Something very complicated happens when we speak. Vocal cord vibrations are modulated by the snaky movements of a little appendage called the tongue. Twisting around the mouth cavity, tapping on the roof or on teeth-backs up front, it shapes sounds before they exit the mouth’s mini echo chamber. The hewed-out sounds have travelled a long way from cords to eardrums and then brain. When these sounds at long last go through the brain’s transliteration engine other connotations are spliced in, en route to final meaning. The way we speak reveals a lot about us. Read the transcript or listen to Meghan Sumner, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, speak in this Freakonomics podcast. The revelations that other people have about us can be biased. The accent of your speech may cause the person listening to reduce you to a stereotype.
I live every day inside a tower of Babel. That’s what it feels like as I stroll about the Indian cities I have lived in, acclimating to a new language with every move, being an outsider, the alien in the crowd. Around me I hear only babble. If I murmur, they tell me, sometimes reasonably and sometimes with hostility, why don’t you learn our language? I am privy to only so much of anyone’s culture that the few kind people are willing to translate, explain to me. I chose English as a raft to guide me along, through this many-tongued sea.
As a teenager, I once confessed my choice to a teacher and regretted my moment of candour immediately, as she said if you choose English you will never belong, anywhere. Maybe a few months afterwards, I would come across a poem in the library. A verse from this poem by Indian author Kamala Das went up on a wall in my bedroom. It was my answer to everyone. The part that interested me talked of why the poet was determined to write in English, no matter what other people thought of her decision. What follows is the relevant verse from the poem ‘An Introduction’,
by Kamala Das:
….“I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions,….” Continue reading Why English