Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Names of Flowers

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

(This post was sent by Nicolas Roth. Nicolas is a student of Indian history and literature and a life-long gardening aficionado. Born in Germany and raised there and in the United States, he somehow managed to fall in love with India and Indian languages. When he is not working on his dissertation, tending to too many plants, or trying to improve his Urdu, you can find him instagramming flowers, art, and the occasional dessert as nic_in_the_garden.)

Nicolas sent us a post in two languages. Scroll down to read the English version of this post.

The Names of Flowers

William Shakespeare’s Juliet tells her Romeo that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. These words of hers are famous throughout the world. They have even become a saying! However, in my opinion the thinking of the great dramatist of the English language was rather off in this matter. In reality, it is not the case that a rose’s beauty would stay the same regardless of what its name might be. Names have great importance, especially when we are talking about flowers.

Most people may never think about the names of flowers but I think and ponder over them often and in depth. Since childhood, gardening is a big hobby of mine (though I am not sure where that fascination came from). One day when I was very little and we lived in a flat in a big building I pilfered some sprouting potatoes from the kitchen, ran outside and planted them between the calendulas and the rosebushes in the flowerbed in front of the building. Something got going with that first crop of potatoes and these days I am writing a PhD dissertation on the gardens and horticulture of India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and particularly the agricultural texts of that period. In addition to having gardening as a hobby, knowing several languages is also useful in the research for this dissertation. Urdu is not my mother tongue, as you will already be aware having read these inelegant lines. In truth it is my fourth language, after German, English, and Spanish, and because of my research I have also had to study Sanskrit and Persian. In short, I think about the names of flowers a lot, and that too in quite a few languages.
Bibi Ferzana, Mughal Empire, c. 1675 
(Source : LACMA)

Now that I have shed light on the reason for my audacity in disagreeing with the great Shakespeare, I will have to explain what I actually mean. It should be clear that I do not mean to say that if we were to change the name of some flower, its color and appearance would really change. However, the relationship that we have with that flower does change. From giving something a different name a new manner of seeing can arise. A good example of this is the small tree that is called gul-i turrah in Urdu. It is beautiful indeed but never struck me as very interesting. Then I heard that Urdu name and all of a sudden I became completely intrigued. The name comes from the similarity between the red and yellow clusters of flowers of this shrub and the jeweled turrah or “crests” used to adorn turbans in the olden days. When I understood this the gul-i turrah plant began to appear to me as if innumerable priceless pieces of jewelry were stung upon it. The shrub in reality did not change at all but because of the beautiful name its allure grew greatly in my eyes.

Another such plant is the morpankhī. This is a tree that is often planted in gardens in place of cypresses. Before I would feel only boredom when looking at it. However, when I learned the name morpankhī or “peacock feather”, a new scene appeared in my mind. Peacocks come to mind that dance in the rain or the god Krishna who, having put a peacock feather on his head and playing the flute, performs his divine play along with his gopis in the gardens and groves of Vrindavan. Now when I look at the morpankhī tree I also see these enchanting images. In this manner different experiences result from different names, and a new experience can be the basis of new enjoyment.

When talking about the special magic of plant names in Urdu it is at last also necessary to mention the flowers that are called “jasmine” in English. In English it is just one single name but in reality there are many different types and in Urdu there are even more names for them. Yāsmīn, cambelī, and jātī, jūhī, kund, mallikā, rā’e bel, belā, motiyā, and mogrā, and the complete list would be even longer. Motiyā and mogrā are my favorite plants and words from among these. They are both different varieties of the species rā’e bel or mallikā. The glowing white buds of motiyā look like motī or “pearls”, so the name is apt. The buds of mogrā because of their abundance of petals appear like little mallets or maces. Again many colorful images come to mind, of treasure troves of pearls and the exercise mallets or mudgar of wrestlers and the mace of the god Hanumān. In addition to this it is also quite surprising that Urdu describes these flowers in such detail to begin with. Generally everyday language has names for specific species of plants and sometimes for a genus. It is pretty rare for entirely separate common names for different varieties of one species to exist.

I have a particular attachment to Urdu but really this is not just a matter of Urdu. The magic that I have found in Urdu’s flower garden exists in every language. However, the appearance is different in each language, the color and style are different. This is a very good thing because every language grants us a new point of view and gives us the chance to see new things and find surprise and enjoyment. German is my mother tongue and English the speech of my everyday life. Both are windows from which some particular parts of the world are to be seen. From the glass of Urdu’s sweet colorful utterances another big, bright window can be made, and more languages mean yet more windows. We who are only human can perhaps never see the full panorama but with each new word one more piece comes into view.

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