Mind your language!

shutterstock_807011292 image denoting languagesThere 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!

About Deepti Nalavade Mahule

Originally from India, I reside in California, where I spend time developing software, feeding books to my two children and submitting my short fiction. View samples of my writing on — https://deeptiwriting.wordpress.com/
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6 Responses to Mind your language!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Deepti – I am yet to read the post but the first thing that came to my head when i read the title was that yeah … its a pain switching from one language to another.. but here I was thinking about moving between python and php !!… coming to the real languages .. its really funny within indian languages too – like if you live around tamil ppl ‘chumma’ is so commonly used that you keep wondering why do these guys want to kiss so much … chumma is ‘just like that’ in tamil . Similarly, ‘kulla’ means gargle in punjabi/hindi and it means ones backside in gujarati ! – there are so many of these between gujarati and marathi that.. I think I have learned to go beyond the embarrassment 🙂 … Keep writing its always refreshing.

    • Switching between programming languages needs some getting used to as well and has its own enjoyable moments 🙂 I recently moved from Perl to Java.

      The ‘chumma’ and ‘kulla’ (also used in Marathi) confusions are so funny! 😀 It is good that you go beyond the embarrassment while enjoying a quiet, personal laugh since it is what it is after all!
      And thank you for your encouragement for me to keep writing!

  2. swaldchen says:

    Nice article, thank you. I speak four languages myself and have switched countries various times. So has my sister. When we speak to each other, we really use quite a mix to the point that people must wonder what on earth we are talking about. But the brain just throws out what comes first. It’s an actual effort to only speak one language properly, without mixing anything else in. Some people might think it’s ‘showing off’, but it’s not at all. In fact, it’s a lazy way of speaking.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Although outsiders may have different reactions, for the people who are part of the communication, it is nothing out of the ordinary even if it is a mix – that’s the magic of mutual understanding of a language! I have learned Spanish and German in addition to what is taught at school or spoken in India – English, Hindi and the regional language Marathi. I totally understand how the brain would just pick up a word to speak at random among a bunch of languages it knows; there is so much variety!

  3. biblioglobal says:

    As an American who hears Marathi spoken on the phone quite often, this post definitely made me laugh. And I laughed again the next time I hear “fakta” spoken on the phone.

    You shouldn’t feel awkward about it though! People will know that you are speaking another language.

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