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     Volume 8 Issue 59 | February 27, 2009 |

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Food for Thought

Speaking in Tongues…
But Whose?

Farah Ghuznavi

At the end of a month where we Bangalis rightly celebrate our language, it must nevertheless be admitted that Bangla can be a difficult language to learn beautiful, melodious, lyrical (can you spot my biases?), but complex; particularly for those seeking to speak really good Bangla. After all, the difference between the shuddho (classical) and colloquial forms of Bangla are almost comparable to the chasm between Shakespearean English and its modern-day equivalent. Luckily, we Bangalis tend to be highly appreciative of those who try to learn our language to an embarrassing degree at times. Some of my expat friends have mentioned how the disproportionate appreciation they receive for speaking a few sentences only makes them feel guiltier about just how poor their command over the language really is!

All this to say that I tend to be reasonably sympathetic towards those who make an honest mistake in the course of their linguistic efforts. Like my cousin's husband, who is German, and decided very early after their marriage that he would try to attain some degree of fluency in Bangla. Needless to say, his efforts did not go unpunished. On one occasion, sent out by his wife to buy curtains for their new flat, he was trying to remember the Bangla word he had been taught for 'curtain'. Unfortunately, he got confused; but not as confused as the shopkeepers from whom he tried to buy a “burqa” (Of course he meant 'purdah' a wholly understandable mistake, but a totally different ballgame!)

This incident took place in the early years of their marriage, but length of time is not necessarily a guarantee of linguistic perfection; at least, not in all instances. A friend of a friend has a Ukranian mother, who speaks Bangla well. The lady is well-known and appreciated for her efforts to integrate into her adopted country, which include sari-wearing and Bangla speaking. Recently though she managed, quite inadvertently, to give rise to a degree of confusion among her family members. The lock on her bedroom (along with the lock on her daughter Yana's bedroom door) had stopped working, so as she told her husband, “Amar ghorey ekta loke lagbey. Yanar ghoreyo ekta loke lagbe.” Her flabbergasted husband looked at her, trying to understand why on earth someone (a 'loke') was needed for his wife and daughter's bedrooms after all, what was he there for? It took a little sorting out before the lock situation was satisfactorily explained, but not before a considerable degree of hilarity had ensued.

Anyway, language is a funny thing at the best of times. I've had my share of mispronouncing words (in both English and Bangla), with perhaps the most embarrassing episode being on one occasion when I was aged about ten and attempted to impress my much older cousin with my English vocabulary. My efforts somewhat backfired when I ended up describing the unpredictable behaviour of our family pet by saying that we had “a very erotic cat!” Needless to say, she was kind enough not to point out the important distinction between “erotic” and “erratic”…

I have also in the past been rebuked for my lack of the desired language skills. Like one memorable occasion, when a customs officer at Kathmandu airport asked me some questions in Nepali. Upon my responding that I understood Hindi but not Nepali, he gave me a sharp dressing down and said that I should be ashamed for not properly speaking my own language! It was some time before I was able to convince him that in fact I speak my own language perfectly well, and that the language concerned happens to be Bangla.

The Nepal connection was to emerge quite unexpectedly a few years later. At the time, I was working with a UN project, which operated in partnership with local government authorities in a number of locations in Bangladesh. We had been to attend a meeting with our local authority counterparts in Sirajganj, where I was very happy to be able to use my Bangla-medium education and related linguistic proficiency. In general, I had come across a perception from government counterparts that Bangalis working for international organisations don't speak very good Bangla; although there is some truth in this assertion, I frequently enjoyed dredging up my shuddho Bangla from my Holy Cross days to prove otherwise.

In this instance, I was quite amazed when two of the government officials approached me after the meeting and congratulated me on speaking “very good Bangla for a Nepali!” Once again, it took some time before I could convince them that I was not a Nepali. For some reason, since they had earlier heard of a colleague of mine (a male, I might add!) who was Nepali, they had wrongly assumed that the Nepali UN officer in question was in fact myself… On that occasion, the traditional Bangali excitement at a non-Bangali speaking Bangla was more than averagely effusive, and to be quite honest, I felt a little guilty for disappointing them by coming clean with the truth about my origins!

Of course, I'm not the only one to have struggled with either language. Hybrid “Banglish” is well known for some of the howlers it has produced. Quite apart from what happens when someone is mangling the language, there are a whole host of possibilities that arise out of the different meanings associated with the same word in different languages. For example, after I had left a job several years ago, I ran into a colleague who said that he was very hurt by the fact that I had not been back to visit my ex-colleagues at my previous workplace, many of whom were also friends. As I was struggling to come up with a plausible explanation for my neglect, he broke into my feeble efforts, saying “The fact is, you don't feel us, but we all feel you!” In Banglish, of course the term “feel” is actually used to mean “miss”. However, when the sentence is read in English, it tends to have a rather more salacious feel to it. Since this particular colleague of mine was not only a consummate gentleman, but also exceptionally shy, I could only be grateful that he was unaware of the double meaning!

Sometimes, there are clear questions regarding the comprehensibility of conversational efforts, something that I have frequently been teased about where my inadequate grasp of Hindi is concerned. However, in an incident several years ago where a British friend and I were travelling together in India, and an auto-rickshaw driver decided to try and cheat us, a battle royale ensued incorporating my fractured Hindi alongside his equally questionable linguistic abilities (he was clearly a migrant from elsewhere in the country and a non-native Hindi speaker). To cut a long story short, after five to ten minutes of tense exchanges, a compromise was finally reached between us. As we approached our hotel in the gathering darkness, my friend Katy turned to me and said, “I'm never going to let anyone criticise your Hindi again after all, whatever you said to him, he clearly understood!”

And of course, there are always those who should always stick to their mother tongue, no matter how good their intentions are. Like my friend Kim, who's a documentary film maker and was travelling in South America on work a few years ago. At one village, she was invited in to look around the house of a relatively poor family. She was impressed to see how completely spotless their kitchen, in particular, was.

In an attempt to compliment the woman who was showing them around the family homestead, Kim tried to say something nice to her about the state of the kitchen. Unfortunately, she managed to confuse the word for kitchen (“cucina” in Spanish, and pronounced “cochina”) with the word for pigsty (pronounced cochinera) - somehow, I don't think she's going to be invited back into that home any time soon!

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