The first time I heard the theory that a full stop could be considered a full-blown tantrum, I was at the bus-stop. It was early evening in March. My classes were done, the weekend was nigh, a feeling of lightness had descended upon campus.
Having missed the 4:30 pm shuttle to the metro station, I found myself standing at the porch with a gaggle of my students, being lectured on the finer nuances of texting. It had all begun the day before with a controversially punctuated message. (Mine)
Someone: Prof, will we have an end-semester exam?
It was as simple as that. But by the time I met the students today, the matter had taken an unexpected turn. They looked tense. Was I angry? Was something wrong? Should they expect a surprise quiz in class? I was bewildered. They knew writers were temperamental creatures- was this my Hyde face?(This last was muttered by Teesta under her breath)
Apparently, it all came down to the full stop. In their world, you only used a full stop while texting if you were angry ("pissed off"), high, or breaking up.
"Wow," I said, slipping into their vernacular— - they were always saying wow. "I had no idea. You see, to us, the full stop is a neat little way to end a thought. Closure, that’s all. Do you just want that ‘No’ hanging there loosely, like someone who was stood up on a date?"
"Date! How quaint!" They shake their heads as one. I was grateful that by then my shuttle had arrived and I could wreak no further damage to my reputation.
And then, as the bus began to move, they laughed and dispersed into the sunset, my beloved 18-year-olds, into their madly busy lives, and I settled into the seat and thought about the nature of language.
In my time at JNU a hundred or so years ago we literature students invariably took one or two courses from the linguistics department, the two centres having been one entity till very recently, and shamelessly deployed that little knowledge to spout bullshit on semantics, or the politics of slang and its analogues, or how language was a living organism.
In my final semester, I'd signed up for "Semiotics" with Prof Franson Manjali, who was popularly regarded as the height of cool, with his man bun and French theory and rumours that he and his philosopher-wife spent half the year in Paris.
Buoyed by these shallow reasons, my friends and I had found ourselves in the sunlit classroom where, two afternoons a week, he spoke eloquently of Blanchot and Nietzsche. Truth be told, I soon found myself out of my depth.
There was a lot of drama happening in my life at the time 22 is a particularly dramatic age if you ask me - and I don't think I did justice to the complex jargon-intensive readings he assigned. The sum of what I remember from that course was the Nietzschean concept of "counter language".
As someone who taught writing, in the classroom, I was constantly drawing my students’ attention to the elegant construction of sentences and arguments. But Nietzsche would have thoroughly disapproved of this approach: of sacrificing the appreciation of the "living body" of the language in favour of its anatomical study.
He had advanced the concept of a “counter language” blooming within language, a radical, political, urgent thing. While he argued that it was writers who came up with this necessary interruption, my money, I realised that evening on the bus, was on 18-year-olds.
That night I sent out an SOS on the selfsame group. Help arrived soon.
Teesta: Observe and learn my favourite is kitkat. But fuse slaps too
Me: What's fuse slaps (Killed me to omit the ? but heaven knows what it means in their world.)
Teesta: Fuse is a chocolate slaps, when something slaps it means it’s amazing
Me: Use in a sentence
Teesta: hhhhh (okay that's a groan, never mind) The other day I made pesto and I was like oh this slaps.
i punctuated and highlighted for your benefit
Me: Aaaah. What we used to say: rocks
My pesto recipe rocks. See?
Teesta: Eww we gave that up the second we turned 13 slaps is an emotion
Me: Dear child, your road to slaps was paved with rocks.
Me: Okay give me two other sentences
Teesta: It means the same thing only, it doesn’t differ depending on context "dude these momos slap" also it’s usually food ha not like "bro the weather slaps". Nah nope × It's only when you ask me these things that I have to actually think nobody told me this. Just a rule that I intrinsically knew
Me: In linguistics, that’s what they call intuition of the native speaker. (Mic drop) Apparently, I did remember this one other thing from linguistics class too: intuition of the native speaker. Meanwhile, as you can guess, there's a great deal more in that weird wonderful world of the counter language. Contact your nearest native speaker for more.
(Affectionate acknowledgements to Teesta Rawal)
(The writer is an author and a teacher. Her latest book is Friends from College and she can be reached at email@example.com)