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A “Neonderthal”, A Neologism And The Spelling Bee

The first judgement about someone is often how that person speaks. It is a critical component of the “first impression”.

In the capital of Nerdistan, one must try harder to appear smart.

The first judgement about someone is often how that person speaks. It is a critical component of the “first impression”.

I realised this when one Bangalorean girl talked to me about boys from a city she had just visited, “They all look very smart and all until they open their mouth, yaar. They talk like ‘neonderthals’.”

I asked her to spell “neonderthal”.

Girl: “N-e-o-n-d-e-r-t-h-a-l. You know, the ape man.”

Although the dogged grammarian might take umbrage at redundancy and syntax and invoke the prescribed rules against the use of the split infinitive—and the anthropologist, bristle about fact—there was an interesting issue with the girl’s word, “neonderthal”.

Whenever I hear something new, I call my friend who is a dogged grammarian.

I told him how the girl had described well-dressed but inarticulate boys as “neonderthals” and we spent a few happy, mutually sycophantic moments discussion how the girl had unwittingly coined a neologism (means new word).

Of course, she had meant to say, “Neanderthal”.

But she had described the men as smartly dressed and, I imagine, attractive.

Which, could be bright and beckoning, like “neon”.

So, there’s a neologism—“neonderthal”.

So there was this Bangalore chick, a flitting female moth drawn to the flame of a young, handsome, buff playa positively reeking of Caucasian promise and probably Axe deodorant spray.  And then he goes and spoils it all by saying something. Not something stupid. Something.

I don’t half wonder if generations of Bangalore boys—geeky and rumpled though we are—have not gone and spoiled our women for less-articulate-than-us-men, from some other Indian cities where the English language is, well, not.

In Bangalore, are nerds are better than jocks?

If being well spoken were a measure of desirability, then yes, it would seem. Better pump paper than iron.

I turned to another pal—a scholar and sociologist.

She told me that in many western societies, where everyone has a reasonable standard of living—i.e., house and car is a gimme for everyone—the more desirable mate is one who is more socially acceptable. Well-proportioned jocks, she explained, are such.

In Bangalore, where the ideal mate is one from a similar social background who can provide a financially (and morally) stable life, the most sought after male would be a not-too-handsome-for-comfort, well-educated, but not-too-rich-to-control, mid-level manager, who will always have a secure job.

A dingus with a degree, in other words.

And he should not be a “neonderthal”. And he should be able to spell “Neanderthal”. By his own faculties, and not by MS Word’s red squiggly.

But all this presumes that the dude has had an education in the English language and that this education was unlike what Indians generally get from schools—mug it up, spit it out and hope that somehow you’ll also understand why something is so.

I know little about anything of this, but my friend, the scholar, who is also a linguist, tells me that it is hard for us to shake off what she called, “the DNA of learning”. In our case, we learn by ear, which often means learning by rote – a.k.a. mugging up.

So we learn a word like “Neanderthal” by the way it was pronounced when we first heard it. And then we think of its spelling phonetically. So, for my young friend, the word became, “neonderthal”.

For all the supposed nerdism of Bangaloreans we say, “struck” for “stuck”.

If a Bangalorean tells you he was “struck in traffic”, it means he was merely delayed, not thrashed by fellow motorists, as he should have been... for poor language skills, if not poor driving.

I am not about to launch into a laundry list of words that Bangaloreans mispronounce, as I am not poking fun at people. But some folks defend wrong usage by claiming that the English language is nothing if not a repository of new ideas. But I believe the line should be drawn at mistakes that alter the intended meaning.

Take that old chestnut about capitalisation: that there is a difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and…

If mistakes in language are often a source of much amusement, neologisms—also new phrases and new usage—give the language its local colour.

America’s fascination with language has provided the world with so much of that. So much of how we speak is based on developments in American. Hip hop, slang, abbreviation, double entendre and the philological aside. (Philology is the structure and historical development of language.)

One of my favourites is this gem from The Simpsons, Homer Simpson being the king of the philological aside.

Ma Simpson: “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”

Homer: “Seven.”

Lisa: “Dad, it's a rhetorical question.”

Homer: “OK, eight.”

The trouble with learning by rote and not by understanding the language and its components is that all a student will learn is the word itself with only the most basic understanding of how to apply it.

The casualty is humour. Another casualty is application.

For many Bangaloreans, the medium of instruction is English.

If students and teachers are not competent in the medium of instruction, how will they receive or impart instruction?

It does not make sense to breed generations of people not competent in whichever language it is they seek to study and work in.

For proof, there are the winners of the spelling bees in the US, who have correctly spelled words they have not heard before. The winning word in the latest Bee was “knaidel” that a lad (of Telugu extraction) spelled correctly to win the bee.

In the past, other winners, kids have spelled words like Laodocian, prospicience and logorrhea. I’ll warrant those kids had not heard those words before but they were able to correctly deduce the spelling by meaning and etymology.

The first step is curiosity.

While we have been setting up to conduct The Explocity 1st Annual Spelling Bee, no one has so far asked me what the “bee” in “Spelling Bee” means. I’ll spill it anyway… “bee” comes from the old English “bene” or “boon”, which was a favour neighbours granted each other to help with the harvest. Soon, social- and other community gatherings across the US came to be known as “Bees” – such as the quilting bee or pie-baking bee.

Maybe the lack of curiosity is not a bad thing.

Former veep of the US, Dan Quayle once said, to posterity, that he was apprehensive about his upcoming trip to Latin America because his Latin was not up to the mark.

And Homer Simpson said famously, "English? Who needs that? I'm never going to England!"

According to my pretty young friend, her handsome “neonderthal”, when in doubt, would quote Homer Simpson’s favourite neologism: “D’oh”.

And there’s the good thing:  there ain’t no etymology or philology to “d’oh”.

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Ramjee Chandran is Editor-in-Chief and MD of Explocity.
rc@explocity.com (E-mail).
@ramjeechandran on Twitter.