Cheek in Tongue

Just walk up to any person and casually bring up the subject of modern-day language. This will immediately prove you are not only old but also dorky enough to broach an obscure topic with a total stranger at a public place.

But if the person you approach lapses into an impassioned lecture about how language standards are plummeting, then you can be sure you are not only talking to an old person but can be equally certain that you cannot get in two sentences edgewise for the next two hours. For, age makes people forget that the language has something called a full stop.

Anyway, in general, old people seem to be less worried about their own sons and daughters, and more concerned about the state of English. You may think this to be a stupid attitude, but if you have a son or daughter you will eventually come to the conclusion that getting worked up over language is more worthwhile and a far better practical proposition.

The quality of language in vogue in a society is inversely proportional to the age of its elders. This is what Einstein sought to explain (E = mc2, where E unquestionably stands for English and mc2 means that the language situation is bad enough to include numerals atop letters) before he was laid low by a terminal case of bad hair day and hence postulated other theories, which have ensured succession of students generation stayed away not only from language classes but also from physics lectures.

The point is, for a country that is said to have around over two thousand languages and dialects, India seems to be unduly worried about the health of English. Have you wondered why? Did this thought ever cross your mind? I am sure it would not have, because you have better things to do in life. But deep down entrenched in every Indian’s mind is the desire to speak English in a ‘propah’ manner, which can only be termed stupid because even the Brits no longer converse like that.

But how to master English?

The best way is to start early; when I say early I mean early that is earlier than your birth. You start the process of learning English by being born to a dad and mom who preferably are Brits. If for some inexplicable reason this is not possible, you are better off by being born into a regular Tamil family, which, all records confirm, speaks more English than that is technically possibly for the Brits and Americans put together.

The other important aspect of learning English is its grammar, which, as you can see, confuses everyone as to whether it has to be spelled grammar or does it involve an ‘e’ somewhere. Most people don’t get anywhere near grammar simply because they are not sure of its spelling in the first place.

But don’t let the fear of grammar come in your way of sounding stupid speaking an alien language that does not belong here. Shakespeare did not need grammar to pen his works. So what makes you to think that you have to use it? Just consider the following:

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.’

These are the immortal lines from Shakespeare would doubtless underscore his adroitness in not at all bringing grammar into play anywhere near his sentences. Shakespeare also does not seem to be unduly bothered by the fact that the words he employed did not belong to any language at all. This is the hallmark of any true genius. But the problem is if you were to speak or write like this, you will be branded a fumbling fool. So before embarking on this particular language trip take a detour to the local Registrar’s Office and get your name changed by a deed poll to Shakespeare.

Another impediment to language development is vocabulary. The best experts in the field suggest that knowledge to a large set of words makes it perfectly possible to convey a simple thought in the most confusing manner possible. Lawyers and Salman Rushdie have made a career out of this.

One of the longest words in English language is said to be floccinoccininihilipilification, a word that can never be spelled correctly or used in a proper sentence. So if this is the fate of the most famous word in the language just imagine what it would be for lesser companions of floccinoccininihilipilification?

If you take out grammar and vocabulary, what’s left of the language? Well, punctuation, largely defined as random symbols that are put to use just to avoid the monotony of seeing never-ending stream of words.

The rule of any language is: what is true for speaking is equally so for writing. Since you can’t incorporate punctuations in your tongue, they have to go unrepresented in writing too, which is why this sentence will not end with a period, which then again, is what the Americans, for reasons best known to them, call a full stop, which is symbolically represented by “.”