Saturday, October 25, 2003

My language

HUMPTY-Dumpty language is an idiosyncratic or eccentric use of language in which the speaker determines the meaning of particular words; the expression comes from the following exchange in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: "There's glory for you!" "I don't know what you mean by 'glory’," Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant there's a nice knock-down argument for you!" "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knockdown argument’," Alice objected. "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean —neither more nor less."

The fast pace at which new words are being added to the lexis, it looks as if every user is creating Humpty-Dumpty words, but with a difference; these words are fast getting assimilated into the language users’ vocabulary. Media and the Internet play a big role here. Whereas earlier, neologisms would take years or months to reach across the globe, today within moments of a new coinage, it is picked up by ravenous language users and passed on rapidly, often gaining acceptance even before reaching a dictionary. Let’s look at some words that label such Humpty-Dumpty paradigms.

Antilanguage is the other side of jargon; it refers to a collection of words and phrases used to exclude outsiders from a particular group and to disguise the group's activities. Then there is Christianese, a language or linguistic style that is understood only by, or appeals only to practising Christians. Jargon has developed still another aspect (perhaps due to the politician’s efforts) and this is the feature of camouflanguage, language that uses jargon, euphemisms and other devices to hide the true meaning of what is being said.

When words proliferate at amazing speeds, so do terms to describe their growth. One such term is word burst that means a rapid rise in both the frequency with which a word is used in a particular context and the rate at which the word's usage increases over time. Jon Kleinberg, a computer science Professor at Cornell University, has come up with a computer technique that analyses text over time to detect how often individual words are used and the rate at which word usage increases over time. Professor Kleinberg demonstrated his technique in Denver on February 18, 2003, by applying it to all of the U.S. Presidential State of the Union Addresses, from 1790 to 2002. He found that the ‘bursty’ words reflected the concerns and events of the times. For example, ‘burstiness’ was seen in these words of the 1930s: depression, banks, relief and recovery, while the ’40s coughed up wartime, democracy, fighting, Japanese and production. Among the many bursty words in the 1990s are families, crime, medicare, challenge and 21st century.


A number of Hindi idioms catalogue the history and mythology of nation and culture. Ramrajya refers to a time of pleasure and peace, harking back to the days of Lord Rama when the king’s subjects lived in peace. Nadarshahi refers to tyrannical rule as it was in the time of Nadir Shah. Narad bhraman refers to a state of homelessness just like that of Narad’s, who wandered from place to place on missions dictated by the gods. Before gaining acceptance, these must have been Humpty-Dumpty words. What about our recent history? Perhaps, it will throw up gems like Mayaraj and Lalooisms!