The first draft of my master’s thesis in engineering open- ed with the words: “The history of automat-
ic control systems can be traced to
water level controllers used in ancient
My professor’s response was swift and
savage. He ran a red line through my
immortal prose and scrawled in the mar-
gin: I don’t give a shit.
When we met to debrief, he opened the
conversation with a cordial: “Ash, you don’t
write very well.”
‘Chacha’ went on to retire emeritus with-
out ever hearing the nickname he carried
among generations of Indian students. He
earned his ‘god-uncle’ status through a
striking blend of technical insight, business
savvy, street bluster, humor and hospitality.
He rounded up flocks of homeless foreign
grads at his Thanksgiving table, a generous
violation of cultural airspace that was lost
on us. He remembered even in the 1980s
South to ask before serving Indians turkey.
And he insisted that we learn to write well
— or at least, to write like him. Subject,
Verb, Object, he would grumble as he
thumbed through my thesis. English works
best when you keep it simple.
English is in the minority, for SVO languages account for only a quarter of the
world’s stock. A classmate in my Chennai
high school once claimed that German puts
verbs at the end of the sentence. I argued
that this must be crazy urban legend, failing to wrap my head around the concept
of a Subject-Object-Verb language. So
crushing was the effect of an English-medium education that I never noticed
that I was already learning one SOV language, Hindi, and speaking two others,
Tamil and Malayalam.
Chacha’s handwriting swung between
impeccable and illegible, depending on
how excited he was about matrix equations
or Shakespearian technical writing. He was
an excellent speller, an
attribute that I took for gra-
nted in an American academic.
I see now that he was an outlier
there too. This raises a question
that goes beyond word order in a
What do English and Tamil have
in common? An incredibly rich literary tradition, a prodigious vocabulary and... a pathetic alphabet.
English attempts to capture all of
human sounds with 26 characters.
It can’t be done, of course.
French has the same limitation,
but French makes it easy by the commonsense means of having strict rules
of how to pronounce them. English, having no rules worth the name, leaves most of
us relying on spell checkers — though
Chacha seemed to manage without them
back in the day.
But at least for a moment, the writer of
English may take pity on the challenge
faced by her Tamilian counterpart. When
reduced to print, the world’s 20th most
spoken language offers even fewer options
than No. 3 does: Tamil cannot capture the
difference between B and P, between D and
T, between G and K, or between V and W.
If the Tamilian sticks to the path of his classical script he is left without an F, H, or J.
He may bypass these obstacles with
characters invented in the 20th century,
at the risk of contempt from the scholar
fundamentalists. No such ploy works at
the end of the road, for Z is not to be
But wait, there’s payback.
The Tamilian has the wealth of three Ns,
two Rs and two basic Ls. Her language ser-
ves up the American R in the form of a third
L, which is so slippery that English helpless-
ly spells it ‘zha.’
It provides a suite of solutions for the S—
>SH—>CH continuum. It improvises bril-
liantly by picking letters from its meager
toolbox in mismatched twin pairs, tweaking
the second occurrence in each pair to create
a tiny hammer blow.
This stream of retroflex consonants gives
Tamil its distinctive staccato sound — sometimes the butt of ethnic jokes, but really a
cool Dravidian hip-hop.
These subtleties are nonsense to the aver-
age English speaker. They are difficult to
reproduce even for a native of the nearby
Indo-European languages. I can’t help feel-
ing that this is all a vile trick played by histo-
ry to make us scorn every foreigner who
sounds foreign. I find it more interesting to
put these differences under a magnifying
glass than to mock them.
Still, opportunities for innocent confusion
exist everywhere. As Chacha headed home
to the northeast for Hanukkah, I might have
posed him a riddle for the holidays. What is
the Bronx jew? No, it’s not a semitic New
Yorker. It’s the place you go to meet the
Bronx jebra. ;
Ashwath Nityanandan sits on the
diversity council of a large corporation,
where his job is in manufacturing
infrastructure. His professional interest
lies in studying the effect of human
systems on technology, especially on the
What do English and
Tamil have in common?
… A pathetic alphabet.
Ashwath Nityanand on the
mysteries of linguistic DNA.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh