The Smithy of Words

In school, whenever I read the Times of India I would come across many words that were unintelligible to me. So I would inevitably turn to my coveted bilingual (English to Marathi) dictionary that I had forced my parents to buy for me. But looking up the meaning of every difficult word slowed down my reading pace so much that I eventually gave up using the dictionary. And since then I have always found it cumbersome to search for a word in the big fat tome that a dictionary is. (Pocket dictionaries are generally useless because, to fit your pocket, they contain only the most common words.)

A friend of mine, a part-time teacher, narrated an incident that happened in her tuition class. She was teaching her students how to use a dictionary when a bright young girl asked, “Why search so much through the book? I just go on to the dictionary app on my phone and I get not only the meaning but the audio pronunciation as well.” Well, I can’t agree more with that girl’s pragmatic approach. For lazy bums like me, the dictionary app has been a real boon.

The most renowned and authoritative dictionaries in the world, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are also available as smartphone apps. Since the first monolingual English dictionary was published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey (containing around 2,500 entries), we have come a long way. But lexicographers have toiled for centuries for dictionaries to reach their current stage. Samuel Johnson—probably one of the two most famous lexicographers in the world (the other being Noah Webster)—took nine years to complete his dictionary, while the work on the OED’s first edition went on for 70 years. (Coincidentally, 15 April 2015 marked the 260th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755 in London.)

Dictionary-making is a dead serious business. New words are added after rigorous vetting, and sources spanning centuries are constantly checked to fix the correct etymology of words old and new. Samuel Johnson had famously defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

But when we unshackle the dictionary from its printed pages and put it on the World Wide Web, it has the potential to transform itself magically. Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced initiative which started as a fun project in 1999, is the best example. Urban Dictionary is a place where you will often find the quirkiest, funniest and sometimes very offensive definitions of words. That’s because it does not have any lexicographers, editors or any kind of gatekeepers on its staff. Word entries are submitted by the users and vetted by the users. So a neologism which may take years to appear in OED—or may never appear—can find place of pride in Urban Dictionary almost overnight. Consider these few word entries to sample the ingenuity of Urban Dictionary’s users-cum-amateur lexicographers:

  • College: an expensive daycare centre
  • Stupid: someone who has to look up “stupid” in the dictionary because they don’t know what it means
  • Tequila: a Spanish word meaning, “I don’t remember doing that…”

Aaron Peckham, the company’s founder and chief executive, told the Guardian, “Most dictionaries are objective. Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, (but) as opinions. I think that can be a lot more valuable.” The robustness and the tongue-in-cheek nature of a project like Urban Dictionary is possible only in the internet era.

Though the immediacy, cheekiness and exuberance of Urban Dictionary are exciting traits, they are not desirable in a standard dictionary. But that doesn’t mean standard dictionaries have not been able to “win the internet.” They are present as stand-alone websites, on social media, and in smartphones. The great thing about the Web is that dictionaries do not face space constraints, and updating old entries or adding new ones is very easy. It is possible that OED’s third edition—on which a team of 70 philologists, including lexicographers, etymologists and pronunciation experts, has been working for the past 20 years—may not be printed at all. Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of Oxford University Press, told the Telegraph as much. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: “I don’t think so.”

New technology has significantly reduced the time gap between encountering a difficult word and finding its meaning. Many internet-based products and services dealing with words come with pre-installed dictionaries. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has a functionality which allows you to tap on a word for a few milliseconds before its dictionary definition appears. Features like this, which have their genesis in the internet age, are making reading a better experience for not just non-native English speakers but native speakers as well.

(Note: This article was first published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly in the issue dated May 16, 2015.)

English, Mother Tongue and Effective Communication

I love words. I love the way they delight people, make them laugh, blush, enthrall. Words have power — power to transform a dull moment into a cheerful one, anger into laughter, jealousy into love and dislike into companionship. I do not like people who misuse words, abuse them, treat them carelessly: I wish they could understand the beauty words possess, a language as a whole possesses.

Effective communication is important in every sphere of life — from relationships to jobs. India is a multilingual country. Most of us are bilingual and some even trilingual. But the tragedy is, very few of us are proficient in even one language.

A growing number of students are learning in English medium schools. All professional courses are exclusively taught in English. English is the language of the courts and government institutions (at least at the higher levels). It is also the language of mobile phones, computers and internet. It is the language of aspiration. It opens the doors to white collar jobs, and makes the road towards upward mobility easier. If you know English, you have “arrived”. So it is not difficult to understand people’s fascination with English-medium schools or the coaching classes boasting to churn out fluent English speakers in a month or two.

But the starry-eyed obsession with English has at least one major casualty — effective communication. Our pathetic education system ensures that students remain grammatically challenged and have pitiable vocabulary. (Sample this sentence from my textual conversation with a friend: I didn’t knew that. The sentence made me cringe; I felt like throwing my phone away.) Mother tongues remain confined in the four walls of our homes as they do not have “snob” value, nor do they give us fancy jobs in multinational corporations. So no one takes the pains to master them.

Though the importance of English cannot be denied, it doesn’t need to come at the cost of our mother tongues. Indian languages have a history of centuries with a treasure trove of literature and rich vocabulary. You can ignore them at your own peril. Also, there is research which says that students learn English more quickly and effectively if they maintain and develop their proficiency in the mother tongue.

Philosopher and linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” And therefore, bilingualism (or multilingualism — depending on which part of India you live in) is a gift that we Indians are naturally bestowed with and which we rightfully need to acknowledge as such.

To Read or Not to Read

“The only thing these kids do is watch TV and play cricket. The word ‘study’ doesn’t even exist in their dictionary. Goodness knows how they’re going to pass their exams!” – an exasperated piece of dialogue children of my age used to hear with nagging monotony during our school years. Now, in that handed-down diatribe, TV has been replaced by the internet, and cricket by video games, as the main culprits for students’ bad grades. Numerous studies churned out over the recent past, mainly by western scholars, have buttressed this widespread parental opinion.

According to neuroscience research, the myriad distractions on the web have altered the circuitry in our brain, thanks to its “neuroplasticity”. This has affected the way we read and how we comprehend what we read. Netizens have apparently lost the art of reading. They do not have the patience to read things in detail. They prefer skimming and scanning. Tweets and Facebook posts comprise their main – and often, only – reading diet. Deep reading is a practice on the verge of extinction. Or so these “pop science” studies seem to suggest.

In The Shallows Nicholas Carr, American writer on technology and culture, says

What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning. The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

Paper as a medium of reading is far from dead (yet) but it has already made authors like Carr nostalgic. But there is a major fallacy in comparing print books with the web. When there is a book in my hand, the only thing that I can do with it is, read (unless I want to hit someone on the head with it!). But when I open my web browser, there is so much that I can do – check my mails, pay bills, order food, watch videos… It is erroneous to pit the print medium against the whole of the internet while discussing reading. It is very tempting to treat “screen” as the equivalent of “paper”, but that is not a fair comparison. There are so many factors that go to decide what you see on a screen and how you interact with it.
The technology of paper/print is much simpler than that of internet-enabled devices. The real comparison should be between paperbacks and e-book readers, or probably between newspapers and news websites – in isolation.

Reading is not natural to us. We have to “learn” to read. We have to “develop” the habit of reading and actively pursue it to become efficient readers. Carr himself acknowledges how hard this task is.

To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T S Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call ‘the still point of the turning world’. They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another. They had to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter their instinctive distractedness, applying greater ‘top-down control’ over their attention.

If the task of reading a book is so hard, it is but inevitable that book readers in any society will be a minority. Not everybody is interested in the beauty of words, the emotions they evoke and the curiosity they satiate; moreover, everybody does not have the luxury of time that books demand. Most of us are only looking for quick information or instant gratification. As Union College psycho­logist Christopher Chabris explains, “The near continuous stream of new information pumped out by the web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to us right now’. We crave the new even when we know that ‘the new is more often trivial than essential’” (as quoted in The Shallows).

But shallow reading is not the after-effect of the internet. My neighbour, an old gentleman of 60 – a loyal, long-standing reader of the Marathi newspaper Sakal – only reads headlines and the first two paragraphs of major news stories, and never sets his eyes on the editorial pages. Deep reading or shallow reading is less a function of the medium and more of the aptitude of a person. The internet is not making people skim and scan. The majority in any population has always been the “skimmers”, and serious readers will always remain a minority. It’s only that the internet has made this contrast very visible and has given us the means to look at people’s reading habits more accurately.

Whenever a big-scale communication technology is introduced, it greatly fascinates a group of people and triggers panic attacks among others. It happened with printed books (Socrates’ lament against the written word is well known), it happened with TV and it is now happening with the internet as well. People take time to adjust to a new technology as its nuances and full-scale impacts are not readily clear in the beginning. Hence, a bit of sociological and historical perspective may offer us valuable guidance. And as far as reading is concerned, we should find reassurance in the fact that Goodreads.com, the online community of book users, had 25 million members in 2013 – and that number is growing at a pace faster than you can flick through the pages of a book.

(This article was originally published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly, issue dated November 15, 2014.)

On Reading VP Kale’s Partner

There are three things which I really value in life — sleep, solitary walks, and yes, reading! I grew up reading in Marathi, my mother tongue. But since moving to Mumbai in 2008 Marathi has got a short shrift while English has taken its place. But once in a while I pick up a Marathi book and realize what a fool I’ve been to neglect my mother tongue.

Last week I was at a friend’s place for a sleepover. He was showing us a few Marathi books he had bought. One of them was VP Kale’s most famous novel, Partner. I grabbed the book as soon as I saw it as I wanted to read it for quite sometime. I saw the number of pages — 159 — finishable in two-three seatings! I immediately put the book in my bag.

Partner_BookCover

And I wasn’t disappointed. The book was engrossing from the very first chapter. Vapu (वपु), as he is fondly called by his fans, is an effortless storyteller and a philosopher. The two come together in Partner to create a beautiful masterpiece. Vapu tackles the age-old questions of relationships, marriage, family, attachment, love, etc. The book is full of Vapu’s philosophical moorings but he shies away from advocating any one way of living while painting the whole canvas of life from asceticism to sybaritism at the same time.

This was my second book of Vapu; the first one being Hi Vaat Ektichi (ही वाट एकटीची). Both books exemplify the fact that Vapu was a feminist at heart. Vapu’s hero gets up before his wife, makes tea for her and cleans the kitchen tiles too (Partner). His heroine dares to leave her parents and raise a child, born in unusual circumstances, on her own (Hi Vaat Ektichi).

I’ve read many English novels so far but it’s always the Marathi ones which leave a stronger impression on me. It’s not like I do not enjoy reading English literature but it somehow seems foreign (as a matter of fact, it is). It does not touch my heart the way a novel like Yayati (ययाति) does or Shala (शाळा) does. Only a Ratnakar Matkari story holds the power to give me sleepless nights. These works are rooted in the earth I live in, they are about my region, my people, my culture and, most importantly, in my language — with all its idiosyncrasies and beauty. Hence they are so effortlessly evocative and enchanting.

21 February was Mother Tongue Day and 27 February is Marathi Language Day. So this will be good time to resolve to read more in Marathi. I hope this post encourages you to seek treasures in your own mother tongue too.

Text Me to Sleep

One of my fondest memories of college is a weird conversation that I once had with a classmate of mine in the middle of a lecture. The conversation itself wasn’t weird: the way we had it, was. So this friend would write what she wanted to tell me in her notebook and then pass it on to me. (We were sitting beside each other.) I would read and respond to it in my own notebook and give it to her. We kept doing this throughout the lecture — masking our amused faces and suppressing our childish giggles. Thankfully the professor didn’t notice.

I do not know how this idea struck us. But I wonder — in this age of WhatsApp — would anyone find this way of communicating even remotely interesting? The internet-based instant messaging apps like WhatsApp — and BBM before it — have transformed texting. They have not only increased the volume of textual communication but fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other.

Texting3

My first exposure to texting was Yahoo Messenger. Later on I used Orkut Chat, GTalk, Facebook Messenger, etc. But the problem with these desktop IM apps was that you could not carry them in your pocket. You had to go “online” to use them, and there were only so many hours in a day you could be online. Besides, the person you wished to talk to also had to be online, thus diminishing the usability further. Mobile instant messaging apps have solved this problem. The production of cheaper smartphones, affordability of mobile internet services and the advent of WhatsApp — the coming together of all these things have taken texting to a new level.

The biggest benefit of texting is that you can always stay in touch with the persons you wish to stay in touch with — no more need of “time nahi milta yaar” grouses as everybody is just a ‘hi’ away. A phone call has this same affordance but it has other limitations. A phone call needs to be answered immediately and you cannot take a call in a noisy place. And the biggest disadvantage of a call (or any aural communication for that matter) is that you can be overheard. I think this last point is what makes texting so much more alluring. Even if you are talking crap, bitching about someone or sexting your partner — you can rest assured that no one can eavesdrop on you (except the NSA maybe).

Texting

This is not the first time that man is using written words to communicate. We have been writing letters for centuries. But texting is quite different from letter writing or its digital avatar, email. Texting is generally instant, informal and impromptu. It comes a lot closer to face-face-face communication than any other mode of textual communication. Therefore, the language also resembles speech a lot. Punctuations are sparingly used, or not used at all, messages are sent in small chunks consisting of monosyllables or phrases, and emoticons are used to imbue feelings in the conversations.

Texting1

When talking face-to-face, you have to get the intonation right, show right expressions on your face, and have proper body language. This is a lot of work for someone like me who is always low on energy. Texting requires you to only use your fingers. There are no awkward silences in texting: you can take your time to come up with a witty reply. And if you are sad, upset, angry — you can easily mask those emotions too.

Facebook just bought the world’s biggest texting app WhatsApp. This has worried some people who think Facebook may ruin the charm of the app by introducing ads or killing its simplicity (yes, security concerns also figure right at the top). I read a Guardian article which makes a case for an open network texting app on the lines of the email. The writer says

If Gmail users could only send email to other Gmail users, and my Thunderbird desktop email software could only send to others using the same package, email would soon turn into a monopoly controlled by one company. The open internet created email standards that were available to everyone, and the monopoly never had a chance to happen.

I hope to see the same happening to texting where we are able to send texts from WhatsApp to WeChat or WeChat to Viber and Viber to WhatsApp, etc. But whatever turn the technology takes, it is my firm belief that it’ll not turn us into robots, it will only make us more humane.