Tag Archives: Bengali

Indians, Indian-Americans and Spelling

Here’s a guest post from Kavita Pillay. Listen above to a spell-off I moderated between Kavita and Big Show host Marco Werman.

Snigdha Nandipati gets presented with the 2012 Scripps Spelling Bee trophy. (Photo: Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Snigdha Nandipati gets presented with the 2012 Scripps Spelling Bee trophy. (Photo: Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Imagine the scene: a small, Rust Belt town on the shores of Lake Erie, the kind of place where diversity meant Irish and Italian.

It was the glorious era of stirrup pants and gravity-defying bangs, and our mild, midwestern suburb had become the backdrop for a showdown of wild west proportions. At least that’s how it felt when I stepped onto the windswept playground and met the steely gaze of my newfound arch nemesis. Granted that she and I had been friends from first grade through just days before, but those longstanding loyalties now meant nothing. What’s true in the hive was proving true of the fifth grade spelling bee finals: there could be only one queen bee, and neither she nor I were going down without a fight.

It doesn’t matter who won (for the record, it was not her). Our rivalry was superseded by the fact that she and I were the only Indian American girls in our class. There was one other child of Indian immigrants, but sadly for him, he was ousted during a preliminary round by the likes of ‘cauliflower’ or ‘chinchilla.’ He coulda been a contender. In fact, he started out as the one to contend with, because he had won the spelling bee when we were in fourth grade.

Our experience was a far cry from what will transpire tonight during primetime on ESPN, but I like to think that the three of us were were low-level forerunners in a trend that has been well explored and delightfully documented. Much has been made of the fact that 10 of the past 14 National Spelling Bee champions have been children of Indian immigrants, and longtime observers joke that Indian American kids are to spelling what East Africans are to long distance running. At best, the comparison speaks to the intensity of the National Spelling Bee, the endurance it requires, and the years of practice needed to excel. At worst, it perpetuates the myth of the model minority.

All this lead me to wonder about a seemingly unrelated (though potentially parallel) phenomenon that I began noting while I was living in India in 2005-06. Namely, the ever growing number of horrible Indian spellers.

Indian radio station advertisement

Indian radio station advertisement

I expected no shortage of ways to feel overwhelmed by my year in India, but I did not expect to feel overwhelmed by d nmbr of indians who write lyk dis. In case you didn’t quite get that last part, it translates to, “the number of Indians who write like this.” Over the past seven years, I’ve alternated between fury and fascination as I’ve observed friends and young relatives in India whose emails, texts and Facebook posts could easily pass for the most tragic excerpts of Flowers for Algernon.

Consider this email from one highly paid young Indian woman who was trained as a systems engineer and who now works as an IT risk management professional in the US:

    how are you?
    its been along time. i just wanted to let you know its my birthday this friday n i was hoping u could make it.
    i have decided the time and place…
    but it be awesome if u could come.

Abbreviations, poor spelling, faulty sentence structure, lack of capitalization, a dearth of punctuation — the author of this email hits all the main requirements on the text speak checklist (also known as txtspk, chat speak, SMS talk, etc.). Had she thrown in a 🙂 or a ‘lol,’ she’d graduate to grandmaster.

While text speak is growing worldwide, its rapid spread throughout the Indian subcontinent reveals a unique paradox: India attained an edge in software and IT in no small part because it is home to the world’s second largest population of English language speakers, yet the rapid spread of technology in India is also accelerating the transformation of standard English into something many of us may no longer recognize. Robin Danzak is an Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at the University of South Florida (and a friend of mine since childhood). She put it this way: “When you’re exposed to more languages — as Indians in India are in ways that we in America are not — you’re more willing to take risks between languages.” Whereas I initially attributed text speak in India to laziness or a deficiency of literacy skills, she views it as the natural outcome of, “An active mastery of multiple languages.”

Still unconvinced of the merits of text talk in India and beyond? American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron has one word of advice: “Relax.”

“Languages naturally keep changing,” says Baron. For instance, she notes that, “English sentences are less than half the length that they were several hundred years ago.” Spoken language has become increasingly informal since the 1950s, Baron adds. In turn, “Writing, which used to be formal in many instances — is increasingly adopting the style of informal speech.”

So how are young, text-talking Indians connected to their super spelling Indian American counterparts? I posed the question to a friend named Ravi Satkalmi. In addition to being Indian American, Satkalmi previously worked as a South Asia analyst for the Department of Defense. Prior to that, he was a Fulbright scholar to India, where he looked at Indians who had immigrated to the US and who had chosen to return to India.

“Both the spelling bee and this texting lexicon are related to identity,” Satkalmi says. Indian Americans make up 1% of the US population, so a string of triumphs in the spelling bee serves as an annual announcement to the other 99% of the country that Indian Americans have arrived. Similarly in India, flouting the rules of English spelling via electronically-mediated communication is a way for one-sixth of humanity to assert a newly confident national identity. As Satkalmi sees it, “It’s almost poetic that Indians are using technology to adapt English in a way that’s totally their own.”

The world’s largest democracy remains deeply undemocratic in so many ways. India’s chasm between extreme wealth and desperate poverty may take generations to level out. Yet with text talk, tens of millions of Indians from all walks of life are taking part in a leaderless movement to transform the language of their former colonizer into something less opaque, more accessible and ultimately, more democratic. n dats a gd thng, no matter how you spell it.



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Is Language Holding Back New York’s Bengali Voters?

Bangladeshi-owned barbershop in Jackson Heights, Queens

[Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Nina Porzucki]

Once a month Zain Ahmed treks from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a windowless basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, just to get his haircut. “I take 3 or 4 trains just to get here,” says Ahmed. “That’s dedication, right?”

Ahmed works in finance, as a bond researcher. When it comes to the election, he’s most concerned about the economy and “where we’re headed.” Ahmed is a Democrat, and Tuesday he will be voting for Obama.

Ahmed was born in the US but his parents are from Bangladesh. He grew up speaking both English and Bengali. For him, language assistance at the polls isn’t an issue. He didn’t even know that Bengali translations of the ballot would be available—or for that matter that the local Bangladeshi population has grown as much as it has.

According to the latest census, there are enough limited-English speakers of South Asian decent to require language assistance in Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi at certain polling places in Queens. Of those languages, there are more Bengali speakers who speak limited English. While there will be interpreters available for all three languages, officials chose to translate the ballot into just Bengali.

Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal and Education Fund says language assistance to non-English speakers is crucial. If people “are not proficient enough [in English] to read a ballot, should they be denied their right to vote?”

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, more than 5,000 Bengali speakers in Queens should have been able to cast their ballot in Bengali. But ballot translations will not completed in time. The New York City Board of Elections has not explained why and didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, there will be some language assistance at the polls, including interpreters and signage. There will also be sample ballots in Bengali. Just not the real thing. “It’s nice to have a sign which identifies the poll’s site,” says Magpantay. “But really the ballot that you mark to vote for the president or senator or member of congress needs to be in a language that the voter actually understands.”

Magpantay isn’t quite sure how the lack of Bengali ballots will affect those 5,000 potential voters. Jackson Heights Barber Sonatan Sil is one of them. When I ask Sil about the importance of voting in his mother tongue, Sil brushes off the question. He’s more concerned about deciding who to vote for. Sil says he still hasn’t made up his mind between Obama and Romney. “I am not Democrat,” he says. “I am not Republican.”

Sonatan Sil gives Zain Ahmen a haircut (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

This surprises his Upper East Side customer Zain Ahmed. Ahmed shakes his head at the barber. “To me that’s absurd. I mean I’m a religious middle-class minority,” says Ahmed. “The opposition is not in favor of people like me.”

The undecided barber shakes his head back at his Obama supporting customer. For Sil the biggest issue this election season is jobs. “Romney’s policies [are], I think, good policies,” he tells his customer.

Ahmed gets upset. “What are you saying?” he says to the barber. “What are you talking about? Not for people like us.”

The discussion continues on just like that throughout the entire haircut. Sil, the barber talks about his dislike of Obamacare. Ahmed, the customer continues to disagree.

There’s no consensus in sight—just like discussions in barbershops in Ohio or Florida. In a small basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, democracy certainly is alive and buzzing. But while Ahmed and Sil have the language skills to easily navigate the English ballot this election day, many of their neighbors may not.

[Patrick Cox adds: In the pod, I mentioned two other language-related election stories. In Maricopa County, AZ, election officials put out a Spanish-language flyer urging people to vote on November 8, two days after the day when everyone else will be voting. And California’s official Korean-language voters’ guide said that Proposition 20 would raise the state sales tax by 25 cents, one hundred times higher than the correct amount, a quarter of one cent.]



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Hinglish: A Case of Reverse Colonization?

A sign in Wagah, India, near the Pakistani border (Photo: PP Yoonus/Wikimedia)

English is something of an open-source language: the people who speak it shape it, and add to it. No one has the authority to exclude words.

That affects how English is spoken by its hundreds of millions of native speakers; also, how it’s spoken by those who come to it as a second or third language.

Those speakers are having a profound influence on English. Especially in country as large as India.

Many young Indians mash up English with Hindi, Punjabi or Bengali. The result is known as Hinglish.

Hinglish comes in many forms. Sometimes, you conjugate a Hindi word with an English conjugation. Sometimes you put together a 50-50 sentence—half Hindi, half English. And sometimes you “throw a choice Hindi word into a sentence that without it would lack the right amount of masala,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of India Calling.

If you’ve seen a Bollywood film, you’ve probably heard some Hinglish. Giridharadas believes that Hinglish, in this modern form, reflects India’s new-found confidence.

But what about when English first rubbed shoulders with Hindi and India’s other languages? The British ruled India for nearly 200 years. In 1886, at the height of British power, a dictionary called Hobson-Jobson was published. It was subtitled: “A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive.”

Compiled by Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell, Hobson-Jobson wasn’t just a dictionary. It was a cultural snapshot, with linguistic advice for British bureaucrats and army officers.

It listed words from India that were entering English: shampoo, pajamas, dungarees, bungalow etc. The entry for the term Hobson-Jobson explains that it’s an anglicized version of something very different-sounding.

Hobson-Jobson: My friend Major John Trotter tells me that he has repeatedly heard this phrase used by British soldiers in the Punjab. It is in fact an Anglo-Saxon version of the wailings of the Mahommedans as they beat their breasts in the procession of the Moharram. ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hossain!’”

“There is a huge delight in language that’s evident throughout the dictionary,” says Kate Teltscher, the editor of an upcoming edition of Hobson-Jobson. That delight in language continues to be contagious. Even Indian-born writers have written about how seductive some of these mixed-up words are. Salman Rushdie wrote that it nearly made him regret the passing of empire in India.

But you just can’t get away from the linguistic power plays in Hobson-Jobson. “There is an almost innate sense of British cultural superiority.” says Teltscher

It’s in the phrases that made their way into English, and even in the use of verbs. For example, the authors note something strange that happens to some verbs when they traveled into English. “They are often in the imperative form, says Teltscher. “They are giving orders.” This often happens with words associated with violence, like the words for to bully, and to lay hold, “usually of a recalcitrant native.”

“All this language obviously relates to British colonial role,” says Teltscher.

Of course, most of the words used by the British in India were English. But they sometimes took on new shades of meaning. Hobson-Jobson sought to explain those words too.

Take the entry for the word home:

Home. Home always means England. Nobody calls India home. Not even those who have been there 30 years or more, and are never likely to return to Europe.”

Javed Majeed of Kings College, London, says the entry reveals that the British “never became a hybridized elite” in India. But he says that other entries in Hobson-Jobson suggest that, despite certain misgivings, India did become home for many British “because of the long periods of service there…and because they’re dealing with India in quite a lot of detail.”

Majeed views Hobson-Jobson as a “careful balancing act.” It captures the colorfulness and the creativity of the slang of the time. But at the same time, “it has to guard against going native and becoming vulgar.”

At times, the authors of Hobson-Jobson complain of undesirable words from India “insinuating themselves” into English—words like calico, chintz and gingham which Hobson-Jobson warned were “lying in wait for entrance into English literature,” as if to impose some kind of linguistic reverse colonization.

No-one called Hobson-Jobson a study of Hinglish. The word Hinglish didn’t exist—which is just as well. In today’s Hinglish, there’s no longer colonial control of the language. And it’s Indians who are selecting the words, and how and when to jump between languages.

But Anand Giridharadas says the use of Hinglish in India—as well the use of much more English—can be misinterpreted. “We tend to assume from the outside that when countries modernize and have growth and get on the cover of Newsweek and Time that they’re becoming more Western,” he says. “My experience in India suggests otherwise.”

English these days is spoken with different accents—American and local. English suffixes, and sometimes whole phrases, are added to Hindi.

“My cousins in India feel more comfort speaking Hinglish and mixing Hindi into their English, and speaking without the British accent that my parents were taught, than my parents generation,” says Giridharadas. “That’s actually about self-belief and self-confidence—which is also part of the fuel of India’s rise.”

Indian English may have its roots in a history of imperial rule but it doesn’t sound like that any more. It sounds light and playful.



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Tourette’s Hero: Changing the World One Tic at a Time

Jess Thom dresses like a superhero. Mask, shiny blue cape, the whole bit. She calls her alter ego Tourette’s Hero.

Whether dressed as Tourette’s Hero or as herself, Thom speaks with an impressive array of verbal tics. She says biscuit a lot.

“Tourette’s is a condition that waxes and wanes BISCUIT,” says Thom. “So it changes over the course of somebody’s BISCUIT life.”

Thom is 31. She remembers having tics from as early as age six, though she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her twenties.

The tics are more severe these days.

Tics can “change over the course of a day (HAPPY BIRTHDAY).”

Happy birthday is another of Thom’s regular tics.

And then there are the rude things that pop out. Thom is among the ten percent of people with Tourette’s who exhibit Coprolalia, the involuntary blurting out of taboo language: swearwords, body parts etc.

Whether taboo or not, Thom’s tics are often very funny. There’s a reason, after all, there are so many jokes about Tourette’s.

Thom welcomes the jokes. In fact, she likes to own them. Hence her website, Tourette’s Hero.

The point of Tourette’s Hero, Thom says is to “celebrate the creativity and humor of Tourette’s, and to reclaim the laughter associated with Tourette’s.”

And Tourette’s Hero isn’t just a website just for people with Tourette’s. It’s for everybody. (Though be warned: it may not be appropriate for young children or those offended by strong language.)

On the site, Thom posts tics that she has said in the past two years. She invites people to vote for their favorites:

  • Batman Breastfed my Mum
  • I Love You Chemical Weapon
  • Lucy in the Sky with Pencils

People can also submit artwork to illustrate them.

Thom delights in the poetry of her Tourette’s. Her condition, she says, opens doors. Her tic-filled conversations take her and others to unique places. And the website is part of that conversation.

Tourette’s Hero, she believes, is part of greater movement among disabled people to change attitudes towards disability by means of humor and creativity.

Biscuit. Happy birthday.

Also in the pod this week:

  • An Indian boy’s life changes forever when he is transported on a train to Bengal, where they don’t speak his native tongue, and he can’t figure out how to get home. Detailed article on this here.
  • Morse code signals to and from the Titanic in the days and hours before it sank.  The pod has excerpts. The entire BBC program is here.
  • Renewed interest in a Nazi-era German film version of the Titanic.


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