Tormod is Amitabh

In case of confusion I should stress that my title here is in Gaelic, not English – “Norman and Amitabh”. I seek to link these two Living Legends, not fuse them into a single identity. The parallels are interesting. Although in numerical terms Gaelic and Hindi fall off opposite ends of the speaker population scale, each of these men, whatever the ups and downs in his life, may be considered a unique iconic figure in his own linguistic and cultural environment.

People take different views of the project to make Hindi the de facto as well as de jure “official language of India”, an act of linguistic self-assertiveness that followed Independence, but surely few would contest the major role Hindi cinema has played in spreading mass exposure to Hindi speech throughout the country and beyond. And there’s still no bigger Bollywood name than Amitabh Bachchan, or should I say अमिताभ बच्चन.

Gaelic can now also claim some quasi-constitutional status and protection in Scotland. How that affects its longterm future remains to be seen. But to the extent that cultural “product” (television, stand-up comedy, traditional music, contemporary literature) has any role in revitalising the language, then the multi-talented Norman Maclean (Tormod MacGill-Eain) can look back on a lifetime of creativity, and surely reflect that he’s put in as good a shift as any.

Heroes of post-imperial language struggles, then? Well indeed, maybe so, particularly if you like a lot of eggs in your polemical pudding. But let’s not simply construe this as a battle to repel English language hegemony. In a war over your preferred monolingualism there can only be one winner, whereas these guys are multicompetent, both artistically and linguistically.

To the point then. Followers of the Island Voices project may already be aware of this piece recorded last year – Norman speaking to Archie Mackay about his arrival back in Uist, after a low point in his life.

The transcript with translation is available via this link. I labelled it a “Gaelic interview”, but perhaps I might have called it bilingual, given the amount of English in there too.

Now take a look at this “Hindi interview” lifted from zoomdekho’s YouTube channel – Amitabh talking to Karan Johar about his recovery from severe injury after a filming accident.

An edited transcript with translation is available via this link, concentrating on the exchanges between the two principals. Once again the base language of the interview is peppered throughout with English language words, phrases, and complete sentences.

What’s my point? Well, both these figures have put in a lifetime’s work as highly prominent real world exponents of their respective mother tongues. To take a disparaging view of their very natural code-switching in conversation with other bilinguals is actually to miss out on the expanded creative and communicative options that bilingualism has brought them. Too often this kind of language mixing is negatively described as some kind of grammar-free shapeless mishmash, whereas a bit of careful analysis shows that it is indeed rule-governed and capable of enhanced creative effect and power. What Hindi does with English verbs is a model of simple, elegant productivity. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon. François Grosjean gives plenty more examples in his Psychology Today blog, including literary ones.

I’m going to resist the temptation to conclude with some thumpingly worthy message on what should or shouldn’t be done for the healthy growth of language X or Y. This piece is about revelling in real life language behaviour and creativity. I’m just pleased with the language choices I’ve made in my life, and thankful to have had the opportunity to appreciate all three featured here. Nach mi bha lucky! Benbecula to Bollywood, in the company of Tormod and Amitabh. Any volunteers to do that backwards – उल्टा दौड़के?


About Gordon Wells

Language learner and teacher (English, Gaelic, Hindi and Urdu). Interested in bilingualism and creativity. At home in the Hebrides.

Posted on 25/02/2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Another good example would be here in Malaysia, or at least Kuala Lumpur, where people who speak both English and Malay tend to mix them together quite liberally, often code-switching more than once in a single sentence.

    I think if Gaelic learners accept such a thing when in the presence of other bilingual English and Gaelic speakers, the Gaelic language can be kept more vibrant than if it is confined to certain narrow windows of use. I’m assuming native speakers already mix their languages a great deal, though surely there are also quite a few who don’t, so the above would apply to them as well.

  2. gordonwellsuist

    I remember having some very bright Malaysian students when I was working at Clydebank College. And yes, they would comfortably switch back and forth.

  3. Seonaidh Caimbeul

    Math thu Gordon airson ceanglan a tharraing eadar an dithis laoch sin.

    Agus eadar a’ Ghàidhlig agus Hindi/Urdu

    Bhot aacha shukriya.

    Seonaidh Caimbeul

    • gordonwellsuist

      Mòran taing dhut fhèin, a Sheonaidh. Saoil an sgrìobh thu ann an Devanagari an ath thuras? (Nas fhasa na shaoileadh tu an toiseach – faic seo.):-)

      • Tapadh leat Ghordon. Tha e coltach nach obraich e air Mac ge-tà.

        Chan eil Hindi gu leòr agam co-dhiù, gu mi-fhortanach. Me junglee he.

  4. Nobody can match Amitabh. Amitabh ruled the industry for 15 years (1973 to 1988) and he used to deliver 4 hits in one year. He had first flop “ganga jamuna saraswati” in 1989, after 15 years.

  1. Pingback: Macaroni: Rich Linguistic Fare « Gordon Wells's Weblog

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