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.)