Posts Tagged English

Dots and dashes

For reasons beyond my comprehension at any rate, punctuation is not one of the many useless things our kids are drilled in at school. Ergo the ridiculous situation of having to explain punctuation to an undergraduate, or, worse still, a postgraduate class. And among punctuation marks, the dashes are virtually unheard of. 

So while my students often look perturbed when I pontificate on commas and colons, when I mention the em-dash, or its lesser known cousin, the en-dash, (with the admonition that they are not hyphens) I’m setting myself up for manslaughter. Woman-slaughter. Person-slaughter. Heck, slaughter — period.  (A young woman once wanted to know why I’d made repeated personal references to my monthlies in her writing. The references — “Period required”. Seriously.)

So anyway, here’s  a poetic exposition of em-dashes by Emily Dickinson.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

(Acknowledgement: Thanks for reminding me of this poem, Mr. Singh.)

I think Dickinson takes a fair bit of poetic license with the em-dash there! Using the poem to teach em-dashes would probably result in  confusion worse confounded.

Quite like Lewis Thomas’ delightful essay on punctuation: Notes on Punctuation.  

Ze best. The catch is, to get the humour in the piece, your punctuation has to be spot on. It’s for those who know, not for those who want to know. To use it to teach punctuation would be a classic case of ‘let them have cake’. 


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The oppressive boot [and] the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it*

Every now and then I get a distress call from this Echh Aar Lady — “Edit this for me,  will you?” / “Does this mail read OK?” And I oblige, for she’s a friend from an earlier work life. So last week she called and, as usual, she had a crisis. She had to rustle up some training material on telephone etiquette and could I help?

I protested. Not my cup of filtered coffee! Not with my backwoodsy telephone skills —monosyllabic, brusque. She should know! But she persisted. Just a small capsule for a group of fresh-out-of-college,  wet-behind-the-ears graduates given the unpleasant job of handling customer complaints over telephone. Said customers being irate, racially abusive and Anglo-American. 

I was incensed: “These kids need therapy to handle racist abuse, N. And you think popping a smart capsule of inane pleasantries and pseudo-Americanisms will do the trick?” 

“Just give me something I can use,” she pleaded. “I’ll build the material around it.”  

So I gave her this:


(Wole Soyinka)

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey — I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
“HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?” Button B, Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis —
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean — like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”— and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding
“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused —
Foolishly, madam — by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black — One moment, madam!”— sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears -“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”


(Source: Modern Poetry from Africa, Penguin 1963.)

Of course she had no use for it, and lost no time in telling me so. I imagine she’d have binned it after a cursory, mystified glance. I made a half-hearted attempt to make her see the exquisite irony in the poem — the refinement of the so-called savage and the coarseness of the so-called civilized. I could have saved my breath.

I do understand that a great many people dislike, and have no use for, poetry because they imagine it is always worrying about the eternal verities.  I, too, have tin ears for a lot of “poetry.” It is futile to speak of its “uses” to up the ante on poetry. As Auden and Garrett put it:

Those who try to put poetry on a pedestal only succeed in putting it on the shelf. . . . Poetry is no better or worse than human nature. It is profound and shallow, sophisticated and naïve, dull and witty, bawdy and chaste in turn.

(W.H. Auden and J. Garrett. The Poet’s Tongue, Bell.)


And when you read poems like Soyinka’s, all those positive adjectives seem justified, don’t they?


( * the dominant theme of  Soyinka’s work; his words)


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Oh, North is North, and South is South, and never the twain shall meet*.

There’s been a bit of comment warring over the tiresome north India-south India divide over at Krish Ashok’s blog. (A blog that I frequent because the author is witty, has a way with words and revels in delightfully irreverent humour that spares nothing and no one, not even himself.) 

The original hair-raising comment that set off the war is ridiculously juvenile and I’m not going to bother quoting it here. Suffice it to say it spawned off a debate on stereotypes about north Indians and south Indians — a debate that clearly refuses to die down, and not just on blogs.  

Yes, there are considerable cultural differences between the peoples of the north and the south in India. One of the most poignant expressions of this difference that I recall is from Amitav Ghosh’s Countdown (a journalistic piece written in response to the Indian and Pakistani parallel nuclear tests in 1998):

“Most of us here are from north India,” a bluntly spoken major [in the Indian army] said to me. “We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with south Indians or Bengalis.”

Absolutely true; and one of the many ironies that make this a fascinating country. However, underlying the terms “north Indian” and “south Indian” are falsely homogenizing stereotypes.

Stereotypes do contain at least a grain of truth. They cannot arise swayambhu. Trouble begins when stereotypes become the norm, the default lens through which people are viewed and understood. Any differences from the stereotypes then become ‘deviations’ and marginalization sets in.

In somewhat of a coincidence I read another blog last week about the recent Air Tel ads featuring the Tamil actor Madhavan and the Bollywood actress Vidya Balan. The blogger very rightly points out that while the Hindi version of the ad shows the woman using the familiar form of address (tum) for the man, in the Telugu and Tamil versions she uses the “respectful” form (equivalent to aap in Hindi) suggesting stereotypes about the way women in the north and in the south address their husbands. 

It’s a valid observation, but I am concerned about a more insidious subtext that runs through the ads — that of the woman massaging the shoulders of the man back home from work; of the man as the one who pays all the bills; and of the man watching television while the woman cajoles him into doing housework. These are damning stereotypes that are unfair to women all over India — north, south, east or west. The north-south stereotypes about forms of address, though not unimportant, perhaps deflect attention from the ones common to women on both sides of the divide.

I’m not being merely clichéd when I say that while one cannot but be aware of difference, it’s rewarding and enriching to look for similarities. We sometimes risk missing the wood for the tree when we focus only on the differences. 

A relatively recent addition to this north-south divide is the parodying of stereotypes about how English is spoken in different states on either side of the divide. And I go ballistic when the claim of ‘satire’ is made for such humour.  So let me take this claim apart.

First, some fundas.

Humour, especially satire, is an oft-used weapon in dealing with stereotypes. Cathartic of course, but satire only works for us when we recognize, and disapprove of, the stereotypes it lampoons.  Although a clear line of demarcation is difficult to draw, satire differs from normal comedy in that while the latter attempts to elicit laughter by portraying our common human foibles, in satire there is an overt intent to correct some perceived “wrong” in people or institutions.

Satire invites us to scorn its target because it is believed to be unacceptable in some form.  Therefore it can only be funny if the audience also shares this scorn. Satire relies on commonly held notions of what is unacceptable.  I’m referring, of course, to the English tradition of satire as practised by its acknowledged masters—Dryden, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson, and then later Dickens, Twain, Orwell, and Huxley.  Contemporary satire relies heavily on developing a belief or statement completely, to its logical conclusion, thus making obvious its ridiculousness. This form of satire sometimes invites negative reactions because developing the belief/statement completely might suggest support of it though quite the reverse is true. (The recent New Yorker cover featuring the Obamas is a case in point.) 

Given that satire is a weapon of scorn and thereby correction, I’d say that so-called satirical representations of Punjabi English, or Tamlish or Hinglish are highly questionable. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but let me give you the grounds for my questioning.

First: Who in India speaks English without an accent of some form or the other? Show of hands, please?  For that matter, who in the world speaks English without an accent? There is nothing linguistically superior about one or the other accent. Certain accents are preferred over others for social (spoken by certain privileged classes) and political (spoken by a politically powerful group or country) reasons.

Second: There are political and historical reasons we speak English the way we do. When Thomas Babington Macaulay declared in 1835 that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” he laid the foundation stone (erm … I work at a university and this is one of our stock phrases) for the process of teaching English in India—one that still flourishes in Indian schools, colleges, and universities—i.e., teaching it through the preserved, written word. Consequently, what we learn is literary, written English, not the spoken variety. And given the notoriously poor sound-symbol concord of English, we are not attuned to English as it is spoken — the sounds of English words. Only a privileged few have access to such attuning and it is largely they, I suspect, who pillory Indian English. 

Third: When we speak in English in India, we do so for communicative purposes in situations where other linguistic means of expression are unavailable. And so long as it serves that function, what is there to laugh about, pray? As for the argument that people also speak the language out of a false notion of ‘prestige’, well, those responsible for sustaining and nourishing this ‘privileged’ status of English are squarely to be blamed. 

Fourth: Common opinion holds that it is the pernicious influence of the mother-tongue that shapes the sound of Indian English. But this opinion is often laced with contempt. And I don’t see why. When one speaks a language for a considerable length of time, the human vocal apparatus—the tongue, the teeth, and the lips—gets accustomed to moving and coordinating in a certain manner. And this obviously has an involuntary bearing upon the articulation of the sounds of another language learned subsequently. Just basic physiology of the human mouth, hardly justifying any contempt for the intelligence of such speakers.

So now, all ye satirists of Indian English, what, really, are you attacking? Some soul-searching is warranted I should think. And no, I’m not angling toward muzzling of free speech or any such bunkum. What I do advocate is that the onus be placed on speakers, so that they are aware of and sensitive to the import of speech. 

But to return to what I started out with—the north-south divide—are there occasions, situations, anything at all, when neither north nor south,  Border, nor Breed, nor Birth* matter? Is there anything in our shared cultural life that could make such differences seem immaterial? Cricket? Corruption? Traffic jams? Films? Inflation? Ad infinitum?  

(*All postcolonial critics, save your breath and those e-mails. Despite Kipling’s current standing—jingoistic imperialist and the Empire’s most vocal mouthpiece—I enjoy the lyrical charm of his ballads and story-telling.)


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Giving gay its due

 There is this friend of mine who always introduces himself thus: “I’m —– and I’m gay.” A ‘straight’ acquaintance once asked him, “If being gay is as natural as being straight, why do you have to announce it? I don’t tell the world I’m straight!” I have no idea what my friend said in response; the question was rhetorical anyway, so I don’t suppose any answer would’ve mattered! Clearly, the rhetorical interrogator was not clued in to reading acts of defiant assertion.

No, I’m not about to launch into a polemic on gay identity.  One home truth (from Wittgenstein, no less!) this blog adheres to is: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. My interest, as always, is in words. And this time the word is gay. (No pun intended.)

The inspiration for this post is a bizzare find-and-replace gaffe that produced these headlines:

Image courtesy: Language Log

All those headlines refer to an article about Tyson Gay, a US sprinter, and his performance in the US Olympic trials. The news story appeared originally on a web site run by a conservative Christian group that advocates, among other things presumably, homophobia. Which is perhaps why they’d replaced all occurrences of “gay” with “homosexual”. You can read about this story that’s caused mirth waves on the blogosphere here, here, and here.

Having been an editor myself, I thought I’d give the guys a fair trial,  try and understand why they’d have wanted to change “gay” to “homosexual”.  Ergo this etymological investigation. 

Today “gay” is preferred over “homosexual”; apparently the APA style also recommends it. That’s because “homosexual” has a dry, clinical connotation of deviance; it describes a man entirely in terms of his sexual partners.  Obviously a narrow and de-humanising definition. 

“Gay”, on the other hand, supposedly carries connotations of an entire  lifestyle, a culture, a way-of-being as it were, not just sexuality. A secret password that homosexual males used to help them identify each other has now become their liberating community name. 

So using “homosexual” for “gay” is an obvious ploy to insult. 

But there is another school of thought, the political-correctness brigade, which believes that using “gay” to refer to lesbians is male chauvinism. “Homosexual” would be the gender-neutral term. Aha!

In fact there are lesbians who object to being called gay. “We’re not gay, we’re angry,” some lesbian activists are reported to have said. (For the life of me I don’t remember where I read this, so it will have to go unacknowledged.) An obvious reference to the fact that lesbians are doubly discriminated against, being women and homosexual, and are therefore worse off than their male counterparts.  So the web site’s find-and-replace operation might just have been political correctness gone awry!  (Another reminder, if you ask me, that the computer can certainly help you type, but cannot write for you. )

But to return to the larger question I’m trying to address here – is “gay” really a more positive term than “homosexual”?

Originally,  the word was an adjective meaning ‘joyful or light-hearted’, with no baggage of connotations. Dictionary research tells me the word is French in origin (gai) but that the source of the French word is unknown. And it’s an old word – the earliest usage can be traced as far back as  to  Chaucer’s work (that’s 14th century for the, um, literarily challenged.)

Today the word is used almost exclusively to mean ‘male homosexual’. Now, a semantic transformation of this kind is the result of changing usage over time.  A quick look, then, at all those connotations over the centuries that have gone into making “gay” a liberating and humane word. Dave Wilton over at the Word Origins web site has some fascinating research on this – read it.

For those who want it all served up on a platter here – surprisingly, the original meaning of gay (joyful) is about the only positive connotation it has had over the centuries !

… an earlier sense of gay meaning addicted to pleasure, self-indulgent, or immoral … dates back to at least 1637.

By the early 19th century it had developed into a euphemism for prostitution.

And the modern day gay … is probably derived from the late 19th century slang term ‘gay cat’ … meaning a boy or young man who accompanies an older, more experienced tramp, with the implication of sexual favors being exchanged for protection and instruction  (Wilton)

The associations with sexuality and immorality are unmistakable.  Given all this, I can’t help wondering, is “homosexual” perhaps a less pejorative term than “gay”?!

Perhaps positive connotations for “gay” stem only from its original lexical meaning. Unfortunately, you just cannot call someone gay today without lifting straight eyebrows.

Language, I tell you, has a life of its own.

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