Tag Archives: linguistics

The Venus Flytrap: A Women’s Language

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The philosopher Hélène Cixous, who wrote extensively about the need for a embodied, feminine authorship, penned in one essay: “I said, ‘write French’. One writes in. Penetration. Door. Knock before entering. Strictly forbidden.”

To write in: in secret, in solitude, in defiance, in allegiance, in spite of. This can happen in any language.

In China’s Jiangyong County, for an uncertain number of centuries, existed a dialect called Nüshu. It was created for, and used exclusively by, women when they were not otherwise permitted literacy.

Nüshu created the custom of “third day missives”, which would arrive in a woman’s marital home on the third day following her wedding. These were booklets of joyful blessings and sad songs, sent to her from her mother and her closest female friends. In literature I have read about this literature, the words “sworn sisters” come up repeatedly, at the centre of the nexus of intimacy.

Among all partings I think of this – a queer woman writing to her lover or desired one, separated from her by marriage. Her secrets travelling to another village, almost safely. Her lover or her desired one receiving these cries of the heart, etched in ink. The lines of the Nüshu script are so delicate, leaflike as compared to standard hanzi logograms, that they were known as “mosquito writing”. I want to imagine those lines being saved, but I also want to think that every woman in her new household would have known how to read too. Would they have kept her secret, or turned against her?

Nüshu was also often written on handheld fans, objects held close – folded or open.

Unlike the Japanese Hiragana or Korean hangul scripts, which were primarily used by women before being absorbed into general use, authentic Nüshu died with its last proficient speaker in 2004. Only scholars know it now, and perhaps deciphering rather than communicating is their primary mode. Because it was written down in personal documents, it could not possibly have been secret, as many claim. So its use was either accepted, or tolerated as a form of lesser communication.

I looked at lines of characters: the same word in different Chinese scripts. There is said to be a link between Nüshu and the most ancient of them all: the writing carved on bones and tortoise shells that would crack upon heating, and be used in divination. How many times did the words for “rain” or “king” appear on those shells and bones? And the ones for “love” or “child”? In the 19th century, these fragments were ground up in traditional medicine, their secrets swallowed.

The lettering for “woman” in the ancient oracle script is serpentine, an almond shape cut through by a flowing incurvation. I meditate in other languages about the scripted, the secret, the silent, the said.

This is how we know that Nüshu was an embodied language: it could be spoken, and sung. The written documents that remain are only vestiges of a certain world. Words build worlds; this language too sustained one. And like those swallowed divinations, I know there are some who carry its spirit, scriptless and soundless, into many vastly different ones.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: One Hundred Names For Love by Diane Ackerman

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I wrote about Diane Ackerman’s memoir about her partner Paul West’s astonishing near-recovery from global aphasia, One Hundred Names For Love, for Cerise Press. Global aphasia is a stroke-induced condition that leaves the sufferer bereft of vocabulary. The review is here.

The Venus Flytrap: Between Bread and Betelnut

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I was raised by my Sri Lankan Tamil maternal grandparents, and among my various cultural heirlooms comes that famously recognizable accent. That conversation-stopping, glint-in-the-eye, connotations-stirring, “Yaarlpanam-ah?” accent. The one my mother, in her less matriotic moments, tries to pass for Malayali. That political, poetic, deeply personal dialect that I call my mother tongue.

As fiercely in love as I am with this tongue, I have had to rein it in. Living in Chennai and having to haggle with auto drivers on a daily basis does that to you – do you have any idea how much they charge otherwise? I learnt to imitate the coarser rhythms of Madras Tamil out of the need for defense – like a stereotypical Ceylonese, I keep my allegiances close but my wallet closer still.

Still, it’s an accent that never fails to surprise me. The affirmative om that perks up in place of the ama I’ve conditioned myself to use in India. The fact that I cannot bring myself to use the personal nee when the neenga I am used to is just that much more pleasingly polite, and somehow, to my ears, more intimate. My accent gives me away when I least expect it to, like a blush-inducing pinch that makes sure I don’t forget. Just like how my v’s and w’s mix when I argue in English, any Tamil conversation in which I wholly participate is jazzed up (or if you’ll excuse the blatant exoticism, baila-d up) with my real accent. The one I had before I knew it was an accent.

My accent is too pretty to make fun of, I think. But some of my island-inflected vocabulary isn’t.

When I was 18, I spent half a year living with my local grandmother. Bless her, for she tried her best to take care of this half-and-half foreign-returnee. I think her patience was sorely tested by a few incidents in the kitchen (which is not called quisine here – sigh!), in particular.

I wanted some paan, I told her once, incurring her disdain. Paan, as far as I knew, was bread. Paan, as far as she knew, was betelnut. Not getting the hint, I tried to describe a sandwich. Finally, a wave of clarity broke upon her face and she exclaimed, “You mean roti!”. But roti, as far as I knew, was what’s known here as the Malabar paratha.

Equally flummoxing was when I asked for kochikai (chilli, to the Ceylonese). “What you mean”, someone corrected me, is “mizhagai“. “No”, I insisted. “That’s pepper!”

But the linguistic faux pas that I didn’t stop using until literally months ago is the one that takes the cake.

Grand old Ceylonese ammammas, at least in my experience, greet children by grabbing their chins, sniffing both cheeks, and muttering in rapturous tones, “Enda kunju!” Or (once again, to show you how little I knew), “my little one”. Fancying myself a grand young Ceylonese lady, it’s a term of endearment I also use to embellish my speech.

Imagine my glee and horror when my very irate sister informed me recently that kunju, as far as Indian Tamil is concerned, means penis.

So don’t blame me for my dirty mind. It’s genetic.

I love that my Ceylonese accent gives me away, because years and years from the first home of my childhood in Colombo, not so far away at all from losing my grandparents, it’s one of my dearest possessions. An accent like the surprise of sweet in mango pickle, I wrote in a poem once. So leave me to my broken Tamil and my quaintly scandalous expressions in it. It’s one of the few ways that I know how to love and remember love.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.