Saturday, November 05, 2005

Tea, Languages And Me

The local news channel recently showed the profile of a 9-year-old kid who spoke three languages - English, French, and German. I felt like shouting at the TV. That's news?

Canadians have an issue with bilingualism. The politicians have to be bilingual, to speak in both English and French. Almost all government positions require bilingualism, even if you are going to be a computer programmer and the only languages you need to know are Java, C and so on.

So I always manage to drop jaws when asked the number of languages I can speak.


Ok, let's do the recount.

Bengali. One. That's a no-brainer.

English. Two. I live in English Canada.

Hindi. Three. Ok, now the white Canadians in my office are already impressed. One replies he had a hard time learning two (English, his native, and French, forced at school). He speaks only one (English).

All except the guy from Bratislava. He said he also knows three languages. English. His mother tongue from Slovakia. And Serbian. But I am not done.

Urdu. Four. None of these guys needs to know how similar Urdu and Hindi are. If you watch Bollywood movies you know two languages. Hindi and Urdu.

Now, if I am feeling slightly adventurous, I will add ...

Punjabi. Five. Yup. The language spoken in Punjab, India. Never mind that many words of the Punjabi I know are very similar to Hindi or sound like Tusi, maar jawe gur khaken.

And now you are already into wow territory. And you can then add ...

Arabic. Six. We're Muslims. We need to know a little Arabic. No one needs to know how little. That's it. The ball has been hit out of the park. Six languages.

And then you add the clincher.

"Um.. most Bengalis I know are similarly qualified. English, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu most know, and then Arabic too." [and it's true]. The other guys are already shaking their heads.

Maybe I should call the news. They have been reporting on mediocricity for some time.

CBC: Centilingual Canadians

* * *

Remember the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who said any English word can be traced to Greek? Well, I recently asked a Greek gent who serves tea at our office what the Greek word for tea was. He said "Chai".

The guy from Bratislava then said, "That's what we call tea."

Greek guy [joking]: "You must have taken it from Greek then."

Me: "We must have taken it too, cause that's what we call tea - cha."

I did some research (google) and came up with the astounding fact that tea is known by only two words in almost all languages.

"Two pronunciations have made their way into languages around the world. One is 'te' which comes from the Min Nan dialect spoken around the port of Xiamen (Amoy). The other is 'cha', used by the Cantonese dialect spoken around the ports of Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong, as well as in the Mandarin dialect of northern China. Yet another different pronunciation is 'zoo', used in the Wu dialect spoken around Shanghai.

Languages that have Te derivatives include Armenian, Danish, Dutch ('thee'), English ('tea'), Finnish, Estonian ('Tee'), Faroese, French, German ('Tee'), Hebrew, Hungarian ('tea'), Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian ('tè'), Latvian, Malay, Norwegian, Polish (herbata from Latin herba the), Singhalese, Spanish, Swedish ('te'), Tamil ('thè'), Yiddish, and scientific Latin.

Those that use Cha or "Chai" derivatives include Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian,Bangla, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hindi,Urdu Japanese ('cha'), Korean, Nepali ('chia'), Persian, Portuguese ('chá'), Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak Slovene, Swahili, Tagalog, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish (çay), Malayalam,and Vietnamese ('trà ' and 'chè' are both direct derivatives of the Chinese, the latter term is treated as indigenous)."

The other word, or sound, to enjoy such universal commonality is 'mother'. All languages have the 'mm' sound in their word for mother. A coworker replied it's because the first word sound a baby makes is 'mmmm' and the first caveman, who was probably a smart fellow, looked at the baby, heard the 'mmm' sound, looked at the mother, and said, "Oh he wants you."

From then on the 'mmm' sound is associated with mothers.



Shabina said...

Salams, uhh...I don't think it's fair to count Urdu and Hindi as different languages. Punjabi and Bengali, maybe. :)

kuffir said...

hi mezba..hope you had a mubarak eid. the word for tea in my language(telugu) is theneeru.. but everybody asks for tea or chai instead.