There are around 6900 distinct languages in the world. Being able to speak and understand every one of them is impossible. Still, it feels like a major handicap when you are in the company of people who are babbling in a tongue you cannot decipher. But if by chance, your ears catch a familiar word and your mind manages to decipher the meaning as you know it in the language you understand, it feels momentarily like you have managed to find one puzzle piece that fits into a huge incomplete jigsaw spread out before you.
But what if that word is not what you thought it means? What if it has a very different meaning from that in the language that you know? It also becomes embarrassing for the speaker to realize that the accidental listener might have interpreted that word in a way which the speaker never intended it to!
These days, I have such feelings of awkwardness after I talk on the phone in my mother tongue ‘Marathi’ where I can be overheard. This is specifically because I currently do not live in Maharashtra but in the United States. We have one word which has a completely innocent meaning in our language but which sounds similar to a standard swear word in English. Which word is that?
That word which means ‘only’ in Marathi is ‘fakta’ (pronounced ‘fuck-ta’ with a soft ‘t’)!
It is used so many times in a normal conversation, that every time I hang up the phone after speaking to someone in my native language, I look around furtively like a government spy fearing her conversation being overheard. I wonder who all around me have unintentionally overheard my conversation and without comprehending anything else (except for so many of the English words we now inevitably use when speaking in Marathi), picked up that one particular cuss word they thought they kept hearing!
And there’s still more … the word ‘lavkar’! It means ‘fast’ or ‘hurry up’ in Marathi. People from parts of India other than my Marathi-speaking state who did not know it before have entertained me with their reactions and misunderstandings on coming across it. When broken up, it becomes: ‘love’ + ‘kar’ (‘kar’ means ‘to do’ in Hindi)! Or there is ‘undee’ which means ‘eggs’ but an unenlightened person might mistake it for ‘undie’ – slang for underwear!
So until the device implanted in our brains that does automatic translation of any language falling on human ears is invented in the future, we have to wait patiently behind the screen of unknown tongues while our poor brain keeps misinterpreting words to either funny or disastrous consequences!