Friday, 22 March 2013

Language Stories (part 2): Kitty Time Is All The Time

There are some people who immediately get my household, and others who never will. I live in the kind of home where if we potato print the garden fence because we’re bored one afternoon, my mum is proud rather than angry. We have a photo of Gary Oldman hanging over our mantelpiece (WANTED: SIRIUS BLACK), and a fashionista ornamental pig sitting beneath (he gets his outfit updated on a bi-weekly basis). There is always some kind of charger missing at all times. Visitors think they're at the wrong house if they find themselves standing in front of a working doorbell. Light bulbs rarely get changed but laughing Buddhas are abundant. You can see why people wouldn’t appreciate our way of living, but those who do have the tendency of semi moving in and never leaving. My mum and dad must have a thousand ‘children’.

In my home, our language habits are just as inconsistent and messy as our decorating. I grew up speaking two languages and people often ask me which one I think in. I believe the assumption is that each language fills a separate section of my brain, and fair enough, because it’s very rare that I think in German (which I started learning when I was eleven years old). Gujarati and English, though, I learnt at the same time. As a kid, I would say oshiko just as often as I would say ‘pillow’, if not more. When my youngest sister started playgroup, I remember my mum giving the teacher a list of Gujarati words that my sister might use when she needed things: pani (water), tundi (cold), you get the gist. Mum probably did the same for me, and muddling up words is something I’ve never really grown out of. Sometimes (usually when I’m chatting with my siblings), I honestly can’t tell which language I’m speaking in. You think writing is hard when you can’t find the precise word you’re looking for? Try knowing what word you want but having no idea what it is in English!

And that’s where the confusion begins… There are some Gujarati words for which I have yet to find appropriate English translations. The most obvious example is a word that I don’t even know how to begin spelling an English version for. I suppose, phonetically, it would be something like why-dee, and it’s a noun that describes someone who’s being a very specific type of annoying, someone who’s deliberately being awkward instead of going with the flow. Some of my English friends are able to use the word now, but I have only been able to teach them using situational examples. On the other hand, modern appliances (particularly those more commonly referred to by their brand: Hoover, Crockpot, or, if you’re American, Kleenex) are almost always talked about using their English names. If I told my mum that my food was tundi, for example, she might say Microwave ma nak.

And if that’s not complicated enough, I haven’t even started talking about invented language. Every family, or group of friends, has a dictionary of such words without really thinking about it - and ours is no different. Our list of made-up language ranges from words that are created by the mashing together of other words (for example the word fribling to refer to the sibling of your partner); to purely invented silly-sounding words (such as gambo which refers to both the snack drawer in our kitchen, and to a floor-length nightie that looks a bit like a tent); to words and phrases that have been recontextualised by the way we use them. It’s the recontextualised words that are my favourite, and they are usually born when we hear an Indian phrase which sounds silly to our English ears.  In India, a Kitty Party is a group of middle-aged women (usually housewives) who meet up every week or so to socialise. The Kitty part refers to the collection of contributions each lady makes to fund their activities, but we weren't to know, and one Puppy Party, a Dragon Party, and a Unicorn Party later, my sisters and I use the term to mean 'sleepover'.  Word of advice: if, as a woman in her mid-twenties, you tell someone in India that you’re off to a Kitty Party, they will probably look at you like you’re the lamest person in the world. Kitty Parties are not cool.

When I was twelve or thirteen, I remember being told off by my Gujarati school teacher for using Swahili words. It made sense that I would since my father’s community migrated to England from Kenya, but I was furious with my dad. How had I been speaking Swahili for all these years without anyone correcting me? Now, I think it’s kind of cool – my own personal version of Indian words like jungle or bunglow becoming part of the English language. I hope that in a couple of generations time, my family, perhaps with Gary Oldman watching over them, will automatically say gambo when they mean pyjamas.

What words have you and your family invented? Tweet me or leave a comment below – I’d love to hear. 
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Thank you for reading. I would love to hear what you think!