& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Story of Language

It’s been one of the most thrilling weeks of my life in Toronto

I’m part of a group that’s working on a project for Joyce Wayne on Canadian literature for our course at Sheridan. 

The group comprises Nelson Alvarado Jourde, Mike Odongkara and Yoko Morgenstern. We had to make a presentation for Joyce, and we decided to make an audio-visual because Mike has this absolutely great Apple laptop that makes everything possible.

We’re all trying to be oh!-so-creative! The problem with being creative is that we are all generally speaking quite undisciplined and it’s taken us longer than the time we were allotted to get the project done. 

Then there have been moments of frayed tempers, when Mike and I fought like little children. Mike’s convinced that I take crack cocaine because of my inexplicably sever bouts of anger. 

Nelson, the sage of the group, tries to make peace and quietly gets everyone back on track. Yoko is the charm of the group and smiles really hard so that we remain civilized. She also gets Chinese food and cranberry pop to make the effort worthwhile.

We couldn’t have ever got together but for the fact that we are in Canada and at Sheridan. This is Canada’s multiculturalism at work. Nelson is from Peru, Mike from Uganda and Yoko’s from Japan and has lived for many years in Germany. English is a second language for all of us, and we speak it with different accents.

The recording we have of our presentation sounds rich because it’s not in the same nasal North American twang that’s so common to people in Greater Toronto Area (of course, Caucasian Canadians prefer to think they are accent-neutral).

What also adds to the charm of audio visual is that the recording is so totally amateurish that a professional podcaster told Nelson that it’s just plain horrible.

While working on the project (part of the result is on the blog Canada The Lost Soul) I often thought of an extremely interesting book – Mario Pei’s The Story of Language

Another reason for thinking of the book was a pleasant e-mail I got from Ramesh Purohit, a former colleague who’s seen this blog and wrote back to say how much he liked it. I remember lending him this book to him to read, and he, too, had liked it.

Pei’s book is for the non-academic people who are interested in the different languages of the world. In India, we tend to be rather casual about languages because we have so many of them. That’s not the case here in Canada. 

Here, multi-lingual people get the respect they deserve because they enrich the multicultural mosaic.

Pei’s book introduces the manner in which languages across the world developed, and although Pei was often criticized for ‘dumbing down’ the field of linguistics, he certainly wrote this book with a zeal to reach out to as many people as he could.

I read this short review of the book written by a certain Magellan (Santa Clara, Ca) on the Amazon website, that sort of sums up all there’s to Pei’s book. “There is a lot to learn about the basic structure and nature of language…this includes basic concepts about grammar and the parts of speech, the basic principles of word morphology, phonetics, and phonology, language change and evolution, structural linguistics and de Saussure's important and influential ideas in the area, understanding the major language families and how they differ from each other, and the same for the individual languages in your own language group, and so on.”

Most of the statistics of the book would be completely outdated, unless there’s been a new, updated edition published recently. However, that may not be the case because Pei died in 1978. 

I don’t remember which edition of the book I had read, but I do remember that it was the first time I had experienced what in retrospect was nothing but jingoism and (false) nationalistic pride about the importance Sanskrit has in the schema of world languages. I didn’t know Sanskrit then and I don’t know it now. I'm not proud of that, but I certainly don't associate myself with the nonsense of making Sanskrit the national language in India just as Hebrew is the national language in Israel.

Many years later, after a steady dose of reading, practicing and preaching secularism, I realize how exclusivist my views were at a certain age, and I remain thankful to so many different people who at different times of my life inculcated me with values that are more tolerant of the ‘other’.

Images: Mario Pei: 

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