THE vast number of emails in response to May's Wordspeak ("Echoes in Language") took me by surprise. It was written on a whim, as an off-the-cuff reaction to a linguistic oddity that I came across often in North America. Judging from the way that particular column tickled the fancy of readers, the same idiosyncratic usage is apparently common in very many languages. The typical response, as Harshita Yalamarty wrote, was that the readers were delighted to have a name for an expression they all used. A Telugu girl born and brought up in Delhi, Harshita explained how "... (Punjabi) expressions like chai-shai, chicken-shiken, are very prevalent in conversations, almost a hallmark of Delhi language. In fact, too many ad campaigns using the word-echoes have been carried out to `represent' Delhi."I, therefore, must salute Khalid Ashraf, a Delhi University lecturer, for setting me right about the correct spelling of the term: taaba-e-mohmal, taaba meaning follower or one who obeys, and mohmal expressing the idea of `etcetera' — of all echo words, the piece-de-resistance for the purpose of the present examination. This, the experts say, is where "the second part of an echoed form is slightly modified from the first part. The echoed part is meaningless and has no free occurrence. In other words, the second part is not a word in itself, whereas the first part of the echoed form is truly an independent word in the language. The second part of the construction is derived from the first part."Hershl Hartman of Los Angeles pointed out that the correct transliteration of Yinglish (Yiddish-English) words was shmok (schmuck), shmuz (schmooze) and shmalts (schmaltz). Since taaba-e-mohmals are the characteristic of colloquial speech and Yiddish, just like Hindi and Punjabi, is spoken in so many different ways by so many different people, it might be imprudent to stick to any one transliteration in any language. Some readers referred to scholarly articles on the subject. Here is an excerpt, for the serious-minded types: "A significant feature... in the major Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages of the Indian subcontinent is the process of repeating the words or forms to perform a variety of functions. This process of repeating the forms is also noticed in the Tibeto-Burman and Munda languages spoken in the region, but not to the extent (found) in the Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages. In this sense ... reduplication and onomatopoeia form a significant regional feature of the Indian linguistic area." The examples of how some dialects used the labial sound, not the velar sound, as the beginning sound of the repeated part have been intentionally left out so that the column does not become a treatise on the subject.
Mention of kind readers, by far too numerous, who sent examples of taaba-e-mohmals in Tamil and other Dravidian languages would use up all space the editor allows for this column. One common feature of the responses was wonder and curiosity at learning that, besides their own, languages unfamiliar to them too had echo or hybrid words where the second member of the word was nonsensical. In Tamil, it seems, the sound `k' occurs most often in the second, meaningless word; it may be either `ki' (short) or `kee' long. Examples: Indian-kindian, noodle-keedle, open-keepen. There were instances of the copied word, similar to Telugu, beginning with the `ga' sound, as in veedu-geedu (house and the like), photo-geetto (photo and the like), and kaasu-geesu (money and the like). And of the `ma' sound: thatu-muttu (saucer and the like). Kannada speakers are wont to add the `pa' sound: ha:lu-palu (milk and the like), nu:ru:paru (nu:ru = hundred). Readers also pointed out some wholly "double echo" words, where both words are meaningless. In Tamil these are said to occur as kekke-pike and lottu-losuku, etc. Since in typical taaba-e-mohmals the second "meaningless" word serves to convey "etcetera", the question, naturally, would be what such "wholly double-echo", that is, two meaningless words together purport to convey?Taaba-e-mohmals have been noticed across the length of the subcontinent in the Sindhi language. The colloquial speech of Shikapuris, the adventurous seafaring natives of Upper Sind known for setting up businesses in the outposts of the world, alternates between `va' and `sh' sounds: puyou (father)-viyou, dheeyun (daughter)-viyun, putte (son)-vutte.How universal a feature echo words, and perhaps taaba-e-mohmals, are of colloquial speech is evident in the essay "Ecky-becky: Evidence of Scots echo word morphology in Barbadian English." Ecky-becky is a derogatory term applied to the local, rural white population of Barbados, particularly those living within the Scotland District of the northeastern section of the island. The following bit of doggerel refers to their clannishness and refusal to mingle with the native population: Ecky-becky is a nation, true botheration,As you touch dem, dem run at the station.Makes much more sense when recited in the true reggae style.E-mail the writer at email@example.com