Revamping Hobson-Jobson

The Dictionary Project Assignment is from my upper-division class “Novel in India.” One of the university’s few offerings on South Asia, the class attracts English, History, and Anthropology, and Political Science majors, and occasionally Indian-heritage students.

A framing question of the class is: “can a language – English—and a genre –the novel – that were imported to India by British colonialists be ‘indigenized’?” While we read a few novels and stories in translation (Tagore, Manto, Chugtai), the bulk are written in English (Anand, Rushdie, Chandra). Students are attuned to the adoption of English by Indian writers via the novelist Raja Rao’s 1938 remarks: “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own a spirit that is one’s own…[Y]et English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make up – like Sanskrit or Persian was before – but not of our emotional make up. We are all instinctively bilingual… We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians… Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialectic which will someday prove to be as distinctive and colorful as the Irish or the American.” The efforts of Indian writers to “make English theirs” and to create an Indian English is one we examine on the macro and micro-level in analyses of our readings.

The dictionary project introduces students to the linguistic diversity of and hybridity on the subcontinent and asks them to develop their own dictionaries to reflect the concept of language use and fluidity in India. In encountering Hobson-Jobson, students are initially overwhelmed, but soon settle in with familiar words (balcony, shampoo, etc.) and learn about their origins in languages from the subcontinent. As students present their selected words from the 19th-c dictionary, I am generally able to draw out that some of their words have their origin in a regional Indian language, others can be traced to places and people beyond the subcontinent (Persian and Arabic), while yet others originate from a European language – generally, Portuguese – are were incorporated into India and now travel back to Europe via British colonialism. This portion of the assignment is low-stakes and preps students to attend carefully to the linguistic cross-fertilization that occurred on the subcontinent for many centuries.

Students develop their own dictionaries in the second portion of the semester as they read novels like Rushdie’s that develop a “distinctive and colorful” Indian English. In their own dictionaries, students settle on a focus – familial titles or status terms; food words; terms referencing home and nation; slang, etc. – and write a short definition of each word drawing on the text they encountered it in and their own research on it in sources. This semester, a student’ dictionary on “filler words” (accha, arré, bas) surprised me because such words are precisely ubiquitous and also generally invisible to native and non-native speakers. Another’s focus on “Patriarchy and Nationalism” addressed the feminization of the nation with definitions of Kali and Vande Matram, and yet another wrote about words that travelled into Hindustani from other regional languages. Incorporating theoretical framings of the colonial encounter as one in which the colonized had agency as well, the assignment helps students learn about language and the linguistic colonialism actively and agentially.

Dictionary Project Guidelines

In 1886, two Englishmen, Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, compiled an “Anglo-Indian Dictionary” to chart the rich infusion of words from languages of the subcontinent into English. Hobson-Jobson, is a fascinating text, more commentary than dictionary, a testament to the hybrid nature of colonialism and to the cross-roads that is the Indian subcontinent. To engage with the linguistic complexity of the British-Indian encounter, each of you will undertake a two-part project.

Part I: Play and Report

The purpose of this portion of the assignment is to encounter Hobson-Jobson, examine the linguistic exchanges it captures, and consider Yule & Burnell’s volume as an artifact of the Anglo-Indian encounter. Plunge into Hobson-Jobson (on 24-hour reserve at Collins) and let yourself get lost in it. (If you need direction or suggestions about a word to get started, I will be glad to help). This assignment is play: after some rooting around, settle on a word or cluster of words. Place Yule & Burnell’s definition of it in conversation with what you know about the word or how it is used in English today (check current dictionaries and the OED). In class, you will informally (3-4 min) share what you find intriguing or surprising in Yule & Burnell’s inclusion/description of your word. You must share your findings by Wed, Oct 5.

Part II: Compile-A-Dictionary

For this portion, your task is to compile your own “dictionary.” As Yule & Burnell tell us, their initial intent was to capture words that “recur constantly in the daily intercourse of the British in India, either as expressing ideas really not provided for by our mother-tongue, or supposed by the speakers (often quite erroneously) to express something not capable of just denotation by any English term” (“Introductory Remarks,” xv-xvi). As they worked on the project, its goals expanded and they came to include words that “are in fact organic remains deposited under the various currents of external influence that have washed the shores of India during twenty centuries and more” (xvii). Under this dispensation, they include terms brought to India by Arabs, the Portuguese, and others.

Your task is to put together a dictionary of words drawn from your reading of Indian novels and with the goal of aiding a reader navigate Indian fiction post-1947. As you put together your dictionary, keep in mind Yule & Burnell’s notion of words “expressing ideas really not provided for by our mother-tongue” and of words that are “organic remains.” In other words, consider both indigenous words that a non-Indian-language speaker might need to know to navigate this fiction (these might be Hindi or “Hinglish” words, Tamil or Bangla, etc.) as well as “indigenizations” of borrowed or loan terms.

Your “dictionary” must include: (1) an Introduction (~300 words) in which you lay out your purpose, principles, audience, and conception of how language functions; (2) an “organizing principle” or focus on x or y concept or sector; (3) no fewer than ten words that you define to aid your reader (it could also include images). Note: please give your dictionary a name.

In class on Nov 30, each of you will informally present your dictionary’s focus, 2-3 words from your dictionary, and thoughts about the what your dictionary tells us about language and linguistic exchanges on the subcontinent. The completed dictionary is due Sat, Dec 3.