Indian for dinner, American for dessert

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine. We’ll call him Bob.

Bob has perfected the art of instigation. This heated discussion happens to involve the English alphabet and foreign languages. Bob is looking to create a pseudo-name.

(He’s a radio DJ and vain enough to think that the popularity of his on-air name should be just below God’s.)

“Give me the name of one of those religious dudes or whatever you look up to, like the people you randomly go seeking in the city,” he babbled.

“… What the heck are you talking about?”

I have no clue what he’s talking about.

“Oh come on, you know! Like that lady you went to see?”

“Oh! Amma?”

Amma is basically the Hindu equivalent of the Catholic Mother Theresa. She gives darshan, a blessing of sorts, in the form of a hug.

Poking fun at me was one thing, but then Bob proceeded to insult both the English language and alphabet.

“Yea, that chick! A-h-m-a-h. Dude, I’ll be Amma on the radio!” His dramatic (and American) pronunciation of the “a” makes me cringe.

Contrary to Bob’s beliefs, Amma is not pronounced like the English name “Anna,” with the emphasis on the “a.” Rather, it’s pronounced phonetically the way Bob spelled it: A-h-m-a-h. How ironic.

When I tired explaining this to him, he proceeded to tell me that it was an “English” name spelled in English.

That sent me on an English major’s tirade. While Bob is correct is saying that “Amma” is spelled in English, it is still an Indian name derived from the Indian language.

In an effort to enlighten him, I try using French as an example. Yes, I tell him, it is the French language, but we spell French words using the English alphabet. Doing this to spell French words does not make French “English.” Nor does it make it “Franglish,” as Bob tried to argue.

I think I set him straight, in the end. At least I made the point that an alphabet is not the same thing as a language, but merely a tool used to develop one.

But it did make me think. Am I saying that we actually do spell French words in English? Then what exactly is French? What is English, even?

It all boils down to derivatives that connect life in threadbare ways resurrecting the Romantic notion of life as a tapestry.

Almost every facet of our culture is derived from one things or another. America is unique in this respect: it’s a mess of just about everything you can think of. The beauty of it is that I can go and meet Amma in New York City, speak English, write French and be mistaken for an Indian despite insisting that I’m “American.”

The smile on my face when Amma’s attendants asked me what form of Hindi I spoke was priceless. I told them twice – in English – that English was my “language of preference.”

Little do they know it is the only language some will ever know. Maybe I should have just told them American.

PHOTO: My Boston correspondent Nicole (real person) and me waiting in line to see Amma. The green dot means it’s our first time seeing her. Amma has a following of millions that journey around the world with her when she tours. We only had to wait in line for about an hour. (Melissa L. Gaffney)

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