About Me

My photo
Mumbai, India
I'm a landrace dog fancier, birder and amateur arachnologist. I'm also a wildlife conservationist working in the tiger reserves of central India with Satpuda Foundation. Founder of the INDog Project (www.indog.co.in) and the INDog Club. I worked with urban free-ranging dogs of Mumbai for 14 years.

This blog is for aboriginal breed enthusiasts. It is part of the INDog Project www.indog.co.in. Only INDogs (Indian Pariah) and INDog-mix mongrels are featured here. The two are NOT the same, do please read the text on the right to understand the difference. Our aim: to create awareness about the primitive natural breed called the Indian Pariah Dog/INDog.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bilingual dogs

Mine is a bilingual home. Most urban Indian homes are – bi, tri, and sometimes quadric-lingual. But I don't mean just the human inhabitants here speak two languages; the two resident canines too speak two different languages, or understand two different languages. One is English-speaking, so to speak, and the other, Marathi. And they simply do not understand a word in the other language.

Another twist to the tell-tale-tail is the fact that Dog 1, English-speaking, is by birth and breed, a pariah, better known as sadak-chaap, or gauthi; this particular one was born in the Versova, Seven Bungalows Kachra Peti, and grew up in my Mumbai days, where we spoke a lot of English in the household, so he responds only in flowing English. Dog 2, Marathi-speaking, is a West Highland Terrier who came to me when I moved to Pune and much more Marathi is spoken in my home. He is better known as angrezi-kutta, or English-dog, and responds only to brusque Marathi.

And so, there are several innocents in and around my area – children, courier boys, the postman, the housekeeper, the watchman, the carpenter, the milkman, the paperwallah, the dhobi, and several such – who never fail to exclaim in great wonderment: array, this sadak-chaap knows English, and that Angrezi-kutta knows Marathi? I have tried often to explain, that it isn't some hierarchical skill, this language learning, with English reserved for the upper echelons and whatnot. But somehow I can't get this point across. Too complicated. (It's like the old Ajji who was taken to Paris, and on her first day out, in the park, she exclaimed in amazed admiration: "Array, even the children here speak French! What a sophisticated place!")

The 'opposite' or 'inverse' language skills of my two dogs continues to be quite the talk of the town. At times, poor Dog 1 is openly jeered at by some of these people: Array gauthi kutra asoon English kay boltos? Marathi yet nahi ka?

I kid you not. A policeman once came to my home to inspect a break-in. This was when there was just Dog 1, the English-speaking gauthi. He asked me what the dog was doing while the house was being broken into. "Sleeping soundly like me," I sheepishly answered, trying to offer some lame explanation about the dog being old. Having observed me instructing Dog 1 in English, the policeman sniffed and said chastizingly to me in Marathi: "Let me tell you one thing. All this 'come, come, go, go' talk with these gauthi dogs – no use. It only makes them lazy and think that they are some kings who have to just sit around and eat."

Whatever people may say about dogs understanding only tones, and not actual words, they're not fully right. Of course, I have a friend who once demonstrated brilliantly how tones worked with dogs, rather than words. He called out "maanjar, maanjar" in a hissing, go-get-her tone, and his dogs hurled themselves at the garden wall, anticipating a nice mouthful of cat. A few minutes later, when they'd settled down, he said "Sridevi, Sridevi" in the same hissy tone, and the dogs chased after imaginary or potential cats again. So granted, your tone works a lot, with dogs. But still, dogs do understand words, and in different languages – in their mother tongue, if you will. I had a Tamilian neighbour who would say "Fan inge?" to her German Shepherd, and the fellow would look at the switch and then at the fan. If you tried "Sridevi inge?" in the same tone, he would probably say go find her yourself.

To come back to my sharply divided bilingual home. The older dog, who grew up in Mumbai when he was with me in a predominantly English speaking household, understands English. Not just single word commands like come, go, sit, walk, eat, shut up, but also more elaborate sentences. Stop staring at guests, I say, and he ceases eyeing people's kabab platters and sulkily goes away. To the other, Marathi-speaking dog, who was acquired in Pune and grew up surrounded by Marathi, I convey the same sentiment in our unique rhetorical idiom: Kon tondakaday baghtay? I ask, dripping Maharashtrian sarcasm, and this dog looks guiltily away and pushes off with a very distinctly Marathi hmmph.

And neither of them can understand a single word of the other language. If, for instance, I say to Dog 1, Chall, phirayla jauya, or bhook lagli ka, he just stares back at you like those South Bombay people who steadfastly refuse to understand anything but English. But whenever I say Let's go for a walk, or ask him, hungry? that is sure to instantly elicit a standing ovation, and hectic Yes! signals.

Dog 2, were I to say elegantly, black slipper, would just continue with whatever crime or misdeameanour he is committing at the moment. But all I have to mutter darkly is kaali chappal, and that gets him to stop nipping at people's ankles, or trying to dig a passage in the garden all the way to China. (A word of explanation: when still a puppy, Dog 2 had chewed up one of two black beaded slippers. With the remaining one, so bite me, I had whacked him soundly, all the while asking: Ka khallis mazhi kaali chappal? After that the kaali chappal can be invoked when things get out of hand, to great effect).

Dog 1 grows a halo around himself when I say, excellent animal. Dog 2 needs to be told, shahana kutra. Then he knows I approve thoroughly of whatever he's done. Even their barks are distinct. One says woof, straight out of some Bedtime Tales kind of book; the other goes bhu-bhu, like the dog from my first book of Marathi nursery rhymes.

When I'm out walking with this jodi, things get complicated. Kadey ni chaal, move to the side, I'm saying, almost at the same time, to the two of them (since Pune traffic roars dangerously close past you in only one language, the language of the road rowdy). Paani hava? Water? I rap out, and several such instructions and questions issue forth from me like a simultaneous translator.

And if they could speak, there would be more confusion, no doubt!

Gouri Dange
Pune


Rajashree adds: This piece appeared in Gouri's column in the Maharashtra Herald (now Sakaal Times). Thanks for sending it, Gouri!

1 comment:

Red Eyes said...

My dear blog friend, thanks for finding me through that trail. I am also a dog lover and I'm still learning which one is right for me. So this is a very useful site. But until we blog again, all the best!