Saturday, July 11, 2009

How to Speak Punjabi Without Being Able to Carry on a Conversation

Beiji--that's my great-grandmother, Basant Kaur--succeeding in teaching me one word in Punjabi: ooth. You are probably already pronouncing the "oo" correctly in your mind, it is the long "u" that also comes at the end on the word "guru" (this same long u sound, incidentally, is not the first vowel in Punjab, as Little Orphan Annie would have you believe. The beginning of Punjab ought to be pronounced like the English word "pun." The second vowel is a long a, something we might spell "ah." Try it: Punjab. Much better. Let's get back to "ooth.")

The "th" in "ooth"--and any other Indian word for that matter--is not the soft th of "this" or "that." An h after another consonant in transliterations of words from Indian languages typically means a little extra air instead. (This distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants is where we get words like khaki from.) So the "th" in "ooth" is actually a breathy t which is also, as my grandmother taught me and as a textbook can explain, the kind of t pronounced when your tongue goes toward the roof of your mouth as opposed to the ones you get from putting your tongue behind your teeth. English transliterations, unfortunately, have no way of distinguishing between the two.

Now that you know, more or less, how to pronounce "ooth", I will tell you what it means.

"Ooth" means camel.

Of all the hundreds of thousands of words she could have taught me (such as the word "lakh," meaning "a hundred thousand"), I have sometimes wondered since, why did my great-grandmother so carefully teach me how to say only camel?


With the exception of things like counting to five, the names of various dishes, and a number of Sikh religious terms, my Punjabi-language education more or less stopped after Beiji taught me "ooth" until I returned from my LDS mission, grew back my beard, and got hungry for Punjabi again. Driving across the country with my grandfather in the summer of 2005, I started to ask for this word and that, a process which culminated in a gift from my great-uncle Bachittar of my very own Punjabi alphabet book. It was a beautiful blue, with color photos and illustrations and giving a word for each letter of the alphabet, and then starting over and doing so again (more on that later).

The first letter of the Gurmukhi alphabet (invented by the Sikh gurus for the spoken Punjabi language), it turns out, is ੳ (oorhaa), the first letter in "ooth." The word and picture given as an example next to it are, in the overwhelming majority of alphabet primers and textbooks I have since laid hands on "ooth," a camel.

Beiji taught me what came first, as a directive perhaps? or simply in hope?, that I would go on to learn what followed.


Life is complicated, though, and although I can (on a good day) write things down reasonably well using the Gurmukhi alphabet, I'm not even close, four years after being given my alphabet primer, to being able to converse in Punjabi. The only formal class I took, actually, was in Punjabi's sister-language Hindi. (The Sikh teacher was a native Punjabi speaker, but Hindi is the only South Asian language even most large universities are able to offer.) I have books on my shelf now on the three overlapping languages: Punjabi (the language of my ancestors), Hindi (the language easist to study), and Urdu (the language my grandfather found so many records in) but make slow progress, as I only find time to work with them once or twice a week for a few minutes at best.

Why bother? I may never be able to put together enough sentences to describe what I did in a single day. Why keep on my great-grandmother's mad quest for me? I live in America. What's the use of struggling with this thing called Punjabi?


At my fiancee's insistence, I started reading Midnight's Children recently. I knew the book was somehow about Partition and thought the title was quite clever: you see, both Pakistan and India were officially granted independence on the stroke of midnight (although thanks to time zone changes, their midnights were different). Rushdie's cleverness, however, is far from limited to the title: the work is brilliant at making oblique references to various events and ideas, of making jokes out of the slightest details. One minor character, for example, is named "The Rani of Cooch Naheen" which, as Rushdie doesn't bother to explain, translates to "The Queen of Nothing," an apt commentary on the state of Indian aristocrats at the time. A doctor's name is Sharabi, and though I can't write or speak a coherent paragraph, I know that sharab means alcohol because I leaned the word once (and then heard it again in movies and CDs and in some improvised songs at a family party)--Dr. Sharabi is the one the father goes to for a prescription for alcohol after his state bans recreational alcohol.

My familiarity with north Indian languages, however, goes beyond familiarity with a few key Hindi or Punjabi words. Partition, for example, is an English word, left, perhaps, by the Romans when they were building the wall against the Scots, but it's a word that means something much more specific in the context of India than the Romans ever could have foreseen. The English word has been cut into Punjab, bled all across it, and that I understand that is as much a part of my Punjabi as my English. (After all, Partition evokes more for me in images and emotions than in English words.)

Bhagat Singh is a name, one of have never read in a Punjabi language primer, and yet knowing the face that goes with it, and the story, associated the two words "Bhagat Singh" with the two words "Inquilab Zindabad" (Long Live the Revolution) and the single word Shaheed (Martyr).
I also understand why it's funny (and what it implies) when a family in the film Kal Ho Na Ho explains why they named two sons Bhagat Singh by saying "There are two films--why not two boys?" (Knowing certain stereotypes ought to be part of learning language.)

I may not be able to put together nouns and verbs properly to order food in a restaurant, but I know the names of the dishes as words that are neither English nor Punjabi, but rather the multi-lingual proper names for certain kinds of food.

What I am trying to say is that there is more than being able to assemble sentences to knowing a language. That because a language, like Kira's India, is a complicated system of associations, studying a language yields benefits other than those that come only with a rudimentary mastery of grammer.

The journey Beiji launched me on when she taught me how to say camel is serving and will continue to serve to bind me closer to her and her home, will help create me far after the moment of my birth, though I will never learn how to speak the way my grandfather's grandson would have if he had stayed in the continent of his origin, if he had not followed a set of strange pulls and peculiar hopes.


  1. When I visited India, the first words that they taught me in Punjabi were "sohna kuri" which means pretty girl. Not that useful, although many people did stare at me. I also learned "dhannwad," thank you, and "dudh," milk. More useful.

  2. The first Punjabi words I taught Kira were "Sat Sari Akal." A few times at the wedding, she was actually brave enough to greet people that way. One uncle responded by asking her in Punjabi how she was doing.

    I probably should have mentioned "Sat Sari Akal" in this post. It's particularly interesting since I can't even remember learning it, but didn't know exactly what it meant until three years ago.

  3. What does it mean, exactly? I know it's a greeting, and denotes some amount of respect. The girls laughed at me for saying it to everyone we passed in the village on a walk one evening. I don't remember specifically being taught it either, or the little bow and folded hands that go with it.

  4. "Sat" means truth, or true. "Sri" is Lord or a title of intense respect. "Kal" is the word for tomorrow AND yesterday (which I find fascinating), so "Akal" is literally "without yesterday or today" but also a name the Gurus used for God. Translations vary significantly from "Truth is God" to "True is the Timeless." Some people add a "Ji" to the end for extra respect/affection.

  5. James, I love your bit on the word "partition". It is extremely thought provoking and truly profound.


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