The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax by Geoffrey Pullum contains an essay called something like “17 Great Novels for Linguists.” It was there that I found listed The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Intrigued, I sought the book out, and LeGuin became one of my favorite writers, to such a degree that few of the people I love have escaped my evangelizing fervor on her behalf.
If Pullum were writing his essay today, I’m pretty sure Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies would be on his list. Both LeGuin and Ghosh have a connection to anthropology, since LeGuin is the daughter of famous anthropologists and Ghosh has a doctorate from Oxford in social anthopology, and this is only fitting: anthropologists need to understand language in order to understand people, while linguists of the Chomskyite type too often view language as a quasi-mathematical object detached from human life.
But I digress. Sea of Poppies is part of a historical saga set in 19th-century Asia; it mostly revolves around two unhappy aspects of colonial capitalism, the trade in opium and the trade in indentured labor. There is some perfunctory swashbuckling adventure, but what clearly floats Ghosh’s boat are the ways people give meaning to their world: religion (including the religion of money), class (including the caste system), race, and the languages that encode the whole universe. The novel includes snippets of an impressive number of languages, not surprising given the polyglot nature of India, but the versions of English alone would defeat most novelists: there are the British of the merchant prince Mr Burnham, the African-American English of the freedman Zachary Reed. There are the lingo of the white but Indian-born river pilot, so full of raj-vocab that it is nearly impenetrable and the cultured speech of the aristocrat Indian Rajah of Raskali (which alienates him from the uneducated Brits of Calcutta), the bizarrely formal school-learned English of his accountant (which reminds me of many Indian-English speakers I encounter in my work).
And then there is Serang Ali. Ali is a sailor (serang means ‘bosun’) who mediates between the English-speaking officers of the Ibis and her pan-Asian crew, who communicate using a maritime pidgin or creole known as Laskari. Here he gets to know Reed, who is passing as white and has been promoted due to attrition:
One thing that continued unchanged was the division of the crew into two watches, each led by a tindal. Most of the business of the ship fell to the two tindals, and little was seen of Serang Ali for the first two days. But on the third, Zachary came on deck at dawn to be greeted with a cheerful: ‘Chin-chin Malum Zikri! You catching chow-chow? Wat dam t’ing hab got inside?’
Although startled at first, Zachary soon found himself speaking to the serang with an unaccustomed ease: it was as if his oddly patterned speech had unloosed his own tongue. ‘Serang Ali, where you from?’ he asked.
‘Serang Ali blongi Rohingya – from Arakan-side.’
‘And where’d you learn that kinda talk?’
‘Afeem ship,’ came the answer. ‘China-side, Yankee gen’l’um allo tim tok so-fashion. Also Mich’man like Malum Zikri.’
‘I ain no midshipman,’ Zachary corrected him. ‘Signed on as the ship’s carpenter.’
‘Nevva mind,’ said the serang, in an indulgent, paternal way.
‘Nevva mind: allo same-sem. Malum Zikri sun-sun become pukka gen’l’um. So tell no: catchi wife-o yet?’
‘No.’ Zachary laughed. ‘N’how bout you? Serang Ali catchi wife?’
‘Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die,’ came the answer. ‘Go topside, to hebbin. By’mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife . . .’
(‘Afeem’ = opium)
This seems to me quite different from what most writers do when they write “dialect,” which is to make stuff up from nothing, or use misspellings that convey nothing except “this guy talks funny” (“wuz” comes to mind–how the hell else does anyone pronounce was?). Ghosh has probably had to do a bit of speculating, since there are no recordings from 1838 and probably no books written in Raskali, but the texture of Ali’s speech is very plausible. For example, his use of a form of “belong” is reminiscent of the use of “bilong” as a possessive in New Guinean Tok Pisin, and “one piece” to mean “a” is analogous to the use of “one” for “a” in Hawaiian Creole English. I think Ghosh knows what he’s doing, and more importantly, he cares
He also cares about what the language tells us about the people: Ali’s in-between speech reflects his status as an outsider (probably he is an outsider anywhere on land) and this makes it possible for Zachary to offer real friendship instead of the assimilatory mask he adopts with the whites on board.
Sea of Poppies offers lots of fun stuff like this, and he handles humanely some very delicate topics, such as the caste system and suttee, where there is a terrible risk of seeming nostalgically reactionary or of pandering to Western stereotypes. I wouldn’t say that Ghosh is exactly a literary genius, but this is really a kind of science fiction where the science is social science; viewed in that light, the writing is more than respectable.