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Quick thought: Loanwords from one language to another

Something I’ve noticed when studying languages is that loanwords from that language in English don’t always mean the same thing in the donor language as they do in English.

An example: “jungle” comes from a Hindustani word meaning forest. In India, a jungle could be any forest—from the dense tropical forests that the name connotes in English, to the thorn-forests of central India, or even the coniferous forests of the foothills of the Himalaya.

I think we can all agree that this is a jungle.

I think we can all agree that this is a jungle. (Garo Hills, Meghalaya)

But what about this? It is a jungle in Hindi but not English. (Himachal Pradesh)

But what about this? It is a jungle in Hindi but not English. (Himachal Pradesh)

Another example: “sombrero” is of course a word that American English has picked up from Mexican Spanish, but again the word has a broader meaning in the donor language than in English. For English-speakers north of the border, a sombrero is a particularly Mexican kind of hat, with a very broad brim. But south of the border, a sombrero is any kind of hat—or at least, any kind of hat with a brim.

Now that is what I would call a sombrero. (Emiliano Zapato from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that is what I would call a sombrero. (Emiliano Zapata from Wikimedia Commons)

The hat your blogger is wearing is a sombrero in Spanish but not English. (Teotiuhuacán, Estado de México)

The hat your blogger is wearing is a sombrero in Spanish but not English. (Teotiuhuacán, Estado de México)

I think of the adoption of loanwords as a bit like technology transfer: the meaning of the word changes as it moves from one language to the next, just as the form and function of a technology have to change to fit the recipient culture.

In the case of both jungle and sombrero, the meaning of the word in English is linked to the culture that the word came from. India has its share of dense tropical forests, and Mexico has—or at least had—many of the traditional wide-brimmed hats. English already had a generic word for forest and hat, but it was in the market for a specific word to represent forests in (parts of) India and hats in Mexico.

Bollywood over the Bay

Earlier this year, while driving someplace in the San Francisco Bay Area and scanning on her car radio, my sister-in-law stumbled across Bolly 92.3, a station playing Bollywood music. Even though she had no idea what the lyrics were saying, she thought the music sounded cheery and left the radio tuned to that station.

Bolly 92.3 was the first dedicated Bollywood music station I had ever heard of in the United States, so I was eager to listen to it once I’d learned about it. I got my chance when my brother and I drove from San Francisco to Death Valley in February. We listened to Bolly 92.3 as long as we could, until we drove out of range of the station. In the hour or so before we lost the signal, we heard a range of songs in different styles. I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but I did recognize the musical styles, which included:

  • Movie tunes with harmonium and tablas, and rich Hindustani lyrics. (Hindustani was the common language across North India before Partition, part Hindi and part Urdu.)
  • Hip-hop with simple and dumb lyrics, and a liberal application of autotune.
  • Indie music with guitars and strings, and Hindi lyrics.
  • Romantic nineties movie songs with tablas, flutes, and echoing (and shrill) female vocals.
  • Dance songs with synth and tabla, and very repetitive lyrics.

Bolly 92.3 is a commercial station, and the breaks between every few songs featured advertisements for law firms, realty agencies, and other businesses owned by Indian-Americans in the Bay Area. (Later, my sister-in-law also heard an ad for a stove hood designed to handle the high levels of frying demanded by Indian cuisine.)

For all the diversity of Indian culture, Bollywood is an overpowering, omnipresent cultural monolith, and Bollywood music is part of the background noise of the Indian environment. Spend any time in India, and you will find the same songs following you wherever you go: booming across the neighborhood from marriage gardens, thumping from taxi and bus radios, or playing tinnily from mobile phones at tea stalls or in train coaches. Some megahit songs have a limited shelf life, and are played over and over and over again before disappearing. (There was a time last year when I thought my head would explode if I ever heard this song or this song again.) Other songs are evergreens, enjoying decades of popularity (like this one and this one).

From all the exposure I’ve had to Bollywood music (willing and otherwise), I was surprised not to recognize any of the songs I heard on Bolly 92.3. If I listened long enough, I’d surely hear something I knew. But just my short experience illustrates an important truth: diaspora communities are never the same as the parent culture. Not only do the Indian-Americans of the Bay Area have to adapt to American culture by driving minivans and living in tract housing, they also have a different relationship with Indian culture, for the simple reason that they are not in India.

When it comes to relating to their traditional cultures, members of a diaspora are sometimes more conservative. As the parent culture changes, emigrants try to freeze their culture in the same state that it was in when they left. This is why (as I am told) Gujaratis in Gujarat are content to use costume jewelry at their weddings, but Gujaratis in East Africa would never dream of using anything but gold.

There may be some of this cultural conservatism among Indian-Americans of the Bay Area, and this may in part explain why I didn’t recognize any of the songs on Bolly 92.3. But diasporic communities need not stay frozen in the past, either. They can continue to develop their traditional cultures on their own lines, parallel to but separate from the parent culture. This is happening for Indians in North America; in Toronto, at least, there is a big Punjabi hip-hop industry. Toronto music has even made its way back to India, and not just Punjab. I once spent more than an hour watching surreal music videos from Toronto in a restaurant in Assam, of all places.

Jugaad-spotting in eastern Rajasthan

A jugaad truck in a market town in Sawai Madhopur district, Rajasthan.

A jugaad truck in a market town in Sawai Madhopur district, Rajasthan.

The word “jugaad” has several meanings in the Hindi language. In some contexts, the word can mean informal or improvised repair of something. Another meaning of the word is the use of some object in a manner that the creators did not intend. When a mechanic uses shampoo in place of brake fluid, he is performing jugaad. When mustard oil cans are flattened out and shaped into the door of a hut, this too is jugaad.

In eastern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, “jugaad” has an additional definition: trucks that are produced by local craftsmen in village and town workshops, not in factories.

Jugaads do not have automobile engines. Instead, they use pumps, which were originally designed to draw water out of borewells to irrigate crops. The designers of the pumps did not intend for their products to be used in automobiles. But just as these pumps can draw water out of wells, they can also drive a vehicle.

I recently got the chance to take a close look at one of these pumps in its natural habitat, when I visited some friends’ village near the border of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. My friends took me to their fields outside of the village and showed me their pump, which was situated in the corner of a wheatfield. The pump did not have a starter motor; it was started by a hand crank that was stashed under some bushes. Once the pump started running, it began to shoot out a stream of clear, cool ground-water. It also produced a foul-smelling cloud of diesel fumes.

In addition to the pump-engines, jugaads are made of other parts gathered from various sources, including wheels, a steering wheel, and a radiator. Jugaads usually do not have any headlights or signaling lights. They never have license plates or registration papers. Since they are unregistered, the government cannot collect taxes on them. But even though they are unregistered, the government is aware of them, and has made laws about them on a district by district basis. Unregistered vehicles are technically illegal, but several district governments have decided that since jugaads are important in the agrarian economy of the district, jugaad production and use shall continue unimpeded. In eastern Rajasthan’s Dausa, Karauli, and Sawai Madhopur districts, jugaads are a common sight. They are especially evident in towns where farmers use them to bring their crops to market.

In other districts, jugaads nowhere to be seen. I have heard that they were banned in Bharatpur district two or three years ago after a jugaad crashed into a school bus, killing several children. The district council then understandably decided to ban jugaads for safety reasons. Jugaads are also rare sights in Jaipur district, and I have never seen even a single jugaad in Jaipur city. A co-passenger on a bus from Bharatpur to Jaipur once told me that there are no jugaads in Jaipur because the city government has banned them since their pump-engines produce so much pollution. As interesting as I find jugaads, I am glad they are not in Jaipur. The city’s traffic is bad enough with all of its cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and especially motorcycles, not to mention bicycles and camel-carts.

(For a more detailed analysis of the multiple meanings of “jugaad,” please see my post “The Mystique of Jugaad.”)

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