Monday, January 18, 2016

Trying to learn Tamil

I'm drawn to the East for so many reasons. The soft and harsh beauty of the place, all of it heartbreaking. The gentleness and refinement of our guesthouse. The complexity of human geography out here. The stress on geography shouldn't be "geo." It should be "human." And the human equation means language. So there's no excuse. I just have to dig in and learn a bit of Tamil. 

What a great language it is. Spoken on the street it sounds like bullets flying. The quick staccato of each sentence, a heated cadence of discourse and command from the mouths of smart, gentle people. I got the inspiration to ask my guesthouse staff to say a few words into my iPhone. I can practice that way. 

A cool thing about the recordings is that I can press "edit" and see the patterns of sound. I captured a couple of things that I find interesting in the language, revealed by these patterns. First, the staccato sharpness. Can you see the first and third words, uhrtr (eight) and pahtr (ten) on either side of the soft ombudehr (nine)? Now if only I can remember them.

Another sound to the language is the very frequent, barely pronounced "r" sound at the end and elsewhere in so many words. It's a sort of swallowed "r," somewhere between a gurgle and a growl. You seem to have to swallow your tongue to achieve it. Here are the numbers "one, two, three." They sound to me like "ondr, undr, mondr." Notice how each one tapers off at the end of the word. I just think it's cool to capture images of these words. You can almost "read" them. 

Here at our guesthouse it's almost always quiet. The ground crew go about their business day in and day out mostly making noise with their machinery. The well-oiled kitchen operation is the same. You hear pots and pans and sounds like grinding coconut but you barely hear a word. The front office staff, who are pretty much under constant assault working tirelessly for guests' comfort, operates far out of their own comfort zone in a world of demands, questions, and hurried negotiations. I think but I can't tell for sure that they appreciate our quieter, less rushed approach. And we've been here long enough that they can pretty well anticipate our modest requests. 

But yesterday and today the Thavarajahs are in Colombo and the eruption of voices is marvelous. There's no fighting going on but you wouldn't know it. There is a pretty steady raising of voices, good natured but surprising in its occasional loudness, that's lasted most of the day. I bet it will clamp down the moment the owners drive up the front gate. 

When the serving boys here learned I was trying to pick up Tamil they were shy at first, but then took great pleasure in recording their voices for me. We have to do much more. Then came the flood of phrases. I guess they think I can speak and I'm just fooling them by playing dumb. Or maybe it's just them trying to teach me. It's incredibly prodding and encouraging but almost completely useless. It's like they're talking to a baby brother, an intelligent looking toddler who might understand if only they spoke directly enough and loudly enough right in his face. I can only stare blankly because there's no explaining or even miming what they're trying to get across. 

Finally there was the slightly older Ravi, whose voice is featured in many of my counting recordings. His diction is excellent and straightforward and his English is also slightly better than the boys'. He came to me the other day, apologetically. "Please don't upset you, sir," he started, after I had asked him to teach me how to say, "I have a question." "But I have a question. Hope you won't be angry." "Of course not," I stared at him with the widest most reassuring smile I could muster." "Why you want study Tamil, sir?" 

Because I'm here. 

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