Colombo, Language

Doing It in a Foreign Language

In Jumma: The last bastion of the boys, (Groundviews, 26 March 2010) Nazeeya Faarooq wrote: “…most of the Jumma sermons are totally irrelevant. Firstly they are given in a language they don’t quite understand…”. Presumably the language is Arabic. Such an enforced linguistic barrier between us and our God(s) is common: Latin and Sanskrit are other examples. I think it is done to give a power base to the priests, but there may well be other ingenious explanations.

Language is important to us all. Our genetics gives us unique power to model grammar on dedicated neural circuitry and acquire linguistic skills from very sparse data. Of its importance, someone told me in primary school that language can be used in three ways: to express thought, to hide thought and as a substitute for thought. (I am not sure where that quote comes from, but my guess is, like with all cute things you learn at prep school, W. H. Samaranayake’s English with a Smile may well be the source – I don’t have the book to check, but this point is not important for the rest of this article.)

Speaking of the use if Sanskrit in Hindu temples, I remember questioning it in my teenage days, just like Nazeeya Faarooq. “Why should I sit cross legged in front of this priest and listen to him chanting something I don’t even understand?” I protested at some temple event. An old man who had studied Sanskrit at Hilltop University in Sri Lanka calmed me down: “It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand any of it, the priest doesn’t either!” According to the old man’s estimate, the priest has just written the mantras in Tamil script and memorized them.

Digressing a bit, can you actually tell, you might wonder – if someone knows what they are talking about, just from the way they are speaking, even if they get the pronunciation correct? Intonation, I think it is — not what you speak, but the way you speak it, the sing-song way you change your pitch as you speak, and the way you put pauses between phrases to catch your breath. Get it wrong, and a native speaker will immediately know you are just reading transcribed text of a foreign language that you are yet to master.  For example, native speakers of Tamil travelling by Sri Lankan Airline can immediately tell that the announcement in Tamil “Kappiththaan Wickramanayake unkalukku nalvaravu koorukiraar” (Captain W welcomes you aboard), is being read off written Sinhala text. (I know for sure, she showed me.)

At Bridgetown, I learnt this the hard way from a professor. At weekly meetings, I would suggest ideas about my project, and he would say they were interesting. After two months or so of it, my ego took a trip up the stratosphere. Me, a little guy from a developing country, making suggestions which the know-all professor, an authority on the subject, found to be interesting! Wow. On one of those rare days I felt a bit self-critical, I experimented with my ego by making completely silly suggestions, bordering violations of the Laws of Thermodynamics, and to my surprise the advisor found these to be interesting too. It was then I realized it was not the word “interesting” that mattered, the information content was in how precisely it was said — the intonation superposed on the spoken word. Of the story so far, “Interesting?” I ask you. “Interesting!” you say to me (But “boring”, you might actually mean).

The purpose of intonation differs in different languages. In English, for example, you can use it to change a statement into a question. Compare saying “It’s raining.” as a statement and “It’s raining?” as a question – all you have changed is the intonation, superposing a little sing-song like pitch onto the former, gets you the latter. We don’t do this in Tamil or Sinhala, I believe. “mazhai peiyuthu” the statement doesn’t change to a question just by speaking it differently. We change the text to “mazhai peiyuthaa”. Similarly, “vahinavaa” the statement changes to “vahinavaathe” when it becomes a question, doesn’t it? (I once measured pitch changes in spoken Tamil. South Indian spoken Tamil differs significantly from Jaffna Tamil, making very large pitch excursions, but it was hard to pin point what precisely the communicative function of it was, if any – languages evolve, sometimes with a purpose, at other times without.)

You could run into trouble speaking a foreign language at times, you might have experienced. It is best illustrated in this silly joke: There were three cows grazing in the Scottish Highlands one rainy afternoon. “moo” said the first. “moo” said the second. “baa” said the third. “Cows don’t say ‘baa’”, protested the first, “You should say ‘moo’, as proper cows do, that is our cow culture.” “Just ignore her dear”, said the first, “she is showing off her foreign language skills.”

Let me take you back to Nazeeya Faarooq’s objection to doing it in a foreign language. I recently attended a Hindu wedding ceremony in London with a friend, where the priest who did the formal part injected some novelty into the session by doing it all in Tamil. My friend was quite excited by this: “This is great, this is the way to preserve our language, or else it will die”, etc. We listened. As the priest got to the part of blessing the bride and groom, he says to the bride: “thou shall be a proper wife to your husband and do thy duty by bearing him healthy children.” My friend’s face went flat. “Better if he had done it in Sanskrit”, he said in a monotone voice with no intonation, “at least I wouldn’t have understood anything.”

(Oh, there is something I forget to tell you. My friend and his wife are awaiting a hospital appointment for In Vitro fertilization treatment.)

  • Suriya

    I think Naazeeya meant the language Tamil when she said “in a language they don’t understand.” These days many Sri Lankan Muslims are Sinhala speaking, and there are many who have studied in the Sinhala medium. Others use English as their first language. I think Nazeeya was pointing out that many Muslims do not understand the sermons because they are given in Tamil, instead of Sinhala or English. However I think this imbalance is getting rectified through groups such as Tanweer Academy who are engaged in creating alims who give sermons in Sinhala.

  • Rushdi AL Ayad

    Just a very important point
    Quran was in arabic because it cannot be adultrated so many Arabic words have more than one meaning thhat is the reason why the quran we readtoday is authentic therefore the sermon is allways translated into English, Tamil, Sinhalese but the main text of the quran is preserved

  • Sabarullah

    Quite interesting article (not INTERESTING!).

    When my wife’s grandma passed away, the alims were reciting prayers in Arabic. A friend of mine asked when would the ‘bana’ finish?. Other friends protested saying it was not ‘bana’ but ‘dua’. He replied that he cannot differentiate them as he cannot understand either of them.

    I heard during my childhood days that one gets rewards for reciting Quran even if he doesn’t understand the meaning. And the same rule applies to Jumma sermon also. I do not know whether it is correct. Otherwise, the Ulamas could find a solution to this issue quickly.

  • longus

    The same dilemma exist in Buddhism too.But the reluctance in translating the ‘Suthras’ and Stanzas to Sinhala has something to do with the reverence as well.May be the learned monks think-as well as the desciples!-that if you chant the same thing in Sinhala it might be valued less! Sometimes the entire faith of some illiterarte faithfulls depends on the “reapectfull owe” they have for the doctrine,though this is totally against the Buddha’s teachings.

    It’s the Buddha who taught, to use his teachings as a raft in order to get across the sea of suffering,not to keep worshiping the ‘raft’!

    If we Buddhists understand the real meaning of what Buddha preached,I think a lot of hatred and greed that we see can be avoided.

  • azath

    If the author meant to deliver the sermon in the language that one understands it is perfect, the Jummah sermon are done in the language of the majority of the attendees and some mosques do have sinhala, tamil and english in colombo, so, I do not understand the problems of author or the so called Nazeeya.
    The quran is in arabic an international language still very well alive, whereas the Language the author said sancrit is almost dead. and she misunderstood the language of Jesus who spoke Aramic which is dead now, and bible is written by some unrelated persons in unrelated language to Jesus and so, it is translated into many language. My point here is Qur an as brother Rushdi explained is in original form and very rich in knowledge and it is very difficult to translate into a single format. My question, as for all of us, the author, so called Nazeeya, me is that the english is our second language we learnt that language, so why do the concerned people learn the language of Arabic, it is still very much alive in today’s world and understand the quran in its original form and it is spoken in more than one third of the world. I request the author to explain the truth behind her article citing the Jummah sermons are totally irrelevant. Have you been to a Jummah I hope you not, By the way Jummahs are broad casted in SLBC at 1.00 pm every Friday Listen to them. you are free to point out any irrelevance after that.

  • jiva

    You dont seem to understand the structure of each religion and seem to analyze it using the same barometer which doenst do any justice.

    The “priest” in Hindu and Buddhist religions have a diferent function altogether that those of Abrahamic religions( Christianty, Islam) and shouldnt be confused.

    The role of the priest in Christianity is to:
    Convene with God – mass
    Conduct ritual functions( weddings etc)
    Pastoral care( counselling included)

    When we say priest in Tamil Hinduism we mean an Iyer or poojari

    The role of the “priest”/poojari/Iyer is to

    Convene with God( poojas etc)
    Conduct ritual functions ( weddings etc)

    He does not preach or provide pastoral care. This function is decentralised and done by diffrent persons of the of the religion.
    Pastoral care – Swamis, Gurus, Brahmacharis etc – eg – Ramakrishna mission, trained counsellors from Sai Samitis, Bramacharis from Chinmayannada mission, Ammachi, Rishi Thondunathan from Saiva Sidhhanta Mission etc
    Preaching – the above shall also preach in the form of satsangs(am) . But other traditionally appointed people shall also preach eg – LATE Thangamma Appakutty, Achrayas like VAsudevacharya who teaches Bhagavat Gita class. This ca take the form of Katha Prasangam
    They teach/preach in their native toungue and in Sri Lankas case it is in Tamil

    The problem arises when we take on a Enlish word like “priest” with its historical meaning embedded in Christianity and then assume the same role for other religions

    In Tamil we call a Hindu priest an Iyer not a podhahar/ paadhiri
    Podhahar( preacher) Paadhiri( from Italian Padre’) has been appropriated by Tamil Christians to exactly define the function of Christian priest in Tamil. they dont call him a Iyer.
    There fore we should use an appropriate word in English to denote Hindu/Buddhist ‘priests’ than use the Anrahamic religions as a yardstick.
    EG- The Buddhist “priest” doesnt conduct marriages because he is a renunciate. S.o he is not a priest in the Christian sense

    When we hear “bana’ in Pali or mantrams in Sanskrit we are not there for the exact meaning. The repetion and the concentratin on the sound acts as a form of sound meditation. Anyhow when the priest is reciting his mantras at the sanctum one says his own prayers in Tamil( Tevaram)
    The temple pooja is not the same as a Christian service where the preacher talks at the congregation- therefore speaking in Latin will be pointless. The worship pattern in Agamic Hindu temples is not congregational. It is more inividualised. One can come and go as one pleases and say ones own pryayers in private. tbere is no group singing

    So I dont see what is the fuss about Bana in Pali or Mantras in Sanskrit.

  • Jayantha

    I agree with Suriya.. I think nazeeya faarooq meant tamil language as opposed to arabic. sermons are not given in arabic in Sri Lanka but in tamil… this is the side effect of the internet.. too much “bullshit” gets heard.. there is a lack of quality in the publications. nevertheless, these pseudo intellectuals are lucky that there is a medium for them to dump their junk on… back in my day there was a process of quality control.. anyway, before i get branded as being old fashioned, let me end by saying,
    nice try Mahesan Niranjan, but next time please try to write something that is relevant and please get your facts right…