Dialogue  April-June, 2005, Volume 6  No. 4

How a Language Grows

Agastya Kohli

I am no linguist. I have not studied the growth and development of a language. I am not an expert in the field. But I use languages. I grew up in an environment, where a language wasn’t merely a subject you took in school. When you studied a language, you studied it well. So along with learning a couple of languages, I also learned the nature of languages. How they interact with each other, how they interact with the society, how they change over years, grow, develop, flourish, or alternatively, shrink, loose their shine, diminish, and eventually disappear. No, I didn’t have a course in college on the topic, but one makes observations, and takes notes.

For example, I decided to study a little Spanish. Of course, the letter “j” is used extensively in Spanish, but is pronounced almost like an “h”. ‘Jesus’ is “hay-soos”, and Juan is “hu-aan”. So when my teacher told me that the Spanish word for “a young man” is “haw-ven”, it sounded like another foreign word to me. But then she wrote it on the board-Joven.

When you grow up in India, speaking Hindi all your life, it doesn’t take much to make a Yamuna-Jamuna connection, and all of a sudden, Joven looked a lot like “yauvan” – Sanskrit for youth. Sure, a young man was called “how-ven”. I don’t remember much else from that Spanish class, but I do remember joven.

It didn’t take a class in linguistics to make the Yamuna-Jamuna connection, or to make a Joven-Yauvan connection. When you study a

*The author is a computer Engineer, who has been in USA for about 13 years. He has lived in Chicago and Dallas earlier and presently is living and working in Seattle where besides work he gives his priority time to activities related to Indian culture and literature. He is part of a non profit oraganization Gurukul, which endeavors to teach and learn Hindi and promote Indian culture amongst the second generation Indian Americans.

languages, you study the nature of languages simultaneously. Many languages, both Indian and otherwise interchangeably use the sounds “ya” and “ja” (letters I, Y and J), “ra” and “la”, “ka” and “ga”. I have a German friend named Katja (pronounced Katya), and a Chinese frind who spells the world “are” as “ay – al – ee”. No wounder “badariya” is just a derivative of “badaliya” in Hindi, and “bekaar” and “begaar” mean the same thing.

And in my opinion, that’s how languages grow. Whatever is easier to say is what the norm becomes. The concept of “mukh-sukh” (mouth-comfort) makes a language add words as variants of themselves.

Its not just with sounds – it’s also with word meanings. A language has a word for a concept. Something similar rolls around, and the same word expands its meaning.

They had these things called coached – pulled around by horses. People could sit in them and go places. A number of years later, the horses have now been replaced by internal combustion engines. So what do they call a car in Spanish? A “coche”. In English, the world “car” really comes from “carriage” – which is something that gets carried. So a word has a meaning, a related concept attaches itself to it, and the world adapts to accommodate the related concept. That’s how languages grow. Sure some people called them automobiles, but a car is still a car in English – one horsepower, or two hundred.

Of course, my favorite – sticks of wood with cloth soaked in oil tied at one end. They would light the cloth on fire, hold the stick on the other end, and walk around with it in dark places. It worked as a source of light – they called it a “torch”. Fast-forward a few hundred years, technology changes, now they have plastic tubes with batteries on one side and a bulb on the other. It’s a source of light – and yes you’re right – they called it a “torch”. Of course, in America, they call them “flash lights”. A different society saw a product, was inspired by a different way of looking at it, and added another word to the language.

They tell me, that a language that doesn’t grow – that doesn’t change with time will eventually die. And I completely agree with them. But I am not sure I understand the definition of “grow” and “change with time”. The way I see it, a language grows by innovation. When a people use a language, they come across something new that needs to be communicated; a word gets altered, adapted, changed, to communicate the new concept.

We – the community that works and plays with Hindi seems to work differently. We don’t want the language to innovate. We want the language to borrow. A new concept comes along, usually with a word in English, and without thinking twice about how Hindi would express the same concept, we borrow the word. There are example all over the place.

When Xerox first developed a Graphical User Interface (GUI) to use on a computer, they also developed a pointing device. It was an instrument connected to the computer that controlled an arrow like cursor on the screen. You moved the device, it moved the arrow, and by clicking the buttons you could provide input to the computer. The device was an oblong shaped half sphere, about 4 inches long, with a cable that ran to the back of the computer. To some creative mind, it looked like a small mouse with a long tail, so they called it a mouse. In Spanish, they call it a “ratos” (think rat). In Hindi, we can easily call it a “moosa” (Sanskrit for mouse). But it’s so much easier to just call it a “mouse” even in Hindi. Do we not have a word for the concept? Why do we need to borrow a completely foreign word for something that we already have a world for?

One afternoon, my two-year-old nephew was sitting in front of a computer, looking at the cursor – a solid block on the screen – blinking. On, off. On, off. He pointed at it, and said “titlee” (butterfly). And I thought to myself, if a cursor looks like a butterfly to a two year old, that is what we should call it in Hindi. Titlee. After all, why is a mouse acceptable, but not a much prettier butterfly?

I’ve always referred to my TV’s remote control as “bandook” (gun). Sure, it’s not exactly the same thing – but it’s an expansion of a concept. If you can “aim-and-shoot” with a camera and a gun, how different is a remote control really?

Let’s stick with computers and technology for a little while longer. Why is a window (as a Microsoft Windows) not called a “patt” in Hindi? Most of the time that’s what it is – an information board, a “pop up screen”. Why do we seem to use “website” as a word in Hindi? To me, it’s a “paraav/padaav” (stopping point). Why is an Internet portal called a portal? Because it’s a launching point from where a surfer can go in many different directions. May be we should call it a “chauraahaa” in Hindi.

Lets go outside the world of hi-tech. Hindi newspapers always talk about which party has how many “seats” in the parliament. How come we don’t use the world “baithak” for it? Since when is “metro” a Hindi word for a local train system in a city? It’s not even a world in English!

Doordarshan and Aakashvani of course have been abandoned as Hindi worlds for television and radio – they have simply become proper nouns – names of corporations, leaving us with nothing better than “Teevee” as a Hindi word.

How come we call the burning cloth version of a torch a “mashaal”, but we call the battery-bulb version a “torch” in Hindi? We have a “gaari/gaadi” – as a moving vehicle. But for some reason, a car is just as much a Hindi word. Was this because Hindi needed to “change with the times”? Or is this something else?

Yes, a language must grow. If it doesn’t it perishes. But does a language grow because people who use it are creative and innovative with it? They think it, they speak it, they write it, and they use it? Or does it grow because they’re too lazy to try to explain things to their readers in their own words, and find it much easier to simply borrow and replace?

By simply borrowing words from another language, is Hindi growing? Or is it losing its identity as the soul of over half of the population of the country, and becoming a languages incapable of being the national communication channel of India? If most of the words in Hindi are not native, would it still remain an independent languages? Would people read any literature written in it? Would there be any Noble prizes for Hindi scholars? Or would they simply be ignored and described as a “mish-mash language that came about after the British invaded India”?

       They might call me a purist, who doesn’t want to see the language modernize itself. But I’ll let them know – I coined the Hindi word for a remote control. It doesn’t get any more modern than wirelessly influencing an electrical appliance. And, I coined the Hindi word for a cursor – sure I needed help from a two year old kid to come up with that one – but he did better than most professional Hindi journalists out there.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati