Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hello, my name is Forgetful

Crotchety old uncles and aunts in Tamil households have a strange obsession. They pop up at all the wrong functions and ask all kinds of right questions to the wrong persons. One legendary query that has given many young generations the jitters is, “Yenna yaarunu theriyuda?” Translated that means “Dude, I know you don’t give a fig about me. But let me embarrass the daylights out of you by asking you to name me - although theoretically speaking, you don’t stand a chance as the last time you saw me, you were in your nappies!”

I don’t know about you, but every time someone asks me their name, I go blank. No amount of panic hitting of the ‘recall memory’ button seems to help. The farthest I’ve gotten so far is in remembering the first letter. I used to think that I’ve got Alzheimer’s and the hypochondriac in me was secretly relishing the prospect of chewing some bitter new tablets. But apparently, forgetting names is a not that rare a disease. It’s as commonplace as the common cold. And the technical term for it is ‘Nominal Aphasia’.

Aphasia is ‘speechlessness’ and Nominal Aphasia is an apt way of describing how tongue tied you feel while recollecting a name. It’s a very solvable problem if we take the effort to understand how the brain works.

Essentially, the brain stores three types of memories: instant, short term and long term. Names are short term memories and they are filed in the long term folder only if they are associated with some other memory. Let me explain.

Suppose you meet someone named Rahul, chances are you’re likely to forget it as it’s not ‘memorable’ enough. Because three other namesakes (Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Dravid and Rahul Bose) have already occupied some precious real estate in the inner labyrinths of the long term memory folder. To make space for another Rahul, you need a prefix or suffix that generates a visual in your head.

In the olden days, the prefix used to be ‘thin’, ‘fat’, ‘short’, ‘tall’, ‘dark’, ‘fair’ or any other appropriately inappropriate trait. It really worked as it’s impossible to forget someone called ‘Fat Rahul’ or ‘Rude Rahul’.

All we need to do is to learn from our forefathers and apply the right name marker. That way, the next time some pesky relative poses that infamous question, you can jog your memory instantly and run away with the honours.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Origin of Languages

A 1965 movie ‘Panchavarna Kili’ is still etched in the minds of millions of Doordarshan viewers. Who can forget the epic sequence of KR Vijaya’s quivering lips over-emoting the ‘Tamizhukkum amudhendru per' number penned by poet Bharathidasan. Along with a liberal glimpse of the actress’s rubbery jaw and her pearly-pearlies, the song also gave us a hint of the meaning of ‘Tamil’.

Tamil, as you must have guessed by now, simply means ‘that which is sweet’. Derived from Tam (self) and -izh (the root word for honey), the 19th most spoken tongue predates the existence of all mother tongues in India, except say Sanskrit which incidentally, was never called ‘Sanskrit’ by Panini the grammarian. He referred to the Vedic language as ‘Chandasa’. Sanskrit (meaning: refined) was perhaps a later day coinage built upon a distillation of the best of Prakrit, the original vernacular of our nation.

Malayalam took root as a distinct entity from Tamil when the Pandyan Dynasty lost its control over large tracts of Kerala. Malai (‘hilly’ in Tamil) and Aalum (‘ruled by’ in Tamil) somehow got fused together and the region gave rise to Malayalam.

Telugu is another story. The dominant school of thought seems to believe that Telugu came from Trilinga Desa, the terrain with three Shiva temples – Srisailam, Drakasharamam and Kaleshwaram. I somehow subscribe to Ganti Jogi Somyaji’s hypothesis that Telugu is a derivation from Ten-ungu. ‘Ten’ in Proto-Dravidian means ‘South’. And therefore, Tenungu means ‘Southerners’. The explanation feels as logical as Hindi being that which is spoken by the people of Hind.

Kannada’s history too owes a lot to its geography. Etymologically built from Karu-nadu (land of the black cotton soil), Kannada is an exotic cocktail brewed over centuries from Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil.

Kannada’s amiable cousin Tulu owes its ancestry to the Dravidian root word Tuli (drop of water) which is probably an attribution to its coastal provenance. The Kon in Konkani makes a similar allusion to the ‘mountain range’.

Urdu, on the other hand, is from the Turkic word ‘ordu’ and it decodes to the language of the army camp. Probably the reference is to Mahmud Ghazni and his hordes who camped around the Delhi Sultanate and developed its lexicon.

There are at least 770 more dialects to cover. If you lend me your ears, will be glad to leave you speechless over a cuppa.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Being Poles Apart

Every time someone tells you they know nothing about Poland, point them to the word ‘Schmuck’. The pejorative for a douchebag cum moron is derived from Yiddish word for the male genital organ which in turn comes from the Old Polish word ‘smok’ (meaning: grass snake).

To be fair to the Poles, there’s a lot more to them than Schmucks and the stale old Polish Joke Books. The Wachowskis are a great advertisement for the country. The creators of The Matrix trilogy, are of Polish descent. Their forefathers were from the Wachow village in south-western Poland.

If that didn’t impress you much, well, let me tell you that the country has produced 16 Nobel Prize Winners – twice as many as India. Among the winners is Marie Curie, the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences (Physics and Chemistry)! Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Skowdowska. She was so proud of her nation that she named Element 84 as Polonium as her tribute

That wonderful writer Charles Bukowski, he too, has some Polish genes. His bookish sounding surname literally means ‘one who comes from the buk tree area’. For the botanically flummoxed, ‘buk’ is the beech tree.

If you’re the religious types, you might be glad to know that Pope John Paul II was born as Karol Jozef Wojtyla and his Polish surname indicates he’s a descendant of an officer running a rural district.

Even music maestro Fredric Chopin and the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (born Mikolaj Kopernik) were of Polish origin. The adorable thing about Poland is they are one of the few places in the world to celebrate name days. How it works is, catholics named after a saint, would celebrate that saint’s feast day as Name Day. For instance, May 30 is Joan of Arc’s day. So anyone named Joana would celebrate it as their day!

The Polish language is widely considered to be the hardest to master. With seven genders (three masculine, three feminine and one neuter) and seven noun cases, it is said that even a localite gets fluent only after 16 years of effort.

To give a glimpse of the difficulty level, try and pronounce Grzegorz Brzeczyszczykiewicz. If you were nowhere near Gye-ghosh B-zhench-sh-chy-kee-veech, you must hand it to the Poles for keeping their tongues from being tied, tangled and twisted.