Saturday, 17 November 2012

Our Lingua Franca Has A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

I saw this wonderful picture on the net, and it rang so true.

The original image said "loose grammar", but one of the comments on the site where I found it suggested "loose lexemes", so I made the necessary modification. Now it's accurate, but incomprehensible :-(.

So what IS a lexeme? According to SIL (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), a lexeme is "the minimal unit of language that has a semantic interpretation and embodies a distinct cultural concept".

And armed with that knowledge, when we look again at that picture, we realise that it describes exactly what English has taken from other languages, and why this has served to enrich rather than destroy its own character. A language that acquires the power to describe virtually anything, pragmatically lifting lexemes to accurately describe cultural concepts it has no native words for, becomes universally useful, like a Swiss army knife (there, that's another lexeme). The British empire might have imposed English on the four corners of the globe, but if the language itself had no staying power of its own, it would have swiftly retreated with the disappearance of that empire. The fact that English is still around in the world, stronger than ever, says something about the character of a language that is not above mugging others for their loose lexemes.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I was having dinner with a friend and his father who was visiting. The senior man went off on a bit of a rant about English in India. "Indian languages have been corrupted by English", he fumed.

I felt I had to disagree, and did so politely, "Or enriched, depending on which way you look at it..."

"No", he said firmly, "it's not enrichment, it's corruption."

I didn't know the word "lexeme" back then, or I might have been able to impress him a bit. Or perhaps not.

My own father had quite the opposite opinion. He was a linguist who entered his profession by choice, because of his love of languages. He could read and understand 6 Indian languages and 6 foreign ones, apart from English. And though I can hardly call myself a linguist, I guess I've inherited some of that curiosity and love for language that he had.

Just last week, I found myself explaining to my son that the English word "ambrosia" (a food or drink of the (Greek) gods that confers immortality) is related to the Sanskrit word "amṛt", commonly spelt either "amrit" or "amrut" (a nectar that gave the (Hindu) gods their immortality).

The gods and the demons (the bad guys always have wicked moustaches to help us identify them) wait to be served amṛt. (Of course, the demons get cheated out of having any, and only the gods end up having it. History is written by victors, so now you know why the gods always win. Just sayin'.)

It's easy, once it's pointed out, to see the connection between "ambrosia" and "amṛt". But here's where it gets interesting.

The word "amṛt" is actually a compound word "a-mṛt", because "mṛt" or "mṛtyu" means "death" (which corresponds to mort in Latin), and "a-mṛt" is literally the opposite of death, or im-mort-ality. No one reading the original definition of ambrosia ("a food or drink of the gods that confers immortality") would immediately make the connection from "ambrosia" to the word "immortality" and realise that they're essentially the same word. The lexeme that English pilfered from Sanskrit just cloned itself in the same sentence, and nobody saw that happening! It's sitting right there under our very noses, just like the hidden white arrow in the FedEx logo.

Oh, those sneaky ad-men and their subliminal suggestions to go right!

It's amazing just how many words from other languages have found their way into English and are now strutting around in suits and top hats. Actually, that should just be jeans and T-shirts, because English is no longer the language of the British empire. It belongs to all of us as our working language, which is what the term "lingua franca" means anyway.

And we start using words from our own languages as English words, often even pronouncing them as English words, and no one seems to mind a bit. It's cultural Stockholm syndrome (an English lexeme that others can use).

Stockholm syndrome - "Everyone say 'Anglophilia', or it's au revoir, mademoiselle."
"You're so cool."

I personally find it amazing that the tech industry casually uses the Sanskrit words "guru", "nirvana" and "mantra", while "karma" and "avatar" need no translation at all. Guy Kawasaki, in a talk to Indian IT professionals in Silicon Valley, advised them to adopt a mantra for themselves with the quip, "You guys are Indians, you know what a mantra is".

Don't look now, but someone is stealing your loose lexemes

So the moral of the story is, go get those loose lexemes, from any language careless enough to leave them lying around. One of them could be the mot juste that you're looking for.

Even the linguistically pure French have taken the lesson to heart, it would seem.

...or they might ruin le weekend for you

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