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Monday, May 14, 2012

Thinking about words

Language keeps ever changing, like a tree shedding old branches and putting out new ones, or like a river that never stops shifting course – and, at one level, it is a fascinating thing to watch and practise with, as any teacher of language must. It’s one of those things that keep me from getting bored with what I do. But, as I have sometimes commented before, there are changes that cause disquiet, or at least stir the funny bone for their sheer frivolity or absurdity, like substituting ‘anyway’ with ‘anyways’, and calling everything under the sun ‘awesome’ (recently some of my kids got certificates for being ‘awesome’ volunteers in a school function – not ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’, but awesome), or signing off with ‘Best’, as though it would wear your fingers out to type ‘With best wishes’, and calling the head of an academic department a ‘Chair’, or saying ‘I hope you’re doing good’ when you obviously mean ‘doing well’…galloping laziness and mindlessness combined with a desperation to be ‘in’ with the ‘cool’ crowd is not an edifying thing to see all around you!

There are three words in particular that I want to discuss in this post. Everyone suffers from ‘tension’ these days (and everybody seems to have forgotten that once upon a time it was a technical word, by which doctors referred to blood pressure and engineers to the tautness of an electrical wire): what happened to the good old ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’? What better function does ‘tension’ serve (especially in the mouths of paanwallah’s sons, the sort of people who cannot string together one ten-word sentence correctly in English)? Then there is ‘mistake’. Everybody seems to make only ‘mistakes’ these days, never a misdemeanour or an offence, leave alone a crime or a sin! I regularly underline the word when I read essays where a pupil writes about a bully harassing a child, or a student cheating in his examination, and afterwards – most commonly when they are punished for it – realizing their ‘mistake’! Isn’t it one way we are teaching our young (and by young today I mean everybody under thirty) never to take responsibility for serious wrongdoing – when they can always expect  to get away by claiming it was just a ‘mistake’? How much longer will it be before people in the dock accused of murder will tell the judge they shouldn’t be severely punished because it was, after all, just a ‘mistake’?

And finally (for now) there is ‘insult’. Of late I have been frequently hearing (and reading-) teenagers saying ‘The teacher insulted me’ (for not doing homework, being rude in the class, coming late to school, failing in an examination or whatever). They didn’t say it so commonly twenty years ago, I can vouch for that, and I find it deucedly odd. Has the meaning of the word changed then, or have teachers changed, or have the children’s attitudes changed drastically? In our time, we had in general much sterner teachers: they not only scolded us, often harshly, but were liberal in meting out corporal punishment with the cane and otherwise. Many of them we still revere, and have no hard feelings for; to some, we are eternally grateful for all they did, and no, we certainly never dreamt of saying they ‘insulted’ us (though, admittedly, as all my Bengali readers will understand, even the best of us were frequently addressed as goru, gaadha, bandor, chhagol, pantha, bhoot, hotochchhara, idiot and the like). On the other hand, on the very few occasions when I did find a teacher’s behaviour truly unjust and cruel, I stood up to it in a way that no present-day student can dream of doing: at best they go and complain to daddy and mummy. My father did the same as a schoolboy, I happen to know: he seized the cane from his headmaster, broke it and threw it away – and willingly took everything that came his way as a consequence. Real men don’t cringe before authority figures and abuse them behind their backs. So what do my readers think has changed in these intervening years? Has something gone wrong with our teachers, or are today’s students a cowardly lot saddled with overblown and fragile egos?


Navin said...

Dear Sir,
it is a great post. You cannot imagine, how afraid I am of commenting on this blog post of yours. I regularly commit most of these "mistakes" which you often see as a school teacher and I am afraid I might have made some more.

yours sincerely,


Rajdeep said...

Your post seems to have two themes.

On the first theme of language, I recently read a wonderful book, "The Story of English in 100 Words," by David Crystal. It is a great read how language has been changing continuously.

On the second, well, globalization seems to have given a license to speak any language in any way one likes to!

The Warlock said...

Dear Sir,

I believe there was a time when speaking in grammatically wrong English was considered an inability, a handicap, and in bad taste. A person speaking so was generally aware and ashamed of it. Not so much anymore. I can think of a few reasons,

1. A generation of English language teachers who knew the language (by virtue of being well read themselves) and loved it are gone. The replacements are mere shadows if not a travesty. I have a feeling this current band of teacher (as students) always wanted to speak incorrect English and get away without a caning. Now is their glory hour!

2. Job requirements in the past called for good English as a prerequisite. So even if one did not love the language, one took care to use it well. Not so much any more. If one is good (I mean barely passable) in ones' understanding of other languages like Java, C, C#, Perl, Python etc. a "job" is guaranteed. So, the compulsion of conversing or writing good English ceases to exist en masse.

3. I believe, in the past people used to watch the news and read newspapers to learn better use of the language. There used to be more matter and less sensationalizing of facts in the media. Now, good language will not sell unless you append an "s" to "anyway" and garnish every sentence with "awesome" to make it palatable to the mass.

I do not know what else to write without stating the obvious; and of course feeling jealous about those two lucky word in the entire lexicon, "awesome" and "anyways". They are sitting at the apex of a heap of out-of-luck words like "outstanding", "anxiety", "misdemeanour", smiling like a crowned beauty pageant (and a close runner up) who does not know how she got there and what to do next.

As for the word "insult", it has my sympathy! "insult" has been insulted and grossly misused by a generation who either do not know its meaning or know no better word to express their feeling. On the brighter side, "insult" should feel "Awesome" about the serendipitous adulation that it is receiving. Once the cheers wane, it can just shrug and say, "Anyways", I tried!

About the strength of character (or the lack of it) that you mention at the end, I wonder if clarity of thought is not directly connected to ones' ability to talk, correctly and cogently. I always thought that if an idea is clear in the head, there should be no trouble in vocalizing it. Therefore, the strength of character will only follow when an idea is clear in the head. So, for one who uses the word "awesome" to express both the feeling of seeing the Kanchenjunga at sunrise as well as a terribly shaped self-made chapati, it is only natural that the feelings are not well defined in the head and therefore the "right" and "wrong" are also quite garbled in there.

Lastly, sincere apology for this once in a blue moon comment. Also, I hope you will pardon the satirical undertone. I used it only to make the same point that you have so often tried to make to your readers.

"Best" :)

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

I hear people butchering the language all the time here. 'Anyways', 'awesome' and 'Sup' (which stands for 'What's up?') are used so much that I have now become numb to them. I don't feel as much anger or disgust as I used to before.

The worst part is the users' excuse for such words and sms language is: 'That's how languages evolve'. I honestly cannot come up with an argument against that. I tell them not all change is for the good. But then no one wants to listen to logic. And they tell me that given a few years, this kind of language will be accepted. That's exactly what I fear given how distracted, lazy and unimaginative the present generation is.

As for the last part of the post, I am not sure, but I was under the impression that courageous people, who can speak their minds, are and always have been rare. Maybe the number is decreasing with every generation. You have taught so many batches, so you probably know better.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Hardly anybody wants to talk on this issue. Pity, because one's attitude to language says far more about character than one's attitude, say, towards math or chemistry... as for courage, Nishant, reflect that nobody even mentions courage as a desirable virtue these days, though even three generations ago people otherwise as far apart as Churchill and Gandhi agreed that it is the mother of all virtues. Very much in context, I often imagine how historians will comment upon the times we lived in. In all probability, they'd say that apart from all round decadence in intellectual and civilizational standards and huge 'progress' in the design and use of gadgets, nothing much happened...

Diptokirti said...

Dear Sir,
I think I now understand why so many people take part in the desecration of not only English but all languages they use, be it Bengali or Hindi.
There can be two reasons (and I have arrived at them after much deliberation), one that all of my generation has succumbed to an epidemic of laziness, if not this then it must be because most adolescents lack the strength in their spines to resist being swept away by the crowd and thus try to identify themselves with what is most common around them and hence everything from their attitude towards life and the language they use is a verbatim copy of what everyone else does. As of now I find the second reason much more plausible.
I recently saw a film named bhooter bhobishyot and the director quite cleverly includes the rise of this strange new language in place of English (albeit with an undertone of sarcasm) in a dialogue between two ghosts- one a 'retro' ghost (a theatre actress from the '40s) and a 'hip' ghost (the daughter of a business magnate). The latter tells the former that while hot and cold have the same meaning now, it is very unfashionable to talk in proper Bengali. To this the other spirit replies ' amar dour toh khali oi parimohoner first boi obdhi'.
yours faithfully

Suvro Chatterjee said...

About the last bit, 'today's (pampered-) young being saddled with overblown and fragile egos', now I know. There's a girl in class 12 who refuses to go to school or attend tuitions because she is suffering from 'depression'. She has never done a day's honest work in her life yet, she sleeps in an airconditioned room, she chats on her mobile all day long, she hates her parents because they nag her to study and don't let her go out whenever and wherever she likes with whoever she likes. Who will honestly come forward to agree with me that all this girl needs is a solid kick in the pants before she is thrown out of her house to fend for herself... and that seven days of that experience will teach her more about life than all her schooling has done so far?

Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.Words,Sir-the wordsmith's tools for chiseling the veneer of ice off the human heart,and the rivulets of emotion which trickle down to the very core of one's being!But,Sir,in the 'advanced' world of 'progress' today-they are at best mere alphabets strung together to seem 'cool','in','hip or happening'.Sir,we can witness the quality of published work reflecting this social phenomenon-college slang,hacker lingo passes for the finest invention of all time,language.That is progress indeed-no longer do words seek to fill the void of the heart,they are now mere toys in the hands of philistines.

Regarding the usage of the words you have mentioned in your post,Sir-I must say that,like so many other words,they are used mindlessly.Hence,every last night crammer faces 'tension',every hapless street Romeo suffers from the same,every lazy lout suffers from the same problem.In a world,Sir,where 'Love' can mean 'procreation',thrown in with a lot of money and comfort,fun at the expense of one's husband,what more can the poor words do?

With best wishes,