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From Bol Chaal to Saoghal Thormoid


Co-writing “Hindi Urdu Bol Chaal” for BBC TV in the late eighties was a big and ambitious piece of work for me. Obviously a major lucky break, you might think it would be hard for an ageing one-time language teacher to cap that now. However, in terms of personal significance, I feel my latest recording venture, “Saoghal Thormoid” (“Norman’s World”), is certainly up there with it, albeit on a much more intimate scale.

hubcLooking back, and perhaps strange to relate, in many ways the former project set the latter up, being a first serious professional engagement with “community language” or “mother tongue” issues, especially in the context of recording technology and what it can potentially mean for one of my linguistic obsessions, the Primacy of Speech. Being filmed entirely in these islands, from London to Glasgow and at various points in-between, I also allowed myself to hope that we were doing something to challenge or subvert any complacent conceit that Britain is properly a “monolingual” country. Anyway, little did I imagine then, as a newly begun learner of Gaelic, that I would one day get to sit, chat, and record with the iconic Norman Maclean over an extended period as he chronicles a remarkable life and reflects upon it – and that in my own mother’s mother tongue, a language that, typologically, feels like it’s as far away as you can get from English while staying in the Indo-European “family”.

There’s plenty of laughter and entertainment along the way, of course, but it’s well worth listening to Norman for many other reasons than that: vividly recalled childhood memories of mid-Twentieth Century Glasgow and the Hebrides; open introspection on the community relations issues of those days, and their lingering effects; wide-ranging discussion of creative influences in music, literature, and popular entertainment; all brought right up to date with acute, and sometimes cutting, commentary on current affairs, but topped off with a generous commitment to the continued sharing of cultural gems. And all in language that I, as my mother’s son, can only describe as beautiful. Strange to think that, if he’d been sent just a few miles further north than Benbecula for his wartime primary education, she might have been one of his first teachers.

I really recommend giving the videos a shot (using the transcripts if necessary), but for those who prefer reading to listening, or perhaps enjoy both equally, either or both of these autobiographical works by Norman himself will provide fascinating parallel insights: The Leper’s Bell: The Autobiography of a Changeling and Eavesdropping on Myself: An Outsider’s Boyhood in Glasgow. But you’ll need to content yourself with English in order to access these written accounts!

مجھے اردو لکھنا نہیں آتا


اردو کیسے لکھی جاتی ہے؟ یہ تو میں نے کبھی نہیں سیکھا. بڑے افسوس کی بات ہے، کیونکہ میرے کچھ دوست ہیں جنکو اردو آتی ہے. اچھے بات ہوتی اگر میں انکو اسی زبان میں لکھ سکتاinput-tools

مگر کل میں نے ایک نیا تریکا سیکھ لیا، گوگل ٹرانسلیٹ اور گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کی مدد سے. پہلا قدم یہ ہے کہ میں، گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کا استمعال کر کے، اپنی چٹھی ہندی میں لکھوں. پھر میں کاپی اینڈ پیسٹ کر کے اس چٹھی کو گوگل ٹرانسلٹ میں رکھونگا، اردو میں ترجمہ کرنے کے لئے

ہندی اور اردو کافی نزدیک ہیں، اس لئے گوگل ٹراسلےٹ کی غلطیاں کچھ کم ہوں گی. پھر بھی ایک اور قدم کی ضرورت ہے. جو بھی اردو گوگل ٹراسلےٹہے سے نکل آتی ہے وہ تو میں پھر سے کاپی کرتا ہوں، اس ٹائم گوگل ان پٹ ٹولز کا استمعال کر کے. اس تریکے سے میں چیک کر سکتا ہوں کہ گوگل ٹراسلےٹ کا آؤٹ پٹ ٹھیکہ ہے

بس، اردو میں لکھی ہوئی چٹھی بن گی ہے. اپنے دوستوں کو بھیج سکتا ہوں

اور اردو میں جواب مل جائے تو؟ یہ تو دوسرا سوال ہے

The Sounds of Musics


Why do solfa and sargam have the same name for the supertonic? A common Indo-European linguistic root buried deep in the past, parallel evolution, or just plain coincidence? It’s this kind of question, once formed and lodged, that can keep you awake for hours…

Most people reading this will probably have heard “Doe, a deer, a female deer” enough times to know that it’s followed by “a drop of golden sun” – “ray” (or re, as it’s generally written in solfa), and can probably go all the way up to the “drink with jam and bread” (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti) that brings us back to do, do, do, do etc.

Compare and contrast with the Qawwali style of singing of North India and Pakistan, in which the lead singers launch into improvisations using the sargam system (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni). In this Coke Studio fusion piece you get a taste at 4 minutes in, and then again from 5.55 onwards when Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan set up a ma ma ga ga re re sa riff, and then let rip right through to the end.

So how is it that the second note, the supertonic, has the same name – re – in both systems?

Wikipedia tries to be our friend here, but doesn’t answer the question – though it does pose an alternative to the conventionally advanced explanation of the solfa terms, by comparing them with the Arabic system (dāl, rā’, mīm, fā’, ṣād, lām, tā’). A cursory glance establishes that the Arabic system appears to be much closer to solfa than to the Hindustani sargam, so perhaps we can pass over my vague Indo-European “language family history” idea – romantic in its own way, but overly fanciful, as so often the case…

While on the subject Wikipedia does also point out that there is also a “home-grown” Gaelic sort of equivalent here in Scotland in the form of canntaireachd.

And is the Scottish supertonic also “re”?

Well, no, it’s much more complicated than that, though Barnaby Brown, an early visitor to Ceòlas, evidently has a good handle on it in his notation guide, and has also been exploring Indian links. It turns out there are no easy answers to my sleep-disturbing question, but I do have an excuse to finish with a couple of clips of South Uist’s own Rona Lightfoot, who is a real Ceòlas stalwart…

Here’s a nice piece of work from Education Scotland with an audio clip of Rona:

And here she is again, in YouTube style, with Phil Cunningham adding his own brand of edge-softening “fusion”.

Rona really does know her musical stuff, is grounded, and has a lovely voice. Suitably soothed, I can go back to sleep…

Hindi Text to Gaelic Speech

Hindi Text for Gaelic SpeechI had some fun on Facebook last week, posting a link to a Google Translate page – not because I was at all interested in the machine translation, but because with some languages, including both English and Hindi, an additional “Text To Speech” (TTS) facility is thrown in. It’s this synthesized speech function I was wanting to highlight. I’m not sure all my friends got that point, so I’m posting again, but this time with a bit more explanation and a screenshot thrown in. (This is where WordPress wins over Facebook hands down!)

So here goes. If you’re interested in Gaelic “TTS” follow this link to get my own “off the shelf” take on it. Never mind the proffered translation on the right hand side of the page. That’s irrelevant to my purpose. Just click on the “Listen” speaker icon (circled in red in the picture above) in the left hand box containing the “Hindi” script.

Some of my Gaelic-speaking friends were quite taken with the result, whereas I can be sure none of my Hindi-speaking friends would have made head or tail of it – unless they could also understand Gaelic…

Ho hum, if only our Gaelic-speaking forefathers had chosen to write in Devanagari instead of the Roman alphabet, how much further forward might we now be!? Actually, you can do the same sort of trick with “English” TTS. Follow this link – which, if nothing else (if you can bear to listen), demonstrates the phonetic distance that your “average” English English speaker has to travel in order to get anywhere close to the Gaelic sound system…

A bit of fun, as I said. But I’m tempted to extract a linguistic moral, nonetheless. Language and writing are not one and the same thing. Speech can be effectively represented on the page or screen in many different ways. When we privilege one system over another, perhaps in a search for standardisation or normalisation, we may be prone to accord an exaggerated importance to orthographic orthodoxy, at the cost of undervaluing oral ability. Yet speech comes to us first. It is the real deal, writing a mere representation.

Me, music, and language

The hunter hunted. (When I helped Loriana get started with her fantastic blog and interview work, I didn’t expect her to turn her guns on me…) Fair game, I suppose, and if the second clip encourages others to try things out with Island Voices, then fair enough. It’s achieved something.

Part 1 on SoundCloud here:

Part 2 on SoundCloud here:




This interview  with Gordon Wells, the Project Officer of Island Voices, is given in two parts.

I. In the first part, Gordon speaks about his home made flute – the ‘ Gaelic Shakuhachi’, the Winter Blues and why he has chosen to live on the Uists.

To listen to part I (13.30 min), click here:


II. In the second part of the interview, Gordon talks about his interest in languages  and gives a very beautiful and inspiring definition of language. At the end he shares with us the background and the vision of the project Island Voices.  To listen to part II (15.30 min) click here:

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धोखेबाज़ कौन है? वह, या मैं, या दोनों भी?

मान लीजिए…

मैं जहां बसा हुआ हूँ, हिंदी बोलने-वाले लोग बहुत कम रहते हैं. वैसे ही मैं यहाँ पर अकेला हूँ. आमतौर पुर हिन्दी बोलने के मौके तो कभी मिलते भी नहीं.

इसलिए आज जब किसी ने इंडिया से फोन किया मैंने तुरंत हिन्दी में बोलना शुरू किया …

“Hello, may I speak to Mr Wells, please?” (उच्चारण से मैंने पहचान लिया कि यह आदमी हिन्दी या उर्दू का बोलने-वाला था.)

“जी हाँ, बोल रहा हूँ, आप कहाँ से फोन कर रहे हैं?”

“जी? मैं, मैं इंडिया से बोल रहा हूँ. Windows Technical Department के लिए काम करता हूँ, और हम को पता चला है कि आपके कंप्यूटर में कुछ मैलवेर घुस गया है.”

(अच्छा, यह कहानी मैंने कई बार सुनी है, और अच्छी तरह जानता हूँ कि यह एक स्कैम है. लेकिन आमतौर पर ये लोग अंग्रेजी में ही बोलना चाहते हैं. यह मैं पहली बार वही कहानी हिन्दी में सुन रहा था. मेरे लिए मौका…)

“अच्छा? यह तो बुरी बात है. रिपेर तो करना होगा, न? मगर आप पहले यह बताइये कि वहाँ का मौसम कैसा है, आज? कई साल हो चुके हैं जबसे मैं पिछली बार इंडिया में था. और यहाँ सर्दी बहुत है. इंडिया को मैं बहुत मिस करता हूँ.”

“जी हाँ, जी हाँ, यहाँ का मौसम बहुत ख़ूब है. अच्छा, यह तो बहुत ही सीरियस बात है कि आपके  कंप्यूटर में एक वाइरस है. ज़रा ऑन कर दें ताकि हम फिक्स कर सकें.”

“वैसे ही मेरे पास टाइम नहीं है, अभी. मुझको तो बाहर जाना है..”

“प्लीज़, एक दो मिनट लग जाएंगे, बस.”

“अच्छा, ऐसा करें, आप फिर से फोन कर सकते हैं?”

“जी हाँ, जरूर. किस दिन पर?”

“आप मंडे को कर दें.”

“किस टाइम पर?”

“कोई भी टाइम. मैं घर पर हूँगा.”

“अच्छा, मंडे को फिर करूँगा फोन…”

“अच्छा, ठीक है …”

आज का हिन्दी क्लास खतम, बिना खर्च करके. फिर भी, कुछ ठीक नहीं लगता…

“दूसरी भाषाएँ”

हिन्दी चलती है – ब्रस्सल्स में भी! tools4clil के ब्लॉग से..

“Clilstore is not restricted to servicing solely the languages of the TOOLS project teams. Here’s another experiment from “HindiMovieFan” (aka Gordon Wells) with a transcript of an interview with Bollywood’s greatest movie star, Amitabh Bachchan.

So, clilstore appears to handle Hindi quite as comfortably as Arabic! Again, just click on any word to go to a dictionary entry….” (See more.)

Only Connect – back to the croft

Question: How do I get from Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to All American renaissance man Paul Robeson via the Reverend George Reginald Wells (alias my dad) in less than six degrees of separation? And end up at home in the Hebrides?

Answer: Follow the musical trail…

Step One. Here’s the Qawwali master in a spell-binding performance in the video clip below of “Ye jo halkaa halkaa suroor hai”. (Follow this link for Romanised Urdu lyrics and English translation of the basic text.) The clip takes you through a transcendental Sufi meditation on “light intoxication” in the presence of the divine. Recorded live in Birmingham in 1983 – the year I started working there – it’s a full seventy minute rendition. (I wasn’t at this performance, but did get to see him performing some years later.) If you’re in the mood, stay with it right the way through. Alternatively, after several introductory “scene-setting” verses, just check the introduction of the main theme at 5.15. The central lyric and melody are gradually expounded over the next couple of minutes, before the musical ante is raised again from 7.20. Having now clocked the tune, feel free to move on “from the sublime” straight to Step Two. But be careful. It’s quite a jump.

یہ جو ہلکا ہلکا سرور ہے

Step Two. Now check this song “Chale jaise havaien” from  the Hindi film “Main hoon na”. Recognise that tune from somewhere? Yes, it’s a classic example of the Bollywood capacity to “borrow” musical patterns that work, and “recycle” them to mass popular acclaim. Note also the location of the film, shot at St Paul’s School, Darjeeling.

चले  जैसे हवाईएँ

Step Three. Wind back the years to the Second World War. Same location. Very different ambience. This is pre-Independence India, and St Paul’s, originally an Anglo-Indian school, is in its colonial heyday – run on traditional English Public School lines, complete with the then young (but to be long-lived) school “padre” fresh out from Blighty, George Reginald Wells. Despite (or maybe because of?) his intensive choral training at King’s College, Cambridge, Dad confessed to having a poor ear for Indian musicality, so quite what he would have made of the Ustad I’m not sure, but I fear he would perhaps have been “less than impressed” by this Bollywood jollity in a setting he always looked back on with deep and serious affection, bordering on reverence. Which cues a return from lighthearted if skilfully executed fun and exuberance to something rather more spiritual.

Once in Royal David’s City

Step Four. Dad was actually the only one of four Wells brothers who didn’t get to do the opening treble solo at the annual festival of carols, but he did become a very fine bass-baritone himself, and he appreciated the talents of others too when he recognised them, which took him to Sheffield Town Hall, even before his Darjeeling days, to see and hear Paul Robeson in concert, another experience he liked to recall in later years. “Deep River” was one of his favourites, but this clip, wherever it was recorded, is worth listening to right through, as it gives an impression not only of Robeson’s singing talent, but also of his wider humanitarian drive and motivations. Often described as decades ahead of his time, was he also an early exponent of what we now call “World Music”?

Deep River (and then some)

Step Five. Here in Benbecula, I’m left wondering if Robeson’s rendition of the “Eriskay Love Lilt” (from 4.58) was Dad’s first introduction to Gaelic music, an initial Hebridean connection before meeting and marrying Uist crofter’s daughter Anna Sheonaidh ‘ic Ghilleasbaig  – “Ban Uibhisteach ann an India”?

And the rest, of course, is history…

Have I woven an unusually complex web? Well no, I don’t think so, though I’m pleased to have inlaid a couple of sparkling gems in the pattern, despite my “humble” crofting stock. If we’re all a maximum of just six steps away from everyone else, metaphorically if not literally, then we’re all capable of intricate variations on this kind of theme. It’s a great game. Just pick a couple of big names from the worlds of music, sport, politics etc, and trace a linking path through a family connection. We can all be touched by distinction or genius. Everyone should try it!

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?

Trilingual Tricks

Man met Machine Translation (as well as, though not to be confused with, Machine Transliteration) the other day. A Facebook-facilitated re-encounter with one of my Hindi teachers from nearly thirty years ago finally prompted me to figure out how to write in proper Hindi script (Devanagari) on the computer. I figured it had to be doable in this day and age, and so it soon proved as the previous post shows, using Google IME, an easy to use transliteration system. You type in the Hindi word as you would “write” it using the Latin alphabet, and the program figures out the proper Hindi spelling in Devanagari. Magic.

Suitably impressed and enthused I started writing – Word, e-mail, WordPress, and then Facebook. Here’s the FB string. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The responses have been interesting. Isobel starts in English in complimentary fashion, but switches to Gaelic to ask what it is. Michael replies to identify the language, and then goes on to explain, very accurately, what I’ve just been writing. I happen to know he’s multilingual, but hadn’t figured on Hindi being on his language list. Then Bill and Isobel write back to me – in Hindi! (OK, the grammar’s not perfect, but the message is clear if contradictory – one inviting me to stop, while the other asks why…) Anyway, I’m impressed, and say so, whereupon my neighbour Nick breaks in with his own somewhat bookish and Sanskritic expression of wonderment, and asks, in Hindi, how it’s all done. Things eventually go quiet when I invite him round to the house so that we can continue our conversation – in Hindi… A surreal exchange, but great fun.

So what kind of language behaviour is it when the writer “writes” something without the aid of any human third party intervention that they can neither read nor say? And what motivates them to do it, anyway? There’s probably a PhD thesis in there for someone, but I think fun has got to have something to do with it – that and some kind of sense of adventure, a willingness to try out something new (I suspect Google Translate in this case, unless my friends have been keeping a secret from me) just because you know you can.

The moral of the story? Not sure, but maybe a couple – one general, one particular. Firstly, playing with language(s) is fun. We all do it, even if we only have one.  मगर जब हमें सिर्फ एक ही भाषा से और भी आती हैं जिन के साथ और जिन के बीच हम खेल सकते हैं, तो और भी मज़ा आता है. (Hah, let’s see how Google Translate deals with multiple embeddings in subordinate clauses!) And secondly, it’s no small thing to get the bilingual genie back into its bottle once it’s come out to play – an inherently self-restrictive act. Tha còir aig luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig gu sònraichte a bhith mothachail gu bheil dà chànan (aig a’ char as lugha) aig na fileantaich, agus gur e rud mòr a th’ ann a bhith ag iarraidh orra dìreach aonan a-mhàin a chleachdadh nuair a bhios sinn fhèin a’ bruidhinn riutha. Catch fichead ’s a trì?

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