How Rabindranath Thakur became Rabindranath Tagore: And you say we shouldn’t mind

13th January 2021

13th January 2021

Dearest creature in creation

Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse…”

These are lines from Gerard Nolst Trinite’s poem ‘The Chaos’ published in 1920 that presents the endless inconsistency of the English language at its best. As the poem in its complete version almost covers 800 words with vexing spellings, he raged against all the frustrating rules.  

Attempting to spell in English has become that computer game where, no matter what, you eventually had to lose. Spelling and pronunciation are definitely not the first cousins and this holds for the majority of Indian languages. For years, Indians have turned blind to the tyranny of wrong spellings. For one word, you can find thousands of alternatives. 

I am Bhumika and all around I am spelled as Bhoomika and even Bhomika for that matter. Adding to the confusion is my mother’s name. While the entire family named her as Puja, her certificates renamed her as Pooja.  She, almost every time, has to get her spelling correct while telling someone. 

And all thanks to the British Colonial government that never attempted to research the precise way of spelling Indian names rather just tried the method to pick the closest sound. The story of the English language is a tale of invasions, theft, mistakes, and pride. When they started to acquire the new territories around the world- Australia, Africa, India, with each new territory Britain also acquired new words. 

Now when we borrow words, they come with their own sound and spelling system also but what happened with English is, they adopted the pronunciation but modified the spellings. 

Take Rabindranath Thakur for instance that has now become Rabindranath Tagore. There are so many examples of Indian words that are terribly maimed. Lucknow, whose academic transliteration goes by ‘Lakhnau’.  

Take a look at Patna and Satna and see how two places, with just one different, letter sounds totally different. 

 Apart from the initial confusion over the new spellings, another problem is the lack of coherence that appeared on the line between transliteration (representing the script) and transcription (representing the sounds) and the majority of Indian words prefer the latter. 

We pronounce our gods as “Krishn” and “Ram” but when we write we add a short “a” sound in the end, making it – “Krishna” and “Rama”. 

Now, If we would like to represent the sounds, then, prime minister Narendra Modi should be spelled Narendr Modi (because that is what he sounds in Hindi, at least!), and if we would like to represent the script, then Narendra should be written Narandra — but in that case, Mohandas Gandhi should also have been spelled Mohanadasa Gandhi.

 Life is already confusing and the “English” version of Indian words and its unscientific rendering has made it even more chaotic. 

 One more layer of snobbery has added further complications- the difference between American and British English. There’s a color for colour, disk for disc, center for centre, and many more. Greed started the problem of the English language and laziness entrenched it. 

Now, cleaning this mess will disrupt the public equilibrium. We simply cannot ignore the confusion it will create among the public and apart from that we also have to take care of cultural, social, and religious sentiments. 

Further, it would be difficult to change the entire system as English has a perpetual influence on India’s culture and its usage is immense in the country. It has now become one of the official languages in India.

One solution that comes to the picture is to add new letters usually through a modification of existing ones as there are so many spellings that are unable to represent certain Indian sounds. When Persian, Arabic, and Turkish words started to appear in Indian languages, new symbols were created in the Devanagari script to represent the new sounds that came with them (for instance, k with a dot underneath was introduced to represent q) Most importantly it would benefit all Indian and it is graphically feasible too.

Tamil Nadu has already done that by changing the names of 1,018 places that include major areas such as Vellore and Coimbatore. It’s a move to reflect how they are pronounced in Tamil. With the move, Coimbatore, also known as India’s Manchester, is now spelled as Koyampuththoor, Vellore is now Veeloor while Mylapore in Chennai is now Mayilaappoor. The idea is to make the anglicized names sound closer to the root of the original names.

I am aware India does have some serious issues in front of them but losing on your own culture would definitely turn out to be the bigger problem in a distant time. Having evolved our own genre of English, it may now be time to develop our own diacritical marks: a few dots and dashes could save a lot of letters — and pain too.



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