Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mais j'adore l'Anglais..

There comes a time when a curious condition haunting you becomes evident and it becomes clear just how often and just why exactly you let the backspace key traipse across entire word documents, gobbling up stray words and intricately woven sentences and leave you with blank page after blank page.

What is this, one demands, and when realization hits home, it best to have a sound dosage of café au lait or some other stronger brew at hand .

And the realization is this: The English language, all by itself, is not beauteous to the eye nor to the ear. Rather a blank page than an all-English invasion. 

The thing is that this language is best spoken where one is not supposed to speak. Or in prisons, where the hollowness that consumes the human soul makes it prefer something wrung of all emotion.Or Hollywood where they speak in bee-friendly frequencies.

Back in the days of the colonization season, natives working on jack fruit plantations and iron miners and indigo farms all would huddle up around a common point of dissent. No, it wasn't the whip-toting at all. It was the strange, new tongue the colonizers kept waggling at each other other that befuddled the clueless workers no end. Every time the natives tried this new sound, their song-like accents would roll off its clipped, strange intonations and wander off like wild pigs into the woods.

Non-natives grew fed-up with a language so utterly wooden and feckless.

So then the tropical world set out to soften the language, lend it a musicality, sculpt it with great patience and serendipity to befit the fireside tales of the village raconteur and to carry the fear of the occult and the timeless mysteries of forests. It was a silent little revolt, as peaceful as can be, but a language was bubbling and boiling under the calm. Spices off their lands peppered it. The music of their mother tongues and the lilt of regional flavour seasoned it. Salt from the coastal winds. Blood and bone from the dead.

One day the chains of grammar snapped,  and the language flew around everywhere. Transformed. Spoken free and unabashed, spoken even when one's mouth was full, living on a life borrowed from other friendly languages. And like all the mid-chapters of good and evil tales, evil prospered and the English Languages gobbled up the very languages that once dressed and bandaged and restored it.

The magic is not all gone yet. Faraway foreign melodies and symphonies of words pull your heart to the world that was . Schädenfreud or laissez-faire or Vidigishuvrutti. Watch how the words seem to veritably do a jig, when written in the midst of stony-cold English.They have character, blood and almost a voice. ( De Saussure would disagree). Which is why even today most people can never down the famous language neat; they need a little native something by the side.

The question is, why didn't the natives completely kill it. Voodoo it away with a pot, a sacrificial altar and a big feast at the end?

And now reader, take a long swig of the old brew ( a small advertisement here: free samples of said café au lait at the  Bean There Drunk That Headquarters-House of Free coffee ( but only for now)- those excellent brewers of the finest- but wait-there's a blog in progress and Mr. Backspace must not get any fresh excuses) for to discover the insidious happenings that changed the way the ear would rattle forever, we must take a few steps backward, back to-

                                                            THE 1600s

The Indian docks, where huge ships from afar have dropped anchor, the sun glistening equally over the rippling masts, the bobbing decks and the swarming crowds. Different hues swim around in the Bay of Bengal, where merchants from all over the world vie for trade. 

A new crest appears atop a mast. It is only a small ship and no one pays it much attention.

The East India Company has arrived. 

There comes Captain John , in boots and breeches- the picture of the innocent foreign trader. The land he has sailed from is a land fraught with greed and it shows a little in his pinched face. And so do the three years of being out on the sea. He is not well known here and he is not accustomed to scant attention. 

An Indian sits on an upturned crate, drumming on the crate and singing to himself. He sings in French, and Dutch and finally in English, all dipped richly in his strong accents. 

Captain John walks to him. " You must be the translator. I am Captain John, here on account of carrying trade with your country on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth May She Live Forever."

 The Indian shrugs and switches to a Japanese song.

" Did you understand what I just said?" Captain John asks, clippedly. 

( I knows nothing about thou, thine, youst et cetra, so live with that)

" Perfectly well, o curly haired water-rat. By the way, are the whiskers fake?" the Indian replied.

" You're the translator."

" I was. Till they fired me." 

Captain John strokes his whiskers. " Because of your impudence?" 

" Excuse me, but I don't understand that particular word. The main thing is I was fired and hence can't tender legal services. But switching to my other business- may I interest you in cheap cardamom, quite good, only spoiled a little by a few errant rats? 

Captain John finds himself feeling glad that the boy had no connections whatsoever with the Emperor because he has a wonderful secret that he is dying to tell. 

So he speaks airily. " I have a lovely secret. I will tell it to you in return for your lifetime services. Here it is. I represent the East India Company and it is of course, on account of trade in silk, cotton and cardamom that I have sailed so far- 

" Stop." said the fired translator. " You are like the ancient mariner. Uncannily so. Continue."

Captain John resumes. " We are very soon going to buy up your government. That's the only way we can make our venture profitable and sustainable. Isn't it wonderful?" 

" What's so wonderful about that?" asks the fired translator. He says this while pulling at Captain John's whiskers, whether to make sure that he isn't an impostor or for other less obvious reasons- we cannot be sure. 

" You'll be all speaking our wonderful language! Once we buy up your government, there'll be a lot of my people coming here. And there will be a civil services too. And we will all speak this glorious language of my land.Witness its nobility, its character, its wonderfully chiseled intonation!" 

The translator gives a bored look. " Yeah, yeah. Buy up our governments. Scavenge our lands. You're not the only ones. The Dutch are planning the same. So are the French. Personally if I had to choose between the lot, it would have to be the French. Their whiskers are something."

A dark cloud passes over the Captain's face. " The French?", he repeats, in a low,stung voice. 

The translator shrugs. " I'd go for the French. Je m'appelle any day than corny My name is, and so on. French Fries rather than boiled potatoes, I hope you understand why. Sorry old chap, but I can't work for you, even to get back at the beastly Emperor."

Now the Captain is as sea-bred as can be and it is this seafaring side that scars his first attempt at foreign diplomacy. 

He swears, like they swear when their ships get stuck in the doldrums. He puts on show the entire realm of underground English, the entire capacity of English that will in future traverse from under the stairs of Dukes and Barons to the smoke-spitting boiler houses, hurl through the carousels and street fights of dark alleyways, soak the bloodiness of battle after battle, pierce through the silent movie and emerge finally shining, victorious and bereft of the need of punctuation, in the new millenium. 

But the fired translator is tired of being shouted upon, the last time being only yesterday when terms of his employment had been discussed in soaring voices on these very docks. He makes to leave, but Captain John gets a hold of him by his dhoti and impales him with his livid, burning eyes. 

" The Mariner!" murmurs the translator to himself, fascinated. 

Captain John gives up-almost, when a wonderful idea dawns upon him. Oh and such a wonderfully gruesome idea it is! The hide of his skin, baked for many skins in many seas of the world, seems to dismember as many cracks show up- but he is only smiling, and a very crafty smile it is too 

" So- err-you aren't a Moslem, are you?" the Captain asks, watching out of the corner of his eye.

Now it is the translator who turns furious.

" Watch it! We're a secular country here. Any more of your insidious Divide and Rule strategies and I'm throwing you right into the sea! We are all brothers in this land and we understand how cultures are meant to merge and evolve. So do not try to sell us your crazy language or your twisted policies, conniving landlubber, et oui! Vous êtes une chienne!"

" Of course. Serve the French all you can. You must be able to pronounce the French 'R' very beautifully?", says the captain, his eyes glinting with malice in the Indian sun.  

The translator looks at him in horror. 

" Pronounced right just between the tonsil and the epiglottis- exhale the air when you try to speak it- and there- you have a perfect French R. And maybe a cardiac arrest along with it." the captain says quietly, circling the subjugated translator.

And thus, a nation fell into the shackles of a language that sounded like the throbbing of a warship, the clanking of first generation machinery and after many, many years, like the uninspired pounding of the keyboard and looming silence of the Backspace Key.

( The Bean There Drunk That- House of Free Coffee( but just for the while) hope that the effects of their wonderful coffee lasted longer than the (memory) of the above ramblings. Merci.)