Actually a lot.

I must confess that no matter where I stand chronologically, I am seldom at a loss for words in any situation or age group. But of late, my usual gift of the gab seems to be deserting me. In other words, I, ahem, don't understand the lingo that I often hear around me.Sample this: a younger colleague mailed me this liner: "Tis tru...da distans hav increasd....bud dats soooo sad na....1s v ver der n delhi 2gether 4 a couple f dez...thoz ver gud tymz..."

I mailed back asking her to translate into English and she called to explain. You see, it seems my kind of language is simply no longer cool. What I once thought was sms-lingo is now the common stuff for people in their 20s...and I am not even talking about the strange dialect that teenagers talk. Recently Emma Thompson attracted widespread reactions -- both favourable and otherwise -- when she asked school children to please speak entire words and sentences. Emma had a point -- it may be cool to speak your own lingo and it also has the added advantage of making no sense to people like me (the parent trap that is ) but the danger is you could grow up spouting no language other than gibberish. My best friend Reshmi has a catch phrase which I use liberally simply because it is quite evocative -- young people these days are inarticulate in multiple languages. One young man, cool dude former colleague, fits that bill completely -- he speaks English, Hindi and Bengali and is completely incomprehensible in all three! Ask him to explain something and he will flit from language to language leaving you both exhausted and exasperated. Phew!

The West's problem of teenagers taking a word and turning it into something quite different or liberally sprinkling 'like', 'awesome' etc in their speech is a little different from our language limbo. Reason: English as we speak it is a little bit different from the way Brits or Americans do. Remember the opening chapter in Yann Martel's Booker Prize winning Life of Pi? India, he wrote, is a curious place where railway booking clerks will demand that you don't bamboozle them into anything.....Martel has a an Indian journalist writing in English I often use words which would be more comfortable in Jane Austen's Victorian England than in 21st century India. Words like bemused and leery are seldom if ever found in newspapers in the West...the English language in UK and the US is much more casual compared to our more formal usage.

Nor is this peculiar to English alone. My friend Prasanto Roy, who just came back from a trip to Quebec, noted not without irony that the French speaking people of that region don't feel comfortable talking to snooty Parisians in French! If they do, they get a reply in English. Parisians are notoriously accent conscious -- not unlike Bengalis who turn up their noses at the cockney Bangal that migrants from east Bengal tend to speak -- and any non-Parisian accent is non kosher. But the problem with the outpost lingo is that it's stuck in a time warp and often sound quaint and outdated to the mother country. For instance, Prasanto informed me, the Spanish say parking but Mexico has continued with estacionamiento....

Language, unless we're talking Sanskrit or Latin, is an evolving species. So it's okay to let it transform, include new words and phrases, even new trends -- remember Bangalored! -- but the trouble with my generation is that we're still used to complete words and sentences. The curse of cursive English? U bettr bliv it!

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