The challenge of evolving vernacular lexicons

BY JENCY SAMUEL| IN Regional Media | 26/02/2014
What is the equivalent of fly ash in Tamil? Or carbon sinks, or sustainable development? Whether reporting climate change or malnutrition a vocabulary is needed,

“You should write an article about fly ash in Tamil,” an editor of a Tamil magazine told me recently when he learnt about a story that I was working on. I gave excuses which sounded lame even to me. The truth was that I did not know the Tamil equivalent of the very word fly ash!

Though I have been writing in my mother tongue -- Tamil -- for a while, writing developmental stories in Tamil is not easy. More so in the case of analytical pieces; for example, there were no words to distinguish between ‘underweight’, ‘stunted’ and ‘wasted’ while writing a malnutrition story.

The difficulty in reporting developmental issues becomes more complicated with emerging issues such as climate change. While getting column space for climate reporting in vernacular dailies is the first difficulty, the second one is in explaining the science of climate change in a language that the common man will understand.

Claims that each language is a vast repertory of terms that has equivalents for all English words do not hold water as terms such as climate refugees, sequestration, sustainable development and carbon sinks have come to be coined and used only in the recent past. The list is quite long. Where the linguists lag behind is in coining new vernacular equivalents. In the absence of apt vernacular words, one has to resort to lengthy explanations. Some resort to mentioning the English terms and their transcriptions in brackets, in addition to the vernacular explanation.

As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, the dictionary prepared by Centre for Development of Tamil in Engineering and Technology, a wing of Anna University, Chennai pertains more to engineering curriculum than to development technology or environmental science.

Some nature and language enthusiasts conversant in English and who wish to give vernacular readers access to quality developmental reports try to coin new words. But most often words such as carbon footprint, greenhouse gases and climate resilience are literal translations of the English terms that a reader who does not know English will not be able to understand the same. In such a case, one has to be educated and know English to comprehend climate change issues that are going to affect his livelihood. For it is often those at the bottom rung that are affected most by climate change and need to understand the related problems.

During a climate reporting workshop, Athar Parvaiz, a journalist from Kashmir mentioned that even the educated will not be able to understand if he were to use terms such as aalami inhitat and aab-o-hawa ki tabdulee for global warming and climate change respectively. Similarly Probir Bidhan of the Dhaka Tribune said that jalabayu pariborton used to denote climate change is too general a word to indicate the exact meaning.

As society, culture and technology evolve so should language. There is a need to come up with a vernacular vocabulary of words that are not only easily understandable, but also convey the meaning. Till such time, as Sujit Mainali of the Telegraph Weekly, Nepal, suggested, one can take recourse to writing about rain, food production and health concerns that will be adversely affected by climate change.

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