I’ve always been fond of thinking and talking about language, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about it. My first language is Nepali, in the sense that is the first language I learnt. But for the most part I think in English, and I find it much easier to write in English. So in that sense the “firstness” of Nepali is in question. When it comes to speaking I find Nepali to be easier than English by leaps and bounds. I’ve had tons of practice speaking Nepali, and a lot of practice writing English, but very little practice otherwise.

Speechless

A few days ago when I was talking on the phone to a friend, I noticed something curious — that even in speech, it is really hard for me to express complex thoughts in Nepali. Ironically, what I was about to say to him was something along the lines of, “I have recently noticed that I find it hard to express anything beyond simple ideas in speaking.” This is not exactly a convoluted philosophical argument, it is something people might need to say in regular speech. If you can’t easily say something like that in a language you know, it brings into doubt your knowledge of the language in question. Yet when I tried to say it in Nepali I couldn’t find the words right off the top of my head. It was difficult to start. In contrast, right after that, I was feeling a little uncomfortable due to the heat and I said to my friend, “एकैछिन है, यो झ्याल खोल्छु” . (Just a sec, I’ll open this window). Just as I said that I noticed how easy it was for me to say. There was no noticeable gap between thinking the thought and expressing it – it was near instant. It is a relatively simple thought, and it is also something I’ve said many times before.

This — not being able to express something in my native language — is a frequent occurrence. And I’m sure this is not limited to myself. Most native Nepali speakers of my generation, myself included, have moved to speaking in a mix of English and Nepali. It is common to use whole English sentences in conversation that is primarily in Nepali, and it’s exceedingly rare to go a few sentences without using English words. When I express concern about this, most people counter with perfectly valid points. Some say that change in a language is inevitable and we can’t really do anything to stop it. Some say language is just something we use to get our point across and I shouldn’t worry about people using the easiest means of doing so. And I understand that. And I’m not saying that a language should remain ‘pure’ and resist adulteration, nor that speakers should speak strictly a single language at a time. Considering how much languages loan words from other languages, it might not even be possible to draw a strict line between words of a certain language and words outside that language. What I’m worried about is more emotional. More personal. It is like a cherished childhood memory slowly but surely slipping away, and the knowledge that there isn’t much you can do about it. It is like finding that something you considered a big part of your identity and your heritage faded and about to disappear, like looking at your insides and finding an organ slowly eroding away.

At a loss for words

While all this may not be a problem for speakers of the language, it is a problem for the language itself. We think of language as having a life of its own in a sense, and its speakers not being able to use it well is a threat to its life. Now I’m not qualified to talk confidently on all the reasons why that may be so, but one thing seems clear — small languages have a harder time staying intact in these super-connected times. They’re too susceptible to being displaced by larger languages. Much, much more media worth consuming is produced in English, or even in Hindi, than it is in Nepali. People by necessity have to read more books in English, watch more TV and movies in English and laugh at more memes in English, by a huge margin. Another factor that prevents fluent and sustained use of a language is the lack of words for the ideas people frequently need to talk about (a word like charger, for instance), and even more than that a lack of such words that sound natural in speech (A drug addict could be, but is rarely called a लागुऔषध दुर्व्यसनी.)

Another aspect of the erosion of Nepali is the disappearing use of its native alphabet, Devanagari. This is something which all languages which use non-Latin alphabets have experienced in the Internet age. Input is at least possible in almost every script of the world thanks to the Unicode standard, but easy and convenient input is a different matter. Nepali-speaking netizens use romanized Nepali much more than they use Devanagari. People find it difficult to type in Devanagari, and not without reason. Just having more letters than Latin’s 26 makes it difficult to build a good input method. And this is a problem that compounds the one we have been talking about. Writing in the Latin script makes it easy to use English words, while writing in Devanagari makes it harder so switching to Latin is the natural thing to do.

Unfortunately, for all my worries, a language is a collective experience, and it exists on the minds of the millions that speak it, which means there’s little hope of the efforts of a few being able to influence its course. Even entities of power struggle to impose rules to ensure uniformity. There’s nothing to do except to accept the state of affairs in silent submission. Or is there? When you think of it, for every new word that later becomes an indispensable part of a language, there’s that one person who used it first. One may coin a word for the simple reason of being able to express their ideas better, and a word may, with luck on its side, spread its wings and thrive in wider usage. Journalists and writers are in a particularly good position to do this, but with the Internet, so is everyone else. Of the many ways of creating new words, the single most common in Nepali is borrowing. We have taken an amazing number of words from English and incorporated it into daily speech in recent times (I’ve never called a table anything other than a table in Nepali). With time a lot of these loans change in pronunciation, become classified as आगन्तुक शब्द (guest words) and we start to forget they come from elsewhere. Examples of this are बोतल (bottle) and गिलास (glass). But the problem with using too many loan words is that the language starts to lose its originality and identity, it becomes too dependent on other languages. Another mechanism of word formation we see is loaning words that have been compounded or calqued in Sanskrit. For example, you find in dictionaries that a microscope is called a सूक्ष्म-दर्शक यन्त्र (literally a small-displayer machine in Sanskrit). In my opinion that sounds stiff and unnatural. We have in our brains an unspoken idea of what colloquial Nepali sounds like and that word doesn’t seem to fit. Another example of this is when we have two more or less equivalent words for something, of which one is a direct loan from Sanskrit. Shameful is usually rendered as लज्जास्पद but लाजमर्दो is in better use in speech and sounds more ‘native’.

What I mint to say

In my opinion, new words shouldn’t be limited to direct loans from Sanskrit or English. There are other possibilities. Word-creation should get creative. One technique I see promise in is taking calques from English. One such phrase I have seen used a lot recently in Nepali media is पत्रु खाना, a direct translation of the words junk food. Another fun way of inventing words is abbreviation and clipping (like karaoke in Japanese). The word रुपा has been more or less established in my circle of friends, and it is an abbreviation of the initial syllables of room partner, roommate. Another one I love to use (just at my home because me and my mom are the only people who understand it as of yet) is गपका सूची, an abbreviation of गर्नु पर्ने कामको सूची, meaning to-do list.

I’ve always been of the opinion that, however impractical that may be, we should try to use a language frequently and creatively if we want to save it from a steady decline and eventual extinction. Additionally, now I think that creating and using freshly minted words is vital. In part because smaller languages like Nepali already lack expressiveness in many modern contexts, and because adding new words to the vernacular is a sign of a healthy, thriving language. What with social media platforms dime a dozen and memes moving with incredible speed to reach hordes of people, there’s immense possibility for the amateur word-coiner. Invent a new word! Who knows, it may be the next fleek. Or the next covfefe.