Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Age of the Earth and the Smell of Sheep

The main reason we are in Washington is so I can learn to read this:

And say this: "Naan Paul. Neengal yrippradi irukeenga?"

Or: "I'm Paul. How are you?"

If it looks like I bunch of random squiggles, join the club. Through after two and a half weeks of Tamil class, I have learned to...very, very slowly...pronounce most of the words. What do these words mean? Good question. Mostly, I have no idea.

See, the Tamil alphabet has 12 vowels and 18 consonents. Each vowel and each consonent combine to form 216 unique characters. Unlike in English where the consonent "R" and the vowel "A" are combined to create the sound "Raaa" and are written "RA", in Tamil the same vowel would be combined with a similar consonent to create a "Raaa" sound, but be written using a completely unique character or squiggle. 216 that look something like this:

Learning Tamil has presented more than the obvious challenges. For instance, some sentences don't have verbs. And we are being taught some....interesting vocabulary. To say the least. In the first few weeks of Portuguese I remember learning the words for door, table, pen, window, and other common objects found around the classroom, for the purpose of learning to construct simple sentences such as, "The book is on top of the table."

So far, in addition to the words for cobra, mongoose, a toddy seller, a type of moonshine made from the trunks of coconut trees, jack fruit, three words for cooked rice and two words for uncooked rice, I've learned two words for the smell of sheep and one word that means the age of the world ("you-gum"). I am told, according to one of three Tamil professors, that it references how many years remain in the life of the Earth. This figure is in the hundreds of thousands so I needn't worry about the world ending while we are in India, though it appears I do have to worry about finding myself in an existential conversation on the world's remaining years. 

Unlike when I was learning Portuguese, Sam is getting into the spirit of things. Pete, too, though he was just a baby when I was taking Portuguese classes. When I was taking Portuguese and would come home and speak Portuguese to Sam, he would clamp his hands over his ears and run down the hall screaming, "NOOOOOO!!!" Now, both he and Pete now say "Vannaakam" ("Hello") and "Aprom par kalam!" ("See you later!"). Sam even uses the perfect Indian inflection so that he sounds like he's straight of the set of an Indian Jones movie. Next, he will have mastered the head wobble. 

To say the learning curve for mastering the Tamil language is flat is an understatement. It is a pancake. And it has been difficult to get motivated. Though 70 million Indians and Sri Lankans speak Tamil, much of the language has been overtaken by English words, and one can maintain a daily routine in Chennai and Tamil Nadu state fairly easily speaking only English. Learning Portuguese was easy in comparision. Yes, the alphabet is much the same, but it is easy to get motivated to learn a language that is important and has increasing utility. The utility of Tamil, on the other end, seems to be diminishing. 

By way of example, our professor was teaching us the Tamil word for telephone today, "Toe-lai-pay-see, but 'telephone' is 'telephone'. Everyone says 'telephone'." This has happened a lot. Cup, bottle, computer, the numbers, etc. all are now Tamil words. Fortunately, early Portuguese colonization has also left a legacy vocabulary. Window is "ja-neel" in Tamil and "janela" in Portuguese. Table is "may-sai" in Tamil and "mesa" in Portuguese.

I remember coming home from a full day of Portuguese class with Portuguese echoing between my ears. During baths I would call Peter "caozinho" ("puppy") and "fofinho" ("lil cutie") and in class, when prompted to talk about my weekend, would mostly talk about "trocando fraldas" ("changing diapers"). 

At the same time, a lot and not much has changed in two years. I am still changing diapers, but now I need to learn how to say it in Tamil. Elise says she is already tired of me "yippi-ding" around the house. I now come home with Tamil ringing in my brain and I am afraid the worse of the "yippi-ding" is still to come. 

1 comment:

Nomads By Nature said...

Just wait til you get the head bobble down! It's almost impossible to quit the habit once it is learned. After two years in Sri Lanka (Singhalese and a few Tamil words) it took wearing noisy earrings to catch myself and stop the bobble. I do have fun resurrecting it along with all its nuances (slight tilt bobble, eye blink bobble, etc) it's almost a dialect of its own!