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Kya-b-baat hai!

Interjections are not merely one of the eight parts of speech in English. As some events show, they are the sound of emotions. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2011 21:39 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

As he took Graeme Swann’s off-stump in the second ODI on the Kotla last Monday, there was a primaeval thunder of joy on swing-bowler Vinay Kumar’s face. We do not know the word that went through his mind that fleeting moment, but we can be sure it was what, in the universe of English grammar, is called an ‘interjection’.

Twelve letters too long for the short, crisp words it refers to, an interjection is one of the ‘eight parts of speech’. But in the real world an interjection is the sound of a heart gone out of control, a brain blanching, and a stomach turning in revolt. In short, it is the sound of emotion.

The Beatles’ ‘Help!’ and their ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’ are amazing music. They are also interjections.

The grammatical architectures of all languages have given space to interjections. Why? Grammar is the coldest, most stony and inflexible of all that goes into making a language. So why should it make space for something that is the exact opposite — spontaneous, fleet, and even frenzied? We can imagine an exclamation mark at the end of each interjection.

The only reason is that the most pinched and prim of grammarians will allow that life is not only about being correct. It is about being natural as well.

From the Sanskrit ‘Dhik!’ meaning ‘For shame!’ to the Persian ‘Vah!’ denoting ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Hae!’ for ‘Oh my God’, interjections are as natural to speech as emotions are to experience. And they are all ‘properly’ derived from the spoken traditions of languages. One would imagine that ‘Uff!’ is just an aspirational vagabond. But no, it is a full interjection with a recorded linguistic parentage. It is derived from Arabic.

Likewise, ‘Ayyo!’ is not just a strap-hanging exclamation but has a seat reserved for it in Tamil. It represents a sudden charge of voltage as in surprise, shock, bewilderment, grief, pain. It is rendered even more versatile when extended to ‘Ayyayyo!’ Less acknowledged but no less used is the Tamil ‘Ada!’ signifying wonderment with the double-loaded ‘Adada!’ suggesting rapture. Computer emoticons reflecting scores of emotions are visual interjections.

The greats of literature employed interjections to differential effect. ‘Zounds!’ is not used that much any longer, but one has only to hear that interjection employed in Shakespeare to see its effect. Poins tells Falstaff off famously in Henry IV with “Zounds, ye fat paunch, an ye call me coward, by the Lord, I’ll stab thee.” Nor is ‘Fie!’ meaning ‘for shame!’ or ‘nonsense!’, part of common speech today. But if we consider Shakespeare’s use of it in Hamlet, it would seem worth bringing straight back into use: “Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘tis [the world is] an unweeded garden.”

More than other ‘parts of speech’, certainly more than the nouns and verbs, interjections are not static, all-time ‘givens’. They are self-renewing. Interjections disappear from speech and new ones appear. Even the globally used ‘Hello!’ and ‘Wow!’ are now in their middle age with ‘Hey!’ and ‘Awesome!’ appearing from virtually nowhere and taking their place. ‘Darn!’ and its sewed-up cousin ‘Darn!’ have yielded ground to Homer Simpson’s ‘Doh!’ to signify something stupid said or done. That American sit-com interjection has been listed as number six on TV Land’s list of the 100 greatest television catchphrases. ‘Doh!’ also has the distinction of having been included, since 2001, in the Oxford English Dictionary. So this is the first dashak of ‘Doh!’

If someone were to do a study of Indian interjections as they have evolved over the last century, we would have a mapping of collective Indian emotions, reactions and responses. Our cinema and political discourse as reflected in the media would yield a harvest of such interjections, so rich as to leave us open-mouthed. And here, I am not referring to slang or profanities or gaalis, but to plain, proper interjections. Filtered by usage, we are likely to see them fall into three broad categories.

The first, those that are meant to draw attention such as ‘Arey!’ in Hindi and its hectoring cousin ‘Abey!’ There are situations when one needs to draw attention to oneself, one’s predicament, in terms of urgency. In fact, in terms of direness. What can work at such moments but an interjection which intervenes in the even tenor of standard discourse?

The second category is of interjections that speak to themselves, as in ‘Ayyo!’ and ‘Ada!’ in Tamil. There are situations when one does want to talk to one’s own self, whether through unvoiced speech or vocalised. Hamlet’s soliloquies only exemplify what in Urdu is recognised as ‘khud kalami’ or ‘tanhai ki taqrir’. And these can include interjections that are no more than a couple of letters or a single syllable long, such as the Hindi ‘Aah!’, ‘Hae!’ and ‘Kash!’

But the most important interjections are of the third category — those that express one’s ‘open’ instinctive response to something experienced, like the Sanskrit ‘Dhik!’, the Persian ‘Vah!’, the Urdu ‘Shab-b-bash!’ These come from out of the depths of emotion that result in an un-premeditated, un-edited powerful interjection.

Within our country last week, the very different and unconnected but equally bizarre experiences of two stalwart campaigners for civil liberties and rights — Prashant Bhushan and Kavita Srivastava — occasioned the interjection ‘Ayyo!’ The exceptional speech of our Comptroller and Auditor General, Vinod Rai, at the National Police Academy in Hyderabad, on how increased public participation in governance can help change the national scene, occasioned a ‘Vah!’ And reports of Bellary-style, illegal gougings-out of Goa’s mineral wealth led to ‘Dhik!’

But the most vital string of interjections were brought to mind last week by something that happened out there in the larger world, in the very throne of corporate power. The Occupy Wall Street movement has yet to register in our consciousness. It will. It has returned Martin Luther King Jr and the 1960s protests back to contemporary life in an incredible way, leading President Obama to say, while unveiling a new statue of King, that had he been alive, “he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonising all who work there”. King’s unforgettable line: “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children” has a ring in it for us. And if Occupy Wall Street stays non-violent, stays free from co-options by anarchists, it can fulfil King’s dream for America beyond America as well.

‘Amen!’ is an interjection too and I am tempted to use that as I end this column. But ‘By Zounds!’ I would prefer to call the re-activation of King’s dream ‘Awesome!’ And to the determined non-violent protestors of Occupy Wall Street, drawing from my stock of Hindustani interjections, I would say, ‘Kya-b-baat hai!’

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

The views expressed by the author are personal

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