Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dictional Differences: Dictates vs. Didactics

I've given up my indignation over the hijacking of the Hindi word avatar (pronounced "uhv - taar") by English-speaking Westerners (who pronounce it as "av - uh - tar"). I used to get bent out of shape about this mispronunciation and fought it passionately till I found the numbers on the other side of that fight overwhelming. So gradually I decided to let it go, as I had many years ago with a similar fight about the Hindi word karma. But there was a whole war I had yet to lose. Having won some ground, the other side started advancing further by dictating terms of use to me. They started correcting my own pronunciation of avatar, trying to highlight the difference between the English neologism and the original Hindi (actually, Sanskrit) word. And this would get me all riled up, especially if the individual doing the dictional dictation was a condescending NRI / PIO with an attitude (who according to me should have fought the battle on the same side as I).

Over time I learned to let that go too. I may not quarrel any more -- at my impassioned best maybe put up a feeble protest. But I will not accept this dictate. Ever. I'd rather face rebirth as a lower avatar in my next life, than say "av - uh - tar". So what if it is now an English word with an English pronunciation? I'm no orthoepist but I'm of the opinion that words can be pronounced as per their original phonetic structure, even after they've been adopted by another language and adapted (mauled might be more accurate) to suit the marauding language's phonemes. Have the French stopped pronouncing words like penchant or accoutrement or bĂȘte noire the French way and embraced the American pronunciation for such words? If they have Gallic pride, don't we have Indian pride?

Be that as it may, I've given up fighting the dictional war over avatar. But there's another war that I am still fighting and shall continue to fight for as long as I have to. It is about preserving the spelling and pronunciation of the Indian name "Gandhi", which has been coming under increasingly strong pressure lately to morph into "Ghandy". I have vowed to fight it through dictional didactics -- I shall correct every written or spoken instance of "Ghandy" that I come across, anywhere in the world and anywhere on the world-wide web, by teaching the concerned author or speaker the correct spelling or pronunciation as the case may be. Not so much out of respect for the man we've all been brought up to revere as the Mahatma, but more out of a sense of outrage that my compatriots who may happen to be closer to the source of the error either don't care or don't seem to be pushing back. Or pushing back hard enough.

I'm quite certain that people who've learned to spell and pronounce Javier Perez de Cuellar and Dag Hammarskjold can also learn to spell and pronounce Gandhi correctly, if taught to do so. My anger is not directed against them. My anger is directed against Indians who don't think it is important to educate their friends from other (predominantly first world) cultures about the pronunciation of Indian names or words from Indian languages. These are mostly the same Indians who modify their own names to make them more user-friendly to the English-speaking world, or, worse still, just adopt the nearest American-sounding name. (Side note: in my case, Westerners tend to mistake my first name for Herman, when written, and Eamon or Hammond, when spoken. But I'm usually quick to point it out and to help them with a mnemonic -- getting them to say "hey" and "month" in rapid succession till they get it right.)

These are also the same Indians that disparage other Indians who don't get the pronunciation of names like, say, McMahon or names of places like, say, Worcestershire. I use a rather colourful expression to refer to such sub-species of Indian origin but I'd rather not reproduce here in full. It consists of 3 words: the first two are 'Cocky Caucasian' and the third word is the unprintable one. (Hint: it is a hyphenated word, referring to a person who fellates men, and alliterates wonderfully with the first two words.) And if you've got that right you'd know that's not a racial slur against Caucasians; it's an obloquy aimed at the obsequiousness of Indians who think that cultural acquiescence brings personal acceptance (and who, in the first place, crave such acceptance by the first world). This is the problem: obsequiousness when facing West to interact with first world citizens; superciliousness when facing East to interact with their compatriots back home who haven't had as much exposure to the occident. Even if I could deal with the former, I find it impossible to reconcile to the latter.

Yet another reason for me to be pissed off with these Cocky Caucasian [unprintables] is that their sort of behavior plays so easily into the hands of the hard-core right-wing Hindutva bigots who are looking for every opportunity to oppose what to their eyes might appear to be a new avatar of colonialism or Western imperialism or religious proselytizing. Look at the way they react to St. Valentine's Day celebrations in India, every year. Why does this have to be a case of two extremes? One set of Indians with a zero tolerance policy towards other Indians imbibing Western culture, and the other falling all over themselves to get accepted by the West. We don't seem to be able to embrace diversity without it having to be a struggle to keep our cultural identity. A struggle that some think they win by digging their heels deeper into the quagmire of regressive morality (which they confuse with tradition), and others readily and willingly surrender to at the altar of acceptance by the West.

I'm all for cultural osmosis. When I travel, I love to soak-in the sights and sounds of the place, mingle with locals, speak their language if I can, or try to learn it, enjoy the local cuisine, and sing and dance the local song and dance. I'm not hung-up about where I come from or how different I am from the people I am amidst, nor am I scared of losing my sense of self by opening myself out to another culture (on the contrary, I revel in it, and it adds to my sense of self). When it comes to identity, "They can't take that away from me", to quote the lyric of an old song. And neither do I go to the other extreme by jumping out of my own skin and into one I was not born in. Or born with.

Cultural osmosis is a two-way process -- you learn some, you teach some. I learn the correct pronunciation of Dalziel and I teach the correct pronunciation of Gandhi. There is mutual respect. Everybody goes home enriched.

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