Blog Archives

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…

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…

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!

Audio Blogging: Is this the game-changer?

Wow. I don’t quite know why the first one didn’t materialise in the same spectacular fashion as the second – it’s actually in Gaelic – but hey, who’s complaining? A train of thought has been bugging me for some time, basically to do with literacy and oracy and the relative weight or “prestige” accorded to each. My preceding post, for those that don’t read Gaelic, basically ponders a catch-22 inherent in trying to reach through the written word an audience that prefers speech. I picked on Gaelic, but no doubt there are plenty other examples.

Anyway, online communities, fora, twitterers etc are all very well, and probably particularly good at pulling in enthusiastic new learners, but to the extent that they’re text-based they’re a closed book to non-readers. So a google search starting with “audio twitter” eventually brought me to this: I’m no nerd but it actually took me no time at all to set up an account and record my first “phonecast”. All you do is phone it in. What could be simpler?

OK, to get to the first one (in Gaelic) click here.

What follows below is what you get when you link your blogsite to your “phlogsite”(?) – phonecast no 2 (Hindi and Urdu) using my landline rather than the mobile.

Visit to hear my latest ipadio phonecast

Or listen here:

“Literacy” and “illiteracy” are heavily loaded terms. Strange that “oracy”, which actually comes first, is rarely even heard of. A chance here to redress the balance?

European Award for Languages: a perspective on “community languages”

So, the news is out, and now the Island Voices/Guthan nan Eilean prize has finally been collected – hebridean-language-project-awarded-european-accolade. The occasion was formal without being grandiose, and a useful opportunity to meet other people doing interesting things in the language teaching field. The speeches were generally kept brief – which didn’t necessarily exclude the chance to make some challenging points. Lots of people are exercised by the shrinking take-up of languages in UK schools.

Heartening for me was the high profile given to various Community Language initiatives – with prizes also going to a primary Tamil project, and a teacher training course taking in Arabic, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Urdu. Those of us living in an Anglophone world may consider ourselves lucky to have instant access to a language with the all-pervasive and international reach of English, but there’s a less welcome flipside to that coin. For starters, in a world in which everyone speaks English where’s the advantage in speaking ONLY English? Yet “English only” is probably what most “native” English speakers speak. I’m afraid the Anglophone world generally has a pretty monolingual notion of what language competence entails. It’s when you engage with the other language communities in the UK – for example Gaelic or Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi in my own experience – that you begin to appreciate the wider communicative horizons that bilingualism naturally offers.

Integral to bilingual competence is the exercise of extended choice. Every bilingual has a choice of linguistic codes on which to draw, and code-switching and code-mixing  are perfectly natural and productive responses to that choice. That there are pockets of working bilingualism still existing in the wider monolingual Anglophone environment means that there are alternative and liberating models of language competence close at hand. To the extent that wider society is open-minded enough to acknowledge, accept, and learn from this happy situation then there remain grounds for hope that native English language skills can become a springboard to an extended language competence, rather than a recipe for complacency and a needlessly restricted communicative range. “Aye, dream on”, some might say. It’s certainly a big ask and I wouldn’t want to underestimate the scale of the task, but recognising through awards like this the potential contribution that community languages have to make is probably a useful first step.

%d bloggers like this: