February 27, 2011

Voices from the past

Sohini Chattopadhyay reports in OPEN Magazine (26 February, 2011) that the records of India’s first and only Linguistic Survey, conducted by the British Raj over 1914-29, are now available on the internet, thanks to Shahid Amin, professor of history at Delhi University.
The professor is an impatient man, with a penchant for audacious projects. “This is incredible material, I didn’t want it to lie in some stuffy library in the West where only research scholars could access it. The people who really know these languages might be living in a village,” says Amin. So he proposed that the gramophone records be digitised, all 242 of them, and put up on the net where everyone could access it.

Six years later, with the help of a US federal grant, the University of Chicago and his own resourcefulness, Amin’s big idea has materialised: http://dsal.uchicago.edu/lsi/ has all 242 gramophone recordings, categorised by the language group it belongs to, the year and place of recording. And it’s free, open to all.
The original intent behind the recordings was to help train new entrants to the Indian Civil Service, but under George A. Grierson of the LSI, the project was expanded in scope to become a more ambitious survey. As a result, the audio clips now available online include such treasures as the only extant recordings of the lost art of Dastangoi, as practiced by the legendary story-teller Mir Baqar Ali. Here's the Delhi dastango, narrating a story in Urdu.

Ass Backwards

Save the Words is a website from the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary, dedicated to saving underused words from extinction: words such as graviloquence and pigritude and squiriferous, that you are encouraged to adopt and re-introduce to the English language. As the examples I've cited illustrate,  there's a preponderance of leaden, faux-literate words here - these are the lumbering tuataras of the linguistic world, and I, for one, would rather see them waddle into oblivion. I think someone should instead make an effort to rescue certain racy Indian terms that have fallen into disuse. I'd like to make a start on the project by nominating a colourful expression I found recently in Joseph Thompson's A dictionary of Oordoo and English. Here's the entry from the dictionary, courtesy Google Books:

Gand ghalat (literally, 'ass-wrong') is the word here, defined as 'dead stupid' (the comma in the excerpt above has to be an error). Several other dictionaries from the nineteenth century present gand ghalat as a synonym for being out of one's wits, fuddled, or dead-drunk. The latter meaning can be found in John Gilchrist's Hindee moral preceptor, published in 1821, and Duncan Forbes' A dictionary, Hindustani and English.
Given its ubiquity in colonial-era dictionaries, gand ghalat must have been a very useful expression for the British in India. When I first encountered the term, I imagined red-faced Tommies and irate mofussil officials (or should that be mofussials?) muttering it under their breath as they contended with the baffling, plain-ass ghalat realities of an alien land.  But maybe I was dead wrong in picturing mad dogs and Englishmen sweltering in the mid-day sun, and the expression is meant to be used in more pleasant circumstances. Maybe it describes how you end up when the booze addles your brains to the point where you can't stand straight, and you topple over to land on your sorry ass. There you are in the gutter, gand ghalat.