Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



Njanga Neenga – a Coastal Dialect Dictionary

In August 2019 Jerson Sebastian published ‘Njanga Neenga’ – a Coastal Dialect Dictionary of the variety of Malayalam spoken by fishermen in Kollam, India, which we will present to you in this week’s blog post.

Cover of Jerson Sebastian’s book ‘Njanga Neenga’

About the language

The language documented in Jerson Sebastian’s dictionary is spoken by fishermen in Kollam, which is located in India’s Kerala state. The costal stretch where Jerson Sebastian’s data come from is 12 kilometres long, comprising ten villages from Thangassery to Thanni.

Jerson Sebastian believes that about 20.000 local fishermen use the endangered variety documented in his dictionary. he estimates that only 10% of the second generation fishermen use these words. Others are slowly switching to standard Malayalam meaning that the local variety that evolved over four centuries may not survive for long. The distinctive feature of the Thangassery coastal language is its strong foreign influence, such as Dutch and Portuguese expressions.

About the book

The name of the book ‘Njanga Neenga’ translates to ‘we and you’.

Jerson Sebastian says about his dictionary:

In this book, you will find a wide range of words connected to fishing and every coastal community in Kerala can contribute to further enrich it. If we let the language die, we will also lose a treasure of indigenous wisdom that is encoded in them. These experiences and expertise can’t be expressed in formal Malayalam hence we need to preserve it for future generations. In Kerala, we should have a ‘Sea Dictionary’ covering all the seashore villages and their lore.

How the dictionary was developed 

Jerson Sebastian, who works as an HR professional in Saudi Arabia, mainly collected the data contained in the dictionary through daily phone calls with his parents, taking care to address them in the local variety of Malayalam. He also noted down words he remembered from conversations with fishermen back home. His father is a fisherman and during his childhood, he helped his father after school. He noticed that the words his father and the other fishermen used were not part of the language textbooks.

Jerson Sebastian believes the dictionary is of importance, as it will provide a record of a disappearing variety which might prove interesting to future generations. Furthermore he states:

The local fishermen have a great amount of marine knowledge and they can only convey or communicate this marine knowledge in this local language. In order to understand their marine knowledge, if the researchers and scientists have this kind of dictionary, they can easily refer and get a complete picture of these indigenous fisherman’s marine knowledge.

ELAR depositor and ELDP grantee Hugo Cardoso, who has been documenting Sri Lankan Portuguese, and earlier did research in Kerala on the local Portuguese-lexified creole says:

By collating lexical items that set apart a particular lect of Malayalam associated with a specific region (around the city of Kollam) and group of speakers (the fisherfolk), “Njaanga Neenga” adds complexity to the description of this South Indian language, and does so by shining the spotlight on a community which is geographically and socially distant from the centres of standardisation. There is, however, a historical circumstance which adds interest to the book’s subject matter: the fact that Kollam, along with the nearby ports of Kochi, Kannur, and Kozhikode, are the sites of the earliest Portuguese trading posts in Asia – set up in the early 16th century -, and therefore witnessed the very first instance of sustained language contact between an incoming European language and an Asian language. In Kollam itself (particularly the area of Thangassery), a Portuguese-lexified creole was spoken at least until the 1920s, and the overall impact of Portuguese on standard Malayalam is widely recognised; but there are also indications that the lects spoken by certain (especially Catholic) sections of the population borrowed an even larger number of lexemes. It is therefore interesting that Kollamfisherman Malayalam features many Portuguese loans, and also loans from Dutch, who took over in the mid-17th century – a distinctive lexical repertoire accrued over 5 centuries, which now appears to be waning.

The project has attracted some media attention in India, and can hopefully inspire others to document their local linguistic varieties. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *