The way people talk!

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Last week I was reading Professor Prakash Pattanaik’s book “Against All Odds”. The author is a linguist, a specialist in cultural studies, and a well-known folklorist, who had just superannuated as a Senior Professor from the Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies, Delhi University. He calls this book a memoir. In this engaging autobiography, he has mentioned certain things about language use which I found very interesting. I have some thoughts about them and I wish to share the same with you.

He tells us how he was kind of irritated when a relative of his understood “fieldwork” as “work in the field”- that is, the work a farmer does in the field. After this experience, he made it a point to bring the distinction between these two expressions to the attention of the students of his research methodology course. Let me say it right in the beginning that on this fieldwork matter, I am with his relative. I think unless one is an academic or is close to the academic circles, one would understand “fieldwork” the way she did – the farmer has gone to work in the field, not to sell his produce in the market. We in India feel comfortable with compound expressions; we say “Delhi University” instead of “The University of Delhi”, “Calcutta University” instead of the University of Calcutta”, “bus journey”, instead of “journey by bus”,  “village house” instead of “house in the village”, “matchbox” for “box of matches”, etc. So we form the compound “fieldwork” to talk about the farmer’s or the farm labourer’s work in the field. Now, if the academicians and some professionals give a different meaning to it, is it the layperson’s fault (not to forget that the “layperson” is not uneducated or unskilled; it is just that he (she/them) isn’t a specialist in academic data collection. He is a specialist in his domain – cooking, dishwashing, cycle repairing, etc.) if he does not understand it in the meaning they have given to it?

Now, don’t we face this problem (of special meaning) in some situation or the other, even in our day-to-day life? When the doctor told me that I needed to be treated for hypertension, I told him that getting tense over things was not my problem. What I was worried about was whether I had any blood pressure problem. Then I got to know that what we call “high blood pressure”, the doctor calls “hypertension”. During the root canal procedure, I felt mild pain and told my doctor about it. He promptly said that it wasn’t “pain”, it was just a “sensation”. The English teacher in me received a jerk; I didn’t know that mild pain is “sensation”, not “pain”. I had always thought that pain is a sensation, like pleasure, in day-to-day language. My doctor was communicative and friendly but I didn’t protest his observation because it was a bit too risky to do so at that time. What if the doctor shifted his attention from my tooth to the linguistic issue!

English is not our language in a sense and we are often not sensitive to its nuances, unless we are in professions where command of English is expected and can prove to be an asset. The other day an elderly friend told me that in the corona times (for him that time is over), he had to do a lot of “homework” because his domestic help was not allowed into the apartments by the apartment administration. What he meant was “housework”. This needn’t surprise us. In our languages, there is one word for “home” and “house”. Besides, sometimes, “home” and “house” can be used interchangeably. No English-sin is committed by either if one says “my house is two kilometers from here” and the other says “my home is two kilometers from here”.

So in sum, I am with Prakash Babu when he tells his students to distinguish between “fieldwork” and “work in the field” and at the same time, I am with his relative when she understood “fieldwork” as “work in the field” by a famer or a farm labourer. In life, it doesn’t pay to displease anyone.

When the young Prakash Babu arrived in Delhi in the late nineteen eighties, on occasions, the Hindi spoken there puzzled him. A man in a hurry was trying to board a DTC bus through the back gate and he had barely had his hand on the rod when the bus started. He had a fall but luckily he escaped unhurt. Inside the bus, someone said, “bach gaya saalaa”. This abusive expression uttered in that situation surprised Prakash Babu but he soon realized that the man had not used the wordsor the tone in which he uttered them, ina negative sense. At the same time, he felt that the expression showed the utterer’s lack of empathy.Seems Ladsaria, academic and semiotician, who is fairly familiar with Delhi Hindi, tells me that the language (the words and the tone of voice) simply expressed the great sense of relief the utterer had felt when he found that the man was unhurt. In Delhi Hindi, she says, much goes that is ordinarily taken as taboo by the outsiders. The Delhiites do not disagree; many non-Punjabis of the city say that it’s all due to the Punjabis living in Delhi.

One day, when Prakash Babu said to a rickshawalla “jaayenge?”, he said “baitho”. Going by the Hindi he had learnt at school in Odisa, he found the response unexpected and a bit disrespectful, considering he had used a polite expression when he had asked him whether he would go. The subject of “jayenge” is “aaap”, the pronoun of respect. The subject of “baitho” is “tum”, which is not as respectful but not disrespectful, either, like “tu”. Being a linguist, it didn’t take him long to figure out that in informal Hindi in Delhi, the subject “aap” and the verb form that goes with “tum” occur in harmony.Thus “baitho” or “baith jao” with the implicit subject “aap” is absolutely fine in Delhi Hindi. But he doesn’t say in his Memoir whether the people in the University (colleagues, non-teaching staff, etc.) use such Hindi in informal interaction.

This is where my experience might be of relevance and interest. I was in my mid-thirties when I joined IIT Kanpur at the middle-level academic position in the three-tier system. But I was unsophisticated in many ways.  My PhD degree didn’t help me socially because it was not an American, but only an Indian PhD, as some colleagues in my department put it, and then it wasn’t from IISc Bangalore or from IIT Kanpur. The senior non-teaching staff of my own department used the non-honorific verb (like bolo, baitho, etc.) form to me instead of the honorific (bolie, baithie, ect.) form, whereas I used the polite verb form for them. I didn’t like it one bit and thought they were being impolite. I noted that they were using the correct forms in their interaction with my colleagues, who they thought were important. True, in informal relationship the non-honorific expressions were acceptable, as in the case of Delhi Hindi, but there was just no reason for them to be informal towards me when I was formal towards them. Their linguistic behavior was equivalent to “ragging” and I had to swallow it.

Things changed when my status improved in their view, that is when I was given administrative assignments. I received polite verb forms. My conclusion is this: the Delhi rickshawallah’s language was not status-related; his was just informal language, which came naturally to him. In my case, it was different. But carrying a hurt within for having been shown one’s place through non-honorific language is absolutely wrong, in my view. Language use reflects culture. Status consciousness is pervasive wherever there is hierarchy. And pray, which society or organization is free of hierarchy? This being the case, should we blame individuals for their status-sensitive behavior, be it linguistic or non-linguistic?

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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