Apostrophe Catastrophe and the Impending Tsunami

The iToon in today’s (Monday, December 2, 2019) Times of India struck a chord.

Tongue Twisters of Sorts

For many years, I was hesitant ordering food in restaurants. I owed that behaviour to my inability to pronounce the exotic names of some of the equally exotic dishes. To me their names were tongue twisters. They still are.    

I am reminded of Mr Jagjit Singh, our French Professor at the School of Foreign Languages (SFL); he retired two years ago. A true teacher to the core, he had an agenda beyond teaching us how to read, speak and write––he wanted us to learn how to ‘communicate’. A near hundred per cent daily attendance, and a high degree of punctuality through the year was a tribute to his ability to elicit interest.

One Tuesday morning after exchanging the usual niceties, he posed a simple question to the class: “Est-ce mardi? (Is it Tuesday?).”

He turned to Amit Mittal (name changed) for an answer. Amit was a young engineer about to join a French power tools company, was at the SFL to learn the language, which would stand him in good stead later in his career. The young man scratched his beard, which he had started sporting to look like the French novelist, Émile Zola. Not to talk of the round lenses of his specs––equally French. Forget the looks, words evaded his lips.

As if to throw a hint, a smiling Jagjit Singh, looked at the calendar hanging from a nail on the wall and repeated the question: “Est-ce mardi?” There was an extra effort to pronounce the letter ‘r’ in ‘mardi’, the way French pronounce it.

Murmuring grew in the class because almost everyone knew the ‘expected’ answer: “Oui, c’est mardi.” (Yes, it is Tuesday). The names of the days of the week and the months of the year were taught to us three days ago––most of us knew them by heart. Therefore, the question was a no-brainer.

When he couldn’t bear the whispering around him anymore, he nodded in a universally accepted gesture that conveys: “Y-E-S.”

The class exploded into laughter. Prof Jagjit Singh waited for us to calm down. And when the class became quiet, he asked us the reason for the laughter. A girl sitting in the front row, still giggling said, “The answer is: ‘Oui, c’est mardi’.”

Prof Jagjit Singh: “What did Mr Amit say?”

The girl: “He just nodded.”

Jagjit Singh, a little seriously, “What do you think that meant?”

The girl replied rather reluctantly and grudgingly, “Of course, it meant ‘Y-E-S’… but he didn’t say the full sentence: “Oui, c’est mardi.”

Without ado, Jagjit Singh explained the importance of learning a language. He said it is to communicate with people: “The aim of learning a language is to share ideas. For a communication to be effective, the receiver (of the communication) must understand the intention of the initiator of the communication and give a feedback to that effect; and act accordingly, if possible. In this case, I asked a question; all of you, including Mr Amit Mittal understood my question; and all of us understood what he conveyed by nodding his head.”

Then smiling again at Amit and addressing the entire class he said, “Notwithstanding your ability to share thoughts with gestures and pictures, it is always advantageous to know the right words and expressions. That enhances your ability to communicate.” Through his small monologue he impressed upon us that most important purpose of learning a language (i.e., to communicate) must remain uppermost in the minds as people go along building a vocabulary and learning the grammar.

That pearl of wisdom from Prof Jagjit Singh is a valued possession of all his students.

To the chagrin of the language purist similar realisation is dawning on people. In the latest instance, the ‘Apostrophe Protection Society’ has eased its grip on the use of the APOSTROPHE, the little thing that hovers above the letters and hides at the end of words and keeps confusing people. As per Duncan Kennedy (of the BBC), John Richards, the 96-year chairman of the Society––having agonised over the issue for two decades––has given up the struggle to revive this endangered species of punctuation marks.

The apostrophe catastrophe is a gimme, to say the least. The lingua franca of sms, Twitter and WhatsApp will ensure it and take more toll of spoken and written language. The changes that are causing ripples will turn into big waves some day, if not, tidal waves or tsunamis. To nod (due to ignorance) and watch, would not be a good choice.

The sooner one picks up the jargon and the grammar of the emerging language(s), the better of one would be in the New World.