My wife and I just watched Satyajit Ray’s last film, Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991; my brother gave it to me as part of the Criterion Eclipse series, Late Ray — thanks, Eric!). It’s a superb movie that goes straight onto my list of Best Films I’ve Ever Seen, but that in itself wouldn’t warrant a LH post; what does is its focus on language. For one thing, there’s the constant presence of English in the dialogue (from dates like 1955 to adverbs, phrases, and entire sentences); it’s even more omnipresent than French in early-nineteenth-century Russian literature, and even though I knew English was omnipresent in India, I was still taken aback. And there is constant linguistic play: puns in English, misunderstandings between English and Bengali, discussions of the meanings of “prodigal” and the pronunciations of Wanderlust (German and anglicized), and poetry in both Bengali and English, not to mention bits of French and Spanish tossed into the mix by the much-traveled titular stranger. I heartily recommend it.

Incidentally, the Bengali pronunciation of Satyajit sounds like SHOT-toe-jit, as I learned from briefly dating a Bengali woman; you can hear it at this Wikipedia page. Bengali is a delightfully complex language that I hope to investigate more fully one day (needless to say, I have a Teach Yourself book and a couple of dictionaries).


  1. Incidentally, the Bengali pronunciation of Satyajit sounds like SHOT-toe-jit

    That’s because the Bengali “aksharas” are conventionally transliterated using their Sanskrit equivalents, and the resulting spelling is etymological rather than phonetic (ignoring all the intermediate steps between Old Indic satya- and Modern Bengali /ʃotto/). It is hardly stranger than the gap between the orthographic form of English knight and its modern pronunciation — only the historical distance is still greater.

  2. Sure, but most English-speakers have no clue about the Bengali situation, so it seems strange to them.

  3. George Gibbard says:

    Actually the Bengali name does not reflect all the sound changes from Old Indic to Bengali, it’s a modern-ish borrowing from Sanskrit (and thus reflects only more recent sound changes). According to an online dictionary I consulted ‘true’ in Bengali is sāccā [ʃat͡ʃːa] (as if from Sanskrit satya-ka-). I don’t know why the affricate is long since I thought Bengali underwent degemination, and I would have expected the first ā to be compensatory lengthening before a degeminated consonant (as happens in Hindi too).

  4. George Gibbard says:

    cf আজ āja (I presume [ad͡ʒ]) ‘today’ as well as borrowed অদ্য adya (I presume [ɔdːo]).

  5. Stefan Holm says:

    As it happens satya- (and /ʃotto/) have their cognates in English sooth and Scandinavian sann (true). It’s explained as the present participle of *es- ‘to be’ → *(e)sont-, ‘being’, ‘existing’ (i.e. true). Thus the historical relation between ‘is’ and ‘sooth’ corresponds to that between ‘eat’ and ‘tooth’ (Scandinavian tann / tand), the latter being the present participle of *ed- ‘to eat’ → *(e)dont-, ‘eating’.

    The cognates of English ‘true’ are in German ‘treu’ – faithful – and in Swedish ‘trygg’ – safe, secure, confident – and ‘tro’ – faith (n) or believe, think (v). Svensk Etymologisk Ordbok speculatively connects it to the word ‘tree’ with in turn an original meaning of ‘strong’, ‘steady’.

  6. I don’t know why the affricate is long since I thought Bengali underwent degemination

    Perhaps it isn’t inherited either but borrowed e.g. from Pali (sacca)? After all, most of the vocabulary of literary Bengali consists of culture loans. And of course satya (সত্য) is also, synchronically, very much a Bengali word (not just a name-forming element), whatever its historical trajectory.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    *es- ‘to be’ → *(e)sont-

    This is a case where postulating the elusive *h₁, despite the lack of direct evidence, makes it all make sense: e-grade *h₁es- → zero-grade *h₁sont-.

    The same holds with *d instead of *s.

  8. David, I don’t know what you would regard as direct evidence for a reconstruction, but “tangible” evidence for the initial laryngeal includes the Rigvedic negative form ā́sat- ‘unreal, nonexistent’, with a lengthened privative prefix, from *á-Hsat- < *ń̥-[h₁s-n̥t-].

  9. Just wanted to mention that I just read a lovely and very thought-provoking essay on Chekhov by Robert Hass.

    Worth a look.

  10. Link?

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Oh. Thanks, Piotr, that definitely counts!

  12. My personal favorite of Ray’s films in Jalsaghar (1958), a poignant tale of temps perdus. The scenes incorporating Bengali music and dance are powerfully depicted.

  13. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look out for it.

  14. Back when I used to read Cineaste magazine, there was an interview with a young (at the time) Indian filmmaker who said that Ray was viewed by his generation as a demagogue. In the next issue or so there was a letter from the filmmaker telling us that what he said was not demagogue but demigod.

  15. Ha!

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