Friday, November 16, 2012


Humans use mostly language to communicate. There are of course other modes of communication that they use, but to only a limited extent. For this reason some tend to think that language (which is not really created by humans but is basically an “object” of nature, as Noam Chomsky has so persuasively argued) exists for communication; with a little reflection we can see that this idea is clearly unsatisfactory. We use flowers and leaves for many purposes but to say that these exist so that we humans can use them is being not just illogical but extremely arrogant as well. What is it if not sheer arrogance if one believes that nature exists for the use of humans? This is essentially what Bertrand Russell had observed more than half a century ago in a similar context. It is sometimes said that language is used, not for communication alone but for self-expression as well. When one uses it for self-expression, one has no intention to share with anyone what he expresses. But isn’t self-expression itself a kind of communication, an interaction with the other - a philosophically inclined person would ask - between the self and the soul? As for those who cannot accommodate soul in their view of things, there is the inner voice which most, more often than not, tend to ignore and sometimes only grudgingly listen to? But why think of all this, when we have an excellent example in the form of a shy young person who writes soulful poems but does not share them with anyone at all? While composing them he might (in fact, does!) have somebody in mind who inspires his poetic self and to whom his literary output is secretly dedicated. But there isn’t even communication intention in this case, let alone communication. But here too one can argue, using “communication between body-soul/ inner voice” as a kind of template, that the poetic outburst of the poet-lover is indeed an event of communication between him and his living inspiration, no matter that the latter is never going to read his poems since they would head into the wastepaper basket minutes after they come to exist.

Umberto Eco thinks that language use is for communication alone. One always writes for others, none of whom barring a few, one would ever get to know. The ancient Indian philosopher-poet, Bhartrihari, had a similar view, only that his reader could be distanced from him in terms of even place and time, quite a thing to say centuries ago. For Eco, the one who says that he writes for none but himself is not being honest. There is only one exception to it, he adds; when one writes his “shopping list”, one does not have anyone in his mind with whom to share it. It is a different matter that although they might never acknowledge it, some would be delighted to read shopping lists of others, for instance, the celebrities!

I am unable to agree with Eco on the shopping list. During my childhood (that was sixty years ago), in my village some members of the village “elite” (two or three families out of six hundred households) would not go to the miserable-looking grocery shop in the village to shop, but would ask a poor teen aged boy of their neighbourhood, or better, a pupil of the village “minor” school (from class IV to VII) from a poor family, to run to the grocer’s and get their stuff for them. The errand boy was never given a small mint for his effort; he wasn’t given money to pay the shopkeeper. The shopping arithmetic of errand boys, who could not afford private tuition which was very much there those days, was believed to be atrocious.  He could not be trusted to remember all the items needed for the household and the desired quantity of each. So the elite customer wrote lists and signed them at the bottom: neatly and unhurriedly - some are as fond of their signatures as a dictator is of the treasury of his state.  The shop keeper was supposed to pin all such lists, and at the end of a respectable period go to the elite customer’s house with these to receive payment. He would get his due on his first visit only if he was immensely lucky. Eco was surely unaware of such a mode of shopping. In any case, here is a shopping list that was written for a particular person. 

So the shopping list may not be a real counter-example to the eminent writer’ own general statement. Perhaps we must not take the “shopping list” so literally, although it was indeed this particular document that he had in mind. We could view it instead as a symbol of all those mundane and insignificant things one writes every day, which, in one’s reckoning, have no value for anyone. In any case, the fact remains that Eco immortalized the shopping list. As far as I know, before Eco, this little thing had never appeared in any discourse on communication.

Monday, November 12, 2012


In 2010, the Linguistics department of Aligarh Muslim University had organized a really off-beat seminar on the historical and socio-cultural aspects of culinary terms in Indian languages and I happened to be to be there at that time and happily joined that event there as a participant. The papers were informative and some were interesting as well, and the discussion of these was generally good. The few papers which dealt with the historical aspect of the terms did not really go beyond listing of the borrowed terms and their sources, but this was nothing unusual, considering that work on words in our languages borrowed from foreign sources has so far been nothing more than this. Some papers tended to discuss foods (and the discussion was almost always good), instead of food terms, neglecting that a linguistic term and the object it refers to are not the same thing. Obviously these are not directly related. For instance, there is no unicorn in the world of nature, but it is a meaningful term of English. There is no kokua or koko in nature but these words exist in Odia language, meaning a terrible, murderous creature. In the villages of Odisha grandmothers still try to frighten their grandchildren to sleep saying kokua would come if they don’t. The mind enjoys the phrase “roll a salepuri rasagulla (the cheese based sweet from the town called Salepur, widely known for this sweet) on the tongue”, whereas the tongue relishes rolling the rasagulla on it.   

When an object is borrowed from a different culture, it enters the target culture with its name, which is a linguistic object. A borrowed word embodies a fascinating cultural and linguistic story: from which language and under what conditions it was borrowed, how long it took to move from the periphery of acceptability to be fully accepted by the recipient culture and the language, and what form it took when it got nativized in both. Talking about the linguistic aspect alone, some fifty years ago, in Odia, potato was called bilaati aalu (potato from England) in coastal Odisha, but now, on account of the popularity of this vegetable it is called just aalu. Interestingly, tomato, which is as popular, is still called bilaati baaigana (brinjal from England) and never just baaigana. There is more to the contrast, but for the moment, let that story remain untold. As for some similarity, both vegetables are still excluded from the kitchen of the traditional temples, and from the discourse of naivedya (food to be offered to the deity) and prasaada (food after the offering) relating to these temples. Half a century ago a section of the population of Puri in Odisha used the word ceni, with a retroflex nasal, to refer to sugar, the word for which in the so-called “standard” Odia is cini, where the nasal was an alveolar, not a retroflex. In the Puri variety (called “Puri boli”) both the alveolar nasal (the consonant sound “n”) and its retroflex form occurred then, therefore it is interesting to note that the speakers used the non-standard form in this specific case. Similar observations apply to the difference between the initial vowels in these two words. Facts such as these in borrowing need an explanation, which would have a socio-cultural dimension as well. The ceni example is a case of borrowing from a variety of the same language - borrowing by Puri boli from standard Odia As of now, the facts mentioned above have not even been noted in scholarly discourse on borrowed words in Odia, which can be said to be due to the general neglect of language varieties other than the standard. There is very little discourse on culinary terms in our languages mainly because words are traditionally dealt with in terms of dictionary entries, which hardly do justice to the richness of their content. And then it may be noted that Samuel Johnsons do not write dictionaries these days.

It is possible that the neglect of scholarly interest by linguists (including lexicographers) in culinary terms reflects the non-serious attitude that people often have towards culinary discourse. Dining table talk is hardly about the dishes on the table, and even when the dishes do figure in the conversation, it is in a manner that is neither sincere nor serious. After enjoying a well cooked meal, one does praise the cooking and sometimes asks for the recipe, but all this is really politeness discourse, not culinary discourse, and as such requires no informative answer. If the guest insists on information about the recipe, etc., it is sometimes seen as condescending behavior on his part and is not liked.   

Well, it was really good the linguistics department of AMU thought of organizing a seminar on the much neglected topic of culinary terms.