Being quite linguistically-inclined, I often consider the nuances of my mother tongue, Punjabi- how it relates to the other languages I know and have knowledge of, the idiomatic differences between those languages and how I, myself, go about expressing seemingly intranslatable sentiments, both from Punjabi to English and English to Punjabi. I am also intrigued by how translations of both of these languages are put across in media in the form of subtitles of films and tv programmes, however, the point I wanted to focus on in this post is the tonality of the language and how, until recently, I did not realise how sarcastic it is.
Over the course of our relationship so far, my husband has brought to my attention at various times the sarcastic nature of the Punjabi language, most often in the moments after I have said something and translated it to him. We have been together long enough so he now knows certain words and phrases without needing a translation and often works out the mood of what I am saying based on inflection and tone alone. Body language is also a big teller of the mood of a conversation; you have to account for the natural reactions of each individual, as in any language, of course, but this feature in particular helps him during interactions between myself and my family, when there is often a clamour of people speaking in Punjabi all at once.
I had not, until recent times, paid much attention to the verbal mood of the language as it had always been spoken exclusively with other Punjabi speakers- my grandparents, parents, relatives etc, and the register of what I said was not questioned as it, more often than not, came across in the way it was intended to depending on who I was speaking to. These points still ring true for me today, as I mentioned above and, as I’m sure they do with all other languages, factoring in the intent of what is said and the individual personality of the speaker, however, the introduction of a non-Punjabi speaker into this rhythm in the form of my husband has opened up my linguistic world in an entirely new, reflective way and has allowed me to view, in part, this constant in my life from his perspective.
I grew up in a bilingual household where both English and Punjabi were spoken in relatively equal measure, depending on who was being spoken to and whether the conversation in question warranted one language or another (or both) at the time. What I mean by the languages being warranted is that both English and Punjabi have always had separate functions in my family in terms of conveying certain moods or emotions and, often, one language has been chosen over the other as it better suits the humour of what one wants to say. An example of this is how I recurrently find myself veering into a frenzied and impassioned monologue in Punjabi whenever something riles or affects me so. As it is my mother tongue, expressing in this way comes completely naturally to me: the language and my emotions move fluidly as one and my need to vocalise whatever it is is satisfied entirely in the best possible way. This intrinsic entwining of emotion and vocalisation also works similarly with English, my mood is the only variable that dictates which language is used and, the one that is chosen, subconsciously, cannot be quantified in any way other than it is the one that feels the most right for the time.
I’m not sure whether the sarcastic intonation is an unconscious oddity that lies deep within the structure and idiom of the Punjabi language or whether it is something that has evolved and been influenced over time (my guess is both with a number of other factors thrown in to work together), but it is certainly something that continues to fascinate me and urges me to consider my relationship with the language on a continually deeper level. My husband pointed out to me yesterday that the sarcastic words and phrases that we refer to carry a heavier, more serious and aggressive tone when said in English, which is, perhaps, why they are used in the other way as the context in which they are called upon in Punjabi is almost indisputably light-hearted, cheeky and jabbing, to highlight the ridiculousness and laughable ludicrousy of a life situation.
I hope you found this article thoughtful and informative and, if you have any similar anecdotes with languages you are familiar with, please let me know- I would love to read them and learn something new and interesting myself.
Peace and love,