The English language is like a shark. It keeps gobbling up words and phrases from other
languages. Some of the most common and popular words in English are taken from foreign languages. For instance, the last sentence had five words from other languages.
When I learned French, I was amazed how many French words and expressions English had absorbed. Writing English, one may not even realize that phrases like avant-garde, carte blanche, crème de la crème, hors d’oeuvre, cul de sac, déjà vu and faux pas are French and may skip the accent marks. As for individual words, they are so many and so common that to identify them as French will invite incredulity – mirage, encore, matinee souvenir façade, cliche and fiancée, for example. Were I to pronounce two fairly familiar words ‘denouement’ and ‘penchant’ correctly, as they are spoken in France, nobody in the US or UK will even understand me. That is the hitch of learning a foreign language.
I am not even sure that Indians realize the plethora of words from the subcontinent that are now part of the English vocabulary. In making the transition, the words have no doubt sometimes changed their meaning to an extent. ‘Bandana’ has come to mean a large kerchief used as a headgear or sweatband instead of a tying fabric; ‘cashmere’ a kind of classy fabric instead of a place whence it comes; ‘cushy’ something comfortable instead of a happy person; ‘jodhpur’ close-fitting trousers instead of a city; ‘loot’ a collection of valuables instead of a stolen collection; ‘mantra’ a watchword instead of a religious text; ‘mogul’ a powerful person instead of a dynastic ruler; and ‘thug’ a hoodlum instead of a ‘cheat.’
Certain other Hindi words however have retained their original meaning quite well in English. ‘Bangles’ are still the delicate ornaments women wear; ‘chutney’ is still a delectable condiment; ‘dinghy’ is still a heavy boat; ‘guru’ is still a mentor or instructional leader; ‘jungle’ is still a forest, though often used metaphorically; ‘pundit’ is a knowledgeable person as before; ‘pajamas’ are still the loose garment you wear; and a ‘typhoon’ remains a fearsome stormy weather.
I have referred to English as a shark that takes in large bites of other languages. But specialists are now noticing a new phenomenon: the shark is now chewing into other languages and changing them. Many English words are steadily entering other languages. Especially words that relate to science, business and technology. I see that clearly in the case of my mother tongue, Bengali.
If English words enter the Bengali language and literature, is it a good thing or a bad thing? The simple answer is a complex one. It is both a good and a bad thing.
Surely, a living language is, like all living entities, a changing thing. That is normal and good. As new things are invented and used, we need new words for them; as new ideas evolve, we again need new words to give them shape. If other countries have developed and named them, we might take them – just as the English speakers took our ‘bangles.’ In turn, we took words like a ‘table’ and ‘chair’ and made them parts of the Bengali vocabulary. The vocabulary grew; the Bengalis had, to their benefit, a larger universe of discourse. That is good.
What is not so good is the indolence that lets people shirk the important work of coining new words and phrases for new objects and ideas that are simple, practical, euphonious and appropriate to the receiving group. The use of software and mobile phones is now nearly universal, and yet there are no universally accepted equivalents that people can use. Both the institutions tasked to create equivalents and media leaders have failed the Bengali public. What we see now is the pathetic spectacle of people speaking an ugly hybrid language, even writing it, without compunction.
The shame of not knowing either language well enough, to be able to speak in one without a large dose of the other, seems to be dissolving. People who speak this mongrel monstrosity might like to consider the perilous possibility that those who cannot but speak clumsily soon start to think clumsily. We all need a language to dream in and think in.