How do languages in Southasia speak to one another? This is the question driving Himal’s new series Dialectical, which explores the region’s languages, their connections, their shared histories, and perhaps their futures. From phonology to pejoration, semiotics to semantics, dialects to diglossia, our resident experts on Southasian languages will provide social, political and historical insights on the subtle intricacies, and at times the absurdities, of the languages in the region. Like all things at Himal, these articles will not stop at borders, natural or artificial, but will tell stories of peoples and cultures, wherever they lead.
~ The Editors
A lot has changed since the onset of COVID-19 more than a year ago. The pandemic has altered our lives in many ways. It has led to economic and social disruption but one of the lesser-discussed aspects of this disruption is the pandemic’s lexical impact on our languages.
Southasia is home to one-fourth of the world’s population. As the pandemic unfolded in this linguistically diverse region, many languages spoken here had to adapt to the sudden influx of neologisms and scientific terminology. This new language of COVID-19 turned out to be necessary to convey essential advice to the public in a timely and effective manner.
From ‘social distancing’ and ‘quarantine’ to ‘flattening the curve’ and ‘super-spreaders’, speakers of Southasian languages were suddenly confronted with new as well as obscure scientific terms in their everyday speech. To understand these terms fully and easily, it became imperative to adapt them to the various mother tongues spoken in the region.
In most cases, English remains the model language for this linguistic change. Take the example of the word ‘social distancing’; it was initially a confusing word for many people. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “The action or practice of maintaining a certain physical distance from, or limiting physical contact with, another person or people…in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease…” Its adaption in diverse languages of the region led to some interesting results with almost each language loan-translating it from the source language English, and using at least one Indic origin word for ‘social’. The following table indicates the equivalent of social distancing in some of the languages of Southasia.
Another interesting word is ‘quarantine’, which is either translated in various Southasian languages using indigenous words or borrowed with nativised pronunciation. Nevertheless, for people translating this word, it was necessary to note that quarantine and isolation are not the same.
While many terms like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilator, sanitiser, lockdown, etc, became part of our everyday conversation, mahāmārī, a word for a pandemic in many Southasian languages, witnessed a sort of revival after years of peace in the Subcontinent. This word is made up of two words mahā (great) + mārī (pestilence; related to Sanskrit mārikā). Another word that has seen new life among many people in India is kāṛhā (an Ayurvedic drink prepared with certain herbs and spices) that became an alternative homemade immunity booster in the absence of any cure or vaccine against COVID-19 infections.
Although each Southasian language had existing words for the word ‘mask’ such as mukamūṭi (in Tamil), or mukhāvaraṇ or naqāb (in Hindi / Urdu), the English loanword māsk was preferred over the existing words, perhaps because of their cultural baggage, and the emergence of this new milieu of use. Similarly, when 2021 began with approvals of vaccines to protect against COVID-19, and mass inoculation campaigns rolling out across the world, the native words for ‘vaccine’ have also seen a phenomenal increase in their usage, eg, ‘las’ in Marathi, ṭīkā in Hindi / Urdu / Punjabi / Bengali, etc. Tīkā, in its literal sense, means a mark. Still, it was also specifically used as a ‘mark’ resulting from a procedure of variolation done by ṭīkādārs who practised it to immunise persons against smallpox (Variola). The word ṭīkā is related to Sanskrit ṭikkikā (white mark on horse’s head). ‘Las’ for vaccine in Marathi is also of interesting origin. It is related to Sanskrit lasīkā (serum, pus, lymph, etc) in medical terminology.
The lexical innovation reached a new height when policymakers of the Indian government coined a full form for ‘corona’ (written as koronā in Hindi) as koī roḍ pe nā nikle (nobody should come out on roads), urging citizens to follow lockdown protocols. On the other hand, existing words from Southasian languages acquired alternative meanings in the new jargon of COVID-19. The following table compares the names of various digital contact tracing apps used in the region, which ascribed new functions to existing words.
In a post-pandemic world, with pervasive work from home (WFH) and almost everybody Zooming, FaceTiming, or attending Google Meets, our linguistic exposure is no longer limited to our friends, co-workers, or neighbours, and this could lead to unimaginable changes in how we speak our languages.