Why we speak in euphemisms

“If you could pass the salt, that would be awesome” is better than “Pass the salt” some times. “Would you like to go out for a drink with me?” is better than “Do you want to have sex with me?” at other times.

We speak in such euphemisms because, Steven Pinker explains, language is meant to do two things at once. First it needs to convey content. Second it helps to maintain a social relationship.

Using euphemism, one party can indirectly convey content when making a request and the other party can accept or decline requests, while still maintaining the social relationship. Both parties understand without directly acknowledging the said change in relationship.

Shellfish and the human revolution

About 50,000 years ago, modern humans left Africa and began occupying the rest of the world. The common thought is that a sudden growth in population caused the so-called “human revolution”, which gave birth to language, art, and culture as we know it today. Now, based on something that’s not obviously related to human culture—the size of shellfish fossils—researchers have challenged that model.

Shellfish size may disprove cause of ‘human revolution’. The Conversation, 27 June 2013. Also published on Ars Technica.

Image credit: Breville

The Hinglish project

A decade ago, the government of India launched a tourism campaign called Incredible India, and over the years critics have praised its posters and videos. The annual $6m spent on the campaign probably gets paid back to the country many times over. (Foreign-exchange earnings from tourism in India stood at $14.2 billion in 2010.) Yet the campaign’s most recent attempt at demystifying the Hindi language for foreigners—the Hinglish Project—is a bit of a mess.

Of course “Hinglish”, a portmanteau of “Hindi” and “English”, has already been used for some time, to describe the hybrid language that many Indians use naturally. It is spoken so commonly that your correspondent, like many others who grew up in a city in India, sometimes doesn’t realise that he has used an English word while speaking in Hindi. With the large number of English loanwords, even non-Hindi-speakers can often figure out what someone is talking about. Try

मेरे boss ने मुझे एक assignment दी थी. लेकिन मैं उसे complete नहीं कर पाया.

You probably figured out the context, and if you had heard the intonations while someone said this, you would also know that he couldn’t finish that assignment.

But the Hinglish Project has nothing to do with this hybrid language. The website explains:

To make our country a little more familiar to you, we present ‘The Hinglish Project’. Through this unique font design, you can tell the phonetic sound of a Hindi character by looking at the corresponding Roman letter superimposed on it. Hindi is written in the Devanagiri script, which has many more characters than the English alphabet. This font, then, cannot teach you how to read words as they are spelt in Hindi, but its aim is to demystify individual letters in its script and make India more approachable. Despite the superficial distinctiveness of English and Hindi, the two borrow from the same phonetic pool – the Indo-European group of languages, the largest linguistic group in the world. This typeface design playfully highlights these commonalities. To quote a now-popular phrase, “We’re same same, but different!”

The Hinglish Project

Earlier in the year, the project won a gold medal for Consumer Services and a bronze medal for Design Typography at the Cannes Lions, dubbed “the Oscars of the advertising industry”. The design may well tickle those interested in interesting fonts, but as a practical matter, it is likely to end up unused in the free booklets handed out to tourists.

As the makers of the font make it clear, it cannot be used to construct a meaningful word if you begin knowing only English. Nor can it be used to decode most Hindi words. As the official explanation acknowledges, Hindi has many more than 26 letters. Some of them are conjunct consonants (ka and sha make क्ष = ksh) that cannot be superimposed on any English letter. The written script also uses “matra”, “bindu” and “chandrabindu”, the Hindi equivalent of diacritic marks, to modify the way the letters are used. So even if a user could memorise which Hindi squiggles correspond to the proper Roman-letter squiggles, he will still be unable to sound most words out phonetically. It’s a little like giving a motorist lost in Delhi a map of the city’s footpaths, and even at that, not all of them.  It’s better than nothing, but not by much.

Your correspondent has a better solution. It so happens that he exploits the phonetic similarities of Hindi and English every day when he texts his family and friends in Hindi using the Roman alphabet. A simple list of common Hindi words with Roman transliterations and good English translations would be much more useful to tourists in India than what is, in effect, a clever optical illusion.

First published on economist.com.

The humble lexicographer

I’ve previously written about my opinion on seeking work with the aim of making an impact on the world. I believe that, while considering career options, that criterion must be given weight, but not too much. This struck me when I realised that, in my own search for a career, I had been focusing on making an impact more than I should have, and it was causing me distress.

Any attempt to change one’s belief systems, even if the change is minuscule, requires a certain amount of persistence. Changing one’s perspective, although not quite as drastic as learning the rules of physics all over again, needs sustained efforts. To be able to bring about the change, as my maths teacher once said while teaching calculus, requires that the idea to be drilled into your head.

Samuel Johnson

In an attempt to do that, I am going to try and share some stories from the past about people who believed in doing the work, regardless of the impact it would eventually have on the world. The first story is that of Samuel Johnson, who produced the first reliable dictionary of the English language.

The first dictionary of the English language was written by an English schoolteacher in 1604, with 2500 words in it. But in 1741, David Hume lamented that the language has been neglected by scholars, and there is no ‘Dictionary of our Language’, probably because what was was published till then was merely a ‘word-book’, not a dictionary in the true sense of the word.

Oxford English Dictionary says a dictionary is: A book which explains or translates, usually in alphabetical order, the words of a language, giving for each word its typical spelling, an explanation of its meaning or meanings, and often other information, such as pronunciation, etymology, synonyms, equivalents in other languages, and illustrative examples.

In the early 18th century, there seemed to be a number of dictionaries, but none that could set as the ‘standard of our language‘. In 1746, Johnson was contracted to write a dictionary. Despite not having completed his formal education at Oxford (because of lack of funds), he had proved himself to be a master of the English language and to be proficient at many others. He promised to complete the project in three years, which was a promising a little too much, given that the French, who had recently completed a dictionary of their language, had forty scholars working on it for forty years.

Such was the importance of the dictionary at the time that Oxford University awarded Johnson a Master of Arts degree in anticipation of the work. He worked tirelessly with only a few assistants, who were employed for mechanical work, and completed the task in nine years to produce the Dictionary.

Although Johnson was aware of the importance of his work, in his preface to the dictionary, he wrote:

Of the event of this work, for which, having laboured it with so much application, I cannot but have some degree of parental fondness, it is natural to form conjectures. Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design , require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

He died in 1784, less than 30 years after the publication of the Dictionary, and would not have known that, for the next 150 years, his dictionary would remain the English-language standard.