Tag Archives: Tamil

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 Our rivalry was superseded by the fact that she and I were the only Indian American girls in our class.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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Retweeting Bad Grammar and Good Tamil

I like Twitter.  I like the character limit. And I love opening up Twitter first thing in the morning , reading tweets that are mainly (at that time of day) from another time zone. My own dawn chorus.

Mostly, I tweet about other reporters’ or bloggers’ language stories– stories that I am not going to get to but they are worth noting and passing on. This can be dangerous. I often tweet on issues about which I know little. And I do it at speed. Sometimes I mis-convey the story. Sometimes I mis-type a word. Sometimes I misspell. Sometimes, my grammar isn’t great. (Forget tweeting, that all sounds just like regular daily journalism…)

So what happens when you come across a tweet that you would love to RT, but you…just…can’t? You can’t get past the bad spelling or grammar.

There is one solution: instead of RT-ing, you can MT, or write a modified tweet. You correct the spelling, clean up a bit of grammar. You can even amplify a thought or clarify a sloppy piece of writing. Just make sure you write MT. That worked for me, until I heard a conversation on the BBC– a conversation that, in an audio sort of way, I MT’d in this podcast episode (I recut the interview slightly and introduced it differently).

The discussion was between the BBC’s Evan Davis and comedian and serial tweeter (now taking a Twitterbreak) David Schneider. Now Schneider, like many of us, doesn’t have much time for those self-appointed sticklers who roam the internet in search of bad grammar or poor spelling: he calls them peddants (his spelling).

But maybe a grammatical error is part of the communication. A poorly written tweet may tell you that the tweet was written in a hurry. It may indicate that the writer doesn’t care about grammar or spelling. That makes me hesitate.

On the other hand, I’ve been relieved and grateful when my own misspelled tweets have been cleaned up by others…

Otherwise in this week’s pod, it’s all Tamil. This is a language that has more speakers than Italian or Turkish, but there are fears about its future. We hear from a lexicographer who is painstakingly compiling a Tamil dictionary. And we talk to two Indians about a song that has become an internet sensation. Titled Kolaveri Di, it’s sung partly in Tamil, partly in English, and partly in Tanglish,  the (now-inevitable) mash-up of the two.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Genders, geniuses, and Tamil onomatopoeia

Another top five language stories. In no particular order:

5. A new line of Tamil pulp fiction translated into English keeps the magnificent onomatopoeia of the original. The brilliant people behind this are Chennai-based  Blaft Publications. They have plans for more pulp fiction to be translated from other Indian languages. Blaft sums up its first Tamil anthology this way:  Guns, cleavage, and mallipoo! And the untranslated Tamil onomatopoeia? Listen out in the pod for words like visshkda-nang, pulich and labak. One of those, by the way — guess which — mimics the sound of spit landing on a wall.

4. New research shows that no matter you much some Germans have tried, they can’t make their language gender-neutral. A doctor or a teacher in German — as in many languages — is nearly always specified as male or female. Over the decades, feminist publications in particular have tried to tinker with some of the assignations, or at least neutralize the gender specificity. But according to Swedish researcher Magnus Pettersson, they have failed.  This comes off the back of Guy Deutscher’s take on whether noun genders in the likes of German and Spanish affect how we think of the objects in questions. (eg bridge is feminine in German, masculine in Spanish; Deutscher, as a native Hebrew speaker, always thinks of a bed as feminine). I wonder if linguists, or neurologists or sociologists, have considered not how we think of those objects, but how the gender designations of those objects may influence how we think of men and women (He bridges problems; she is as soft as a bed etc).

3. A new-ish Belgian video pokes fun at the country’s linguistic battles. We poke fun at The Big Show’s beer-loving Clark Boyd, who just happens to be our correspondent in beer-loving  Brussels.

2. We hear more about two linguists who have won 2010 MacArthur genius awards: Wampanoag revivalist Jessie Little Doe Baird, who acted on a dream, studied linguistics, co-edited a dictionary and is raising her daughter to speak the extinct Wampanoag language;  and sign language researcher extraordinaire Carol Paddon.

1. Carol Hill’s adventures in Sweden. She was at the 2010 Göteborg Book Fair. She struggled with Swedish. She interviewed dozens of African writers,  who also didn’t understand Swedish but appeared to speak just about every other language on Earth.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Spy accents, sign language, and not my bad.

Our top five language stories this month:

5. Making Tamil even more official. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tamil is an official language. It’s widely spoken there. Indeed it was the very first of India’s languages to be recognized as a classical language. But proponents of the language, and of the Tamil people, don’t think that Tamil gets the respect it deserves. So they have enlisted Tamil politicians to  issue an order requiring that commercial signs prominently display the language. Most signs are in English.  Opponents worry that Tamil Nadu is needlessly cutting itself from the rest of the world, and from possible trade opportunities.

4. The expression that Manute Bol didn’t invent. After Sudanese basketball great Manute Bol died, many eulogies praised him for, among other things, coining the term my bad. Speaking on the Senate floor U.S. Senator Sam Brownback lauded Manute Bol for that (as well as for his basketball skills, and for killing a lion with a spear while working as a cow-herder). The source for the my bad coinage claim was a five-year-old post in the blog Language Log. The belief apparently was that as a non-native English speaker, he thought he was saying my fault. As posters on Language Log have recently pointed out, my bad was almost definitely around before Manute Bol first arrived in the United States in about 1980. So Manute:  sorry. Our bad.

3.  A translator recalls the Nuremberg Trials. Ingeborg Laurensen, 96, recalls her work as one of 24 interpreters at the international military tribunal after World War Two.

2.Those (alleged) Russian spies and their faux Euro/Canadian accents. One of them claimed a she was Belgian; another that she was Canadian; yet another had “the faintest hint” of “an accent”.   OK, so their covers were blown, but it wasn’t because their accents didn’t match (what’s a Belgian accent anyway? ).  Let’s face it, most of us are pretty inept when it comes to pinpointing an accent. In the pod, we get a crash course on the difference between the French spoken in France and the French of Quebec.

1. A sign language that doesn’t have signs for some Islamic words. American Sign Language doesn’t have signs for Mecca, Mohammed and other words common to Muslims. In Toronto, an ASL teacher is working with group of students from a diversity of linguistic backgrounds (Pakistani Sign Language, Arabic Sign Language and Turkish Sign Language)  to try to come up with signs for a few religious words.  In the pod, we also discuss new research into Nicaraguan Sign Language that shows that language may affect how we solve spatial problems.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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