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Speak Easy: The utility of bilingual dictionaries

By December 11, 2017No Comments

Source : The Indian Express

Here’s why it has been integral to love, war and trade since ancient times.


The world of bilingual dictionaries has grown by about 1,900 pages this year, with the publication of former English And Foreign Languages University vice-chancellor Abhai Maurya’s English-Hindi Dictionary (Parable International, Rs 1,095). Extremely exhaustive, it includes rarities in everyday speech in English (“woofer”, “palliasse”, “panatella”, “reinsurance”, “relay” — though the electrical sense of the last, a switch to control one circuit by another, is not provided). It extends to archaisms which are coming back into popular use (“un-American”; see Twitter for the latest misuses), archaisms which remain in popular use (“Worcester sauce”, whose original secret ingredient was believed to be molasses from the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh) and archaisms which persist against all reason (“Woolsack”, on which the Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer sits, for the slender reason that sheep once formed the backbone of the British cash economy. Surely ergonomic office furniture would serve his or her back better).

Maurya’s dictionary has trade-specific obscurities like acronyms, internet cant and even the Graeco-Latin delenda, the little delta that proofreaders use to mark a word or passage to be deleted. Its footprint is restricted to Fleet Street and Ink Street, but for the classical quotation “delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage must be destroyed”), which peppered the speeches of the hawkish Roman senator Cato the Elder (234-149 BC).

Bilingual dictionaries predated single-language volumes for practical reasons. They help you talk to strangers, who were on the move in ancient times, in search of trade and conquest. In fact, going by the literature, the ancient world was at least as globalised as our contemporary civilisation, with people regularly crossing whole continents. The 8th century Tocharian letters found in the Tarim Basin speak of traders routinely travelling between West Asia and China. The treaty of 1,380 BC between the Indo-Iranian Mitanni empire and the dominant Hittites is witnessed by Mitra, the god of friendship, along with Indra, Varuna and the Ashvins, the first known instance of the Indo-Aryan pantheon, and includes numerals which would have been just as mysterious to the Hittites. And if you read Richard Burton’s version of the Arabian Nights, before bowdlerising retellers and the Disney empire fiddled with it, you would find that Alladin’s story ends with his marriage to the princess of China, but begins with a sorcerer from north Africa. It’s an interpolation, but it gives some idea of the vast geographies which people traversed thousands of years ago.

Whether trading or making war and love, a bilingual dictionary in the saddlebags was extremely useful. The world’s oldest dictionaries were written on clay tablets providentially baked in a fire which destroyed the palace of Ebla, in Syria, in 2250 BC. Among the 1,800 tablets so preserved were bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian wordlists. Their Babylonian cousin, from roughly the same period, is named the “Urra=hubullu”, from the first correspondence in the list, the Sumerian and Akkadian terms for debt taken on interest. With good reason, the Occupy movement’s ideologue David Graeber, who posited that debt was the primordial economic activity, predating the market, titled his first book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

While bilingual dictionaries are useful for global understanding and world peace, single-language dictionaries formalise language, a living thing much given to freedom of speech, with people choosing to spell according to taste. There is regional variation in India — Bengali is almost completely formalised, thanks to much dictionary-punching, while Hindi is still getting there. The decisive step to formalising English spelling was Dr Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, which surgically removed historical variation and had no patience for illogical orthography. But then, it was whimsical on definitions, as in the famous entry for “oats”: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

Bilingual dictionaries, on the other hand, have to be scrupulously correct, for fear of international incidents. Maurya’s English-Hindi dictionary is a valuable addition to this category, being more contemporary and much more exhaustive than others in the field. My own favourites are fairly vintage and slim in comparison, the first being Nathaniel Brice’s A Romanised Hindustani and English Dictionary, “Designed for the Use of Schools” (EJ Lazarus & Co, Medical Hall Press, Benares, 1880). And there’s Duncan Forbes’ A Dictionary, Hindustani and English, subtitled: “A new edition printed entirely in the Roman character, conformable to the system laid down by Sir William Jones and improved since his time.”

Both titles have been helpfully kept in print by Asian Educational Services (New Delhi and Chennai). They are also available for Kindle, but at ridiculously inflated prices. Dating from the time when Hindi began to overtake Urdu and Hindustani, they offer now-disused words like “kabuliyat” (legal admission), and terms which survive only at a safe distance from Delhi, like “kab talak” for “kab tak” (till when?). But for translating contemporary language, Maurya’s work is more appropriate. It would have been more interesting if it offered Hindi etymology, which is not as easily discovered online as English etymology. But one supposes that it would have turned this weighty tome into a multi-volume set half the size of the Britannica.


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