What’s the good word?
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What’s the good word?

How do you record the unique Marathi-English-Portuguese dialect of the East Indian community? Read on

mumbai Updated: Jan 09, 2019 16:27 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Mumbaiwale,East Indian,Dictionary
TThe dictionary includes East Indian words such as Lugra, Kuswar and Kal Kal (above), which is a flour-based fusilli pasta, often served during Christmas. (HT FILE PHOTO)

Dictionary-making has never been easy. When lexicographers started compiling what eventually became the Oxford English Dictionary in 1879, they estimated that alphabetically putting down every English word and its meaning would take ten years. Five years in, they’d only reached ‘Ant’.

Today, new words are still being added. In 2018, we gained Mansplain, Hangry and new definitions for Snowflake and Swag - go look them up. One local community will soon be out with a dictionary of its own, the first of its kind and no less epic in the making. The first edition of the East Indian Dictionary aims to make sense of the dialect of the native Catholic people of Vasai, Palghar, Thane and Mumbai. It is, as project leader Gleason Barretto tells me outright, “quite an adventure.”

Work started as far back as 2012, says Barretto, who is founder-trustee of the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP), which is seeking to preserve the culture of the community’s villages, traditional residential areas called gaothans.

One bit of culture particularly tough to hold on to was the language. “The young generally don’t speak the dialect,” says Barretto, editor of the East Indian Dictionary, which is an initiative of the MGP. “They’ve grown up speaking English and Marathi. So we decided to record as many words as we could in a glossary. In many instances the words were all that was left of a particular ritual, object or way of life.”

How do you record every word? You listen, you ask and you crowdsource. And you look up its Portuguese, Marathi and English origins. The research team sorted the words into categories: Weddings and Celebrations, Food, Kitchen, Grammar and Religion, and Culture. Grannies were consulted, uncles were roped in, regional variations were accounted for, and there were several rounds of point-and-ask. Some words simply had no translations - like foods and musical instruments - so description took place of definition.

The team thought they’d be done in a year (they hadn’t heard the OED story!). But by 2016, they had 600 words and the project got a shot in the arm. They decided to reverse-engineer the process, looking up words in the English dictionary and trying to find their East Indian equivalent. “That’s when it went from themed glossary to proper alphabetical dictionary,” says Candida Remedios, chief project coordinator.

This wasn’t without its challenges. The 26 letters of the alphabet don’t account for the cadences and inflections of Indian languages, so the spellings have been created in ways that make the words easy to pronounce. There are double AAs for a long vowel, words that need a nasal finish end with N. There are loanwords too: Daaktar for Doctor; and X-Ray.

The dictionary will be launched on January 13. Here’s a sampler of the words it records:

Baanc: Bench. The same word used by the Portuguese.

Gonvar: Heap of rubbish, a place where locals would probably answer nature’s call before public sanitation.

Gulub: Lightbulb.

Ghumat: A musical instrument, essentially a clay pot, open on both sides and covered in animal skin.

Kal kal: There are several spelling variations for the word but the small flour-based fried sweet has no visual connection to its name. No obvious word root. Perhaps because it used to be curled on a fork?

Kuswar: Also called Kuswad. It’s the platter of Christmas goodies, much like the Maharashtrian faraal.

Lugra: A sari in a checked fine print with distinctive border. It’s draped like a sari or kaashti depending on the formality of the occasion.

Maazpao: A local version of marzipan, which substitutes almonds for the more readily available cashew nut.

Poth: A chain or necklace a groom gives the bride on the wedding day. It may or may not have black beads like a mangalsutra.

Umbracha Paani: A pre-wedding ritual in which the bride and groom’s families lead separate processions to the village well to bathe or ritually cleanse them for the upcoming event. Perhaps leaves of the umbar tree were once used in the ritual.

(To pre-order the dictionary, you can WhatsApp your details - including email and postal mailing address - to 98207-92366, 98926-62479, or 99302-29742 or email eastindiandictionary@gmail.com. Prices start at ₹249)

First Published: Dec 28, 2018 23:46 IST