First Published at hikayaat.com on 12 Feb 2020.
Chai shai is a classic Pakistani and Indian phrase and one that I hear my parents, aunties, and uncles call out a lot – sometimes with a hand turned out in the air. It has become a phrase that many know; establishing its presence in the desi hubs of British towns and cities with cafes calling themselves chacha’s chai shai.
But what exactly is chai shai? In case you haven’t heard, chai refers to tea, while shai when used independently is a nonsensical word. That is, it does not have any meaning outside of the expression chai shai. So, is it merely an arbitrary piece that comes after the main word chai? Is it simply there for the fun of the rhyme?
Well, linguistically, however big, small or frivolous sounding a word is, it holds meaning. So shai does have a meaning or two. Some native speakers will intuitively know that chai shai expresses tea and other similar items that go with it. This is one of the main meanings, but there are lots more of these kinds of expressions with all sorts of meanings. If you are a speaker of languages that have these expressions, you’ll have more examples at the touch of your tongue tips. As a native speaker of Pahari (Mirpuri-Potwari), I instantly had these pinging in my mouth: cha sha, kam sham, kitab shitab, gap shap, roti shoti, daal shaal, and chocolate shaklait. These phrases are also found in other South-Asian languages, such as Urdu-Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Pushto.
In this article, I’ll be giving you a linguistic insight into these expressions without too much jargon, but just enough to get you thinking about your every day language and how intricately and creatively we use language.
One of the main features of these expressions is how they sound; there is a rhythm to them as they roll off your tongue. Hence, I also talk on how the blend of the rhythmic sounds of these expressions connect us to our linguistic creativity and inner child. Making them a “piece of language” that is memorable and fun to use whether you are a native speaker of reduplication or a second language learner of them.
In linguistics, there is a term dedicated to expressions like chai shai called reduplication, which is a word formation process that permits a word or part of a word to be repeated. Hence we have a two word compound: in chai shai, chai is the base word and shai is the reduplicant word (the repeated portion). South Asian languages use reduplication to denote different meanings.
Chai shai belongs to the reduplication sub-category called echo words/constructions, in which the second word partially reduplicates the first word by replacing its first consonant. That is, the second word echoes the first word. You can see this in the table below for Pahari, Punjabi and Urdu-Hindi. Pretty, cool, huh?
|Base Word Translation||Pahari and Punjabi||Urdu-Hindi|
|cha/chai ‘tea’||cha sha/chai shas||chai vai|
|kam ‘work’||kam sham||kam vam|
|roti ‘flat bread’||roto shoti||roti voti|
|pen ‘pen’||pen shen||pen ven|
|daal ‘lentils’||daal shaal||daal vaal|
|juice ‘juice’||juice shoos||juice shoos|
|pila ‘yellow’||pila shila||pila vila|
|pani ‘water’||pani shani||pani vani|
|mota ‘fat’||mota shota||mota vota|
|tango ‘tango’||tango shango||tango vango|
In the above table, we can see that the echo-word is connected to the base word in its shared pronunciation. Interestingly, the echo-word is also connected to the base word in its meaning too. Professor Anita Abbi, an expert in South Asian linguistics, has carried out an in-depth study of reduplication and states that this type of reduplication refers to a “semantic (meaning) and phonological echoing”. In other words, there is an echo of not only the pronunciation, but of the meaning of the base word too. This brings us to the question: what are the meanings?
In all these languages, the echo-word holds no meaning itself, but it does hold meaning when in the reduplication compound. Echo-words typically have the meaning “and other similar things”. For native speakers, it is intuitive that chai shai has the meaning of “tea and other similar things”. So, in “we will have chai shai”, chai shai translates as “we will have tea, biscuits, samosas, rusks, mitai, chat/gossip…”.
Did you notice that all the items are related to chai? One couldn’t misinterpret chai shai as “we will have tea and exercise” unless you are a productive guru that can drink tea whilst exercising. Hence chai shai is very much context dependent and we are aware of what “other similar things” means.
As you can tell, the possible meanings are endless, as we can create an array of meanings. I think this is related to how memorable these expression are, which is likely to do with how memory works. The memory desires patterns whether that is rhyming, alliteration, repetition or reduplication. Once the pattern is memorised, the imagination creates new and unexpected uses of it. Thus making these type of expressions not only charmingly economical to use, but adaptable, creative, and fun too.
To get an insight into the creative and charming nature of these expressions, I have an exercise for you: how many meanings can you express with the list of the reduplication expressions in the table above? If you are to add on “and similar things” to each of the base words, what do you come up with? Could they differ according to the context? How many meanings can roti shoti convey? Do you ever use the meanings to lessen the effect of the base word meaning or to intensify the base word meaning? Do you ever use the expressions for coded meanings?
Reduplication and Creativity
In researching this article, I spoke (informally) to speakers of South-Asian reduplication and they responded with lots of examples and giggles either face to face or via WhatsApp (with laughing emojis). People enjoy these expressions and perceive them as fun. These words “fun” and “enjoyment” are not typically words that we use to describe parts of language. We usually ask questions about the purpose of language; what is language for? Communicating ideas, opinions, and emotions, as well as transmitting knowledge and so forth. Professor David Crystal calls this the “more sober perspective” of language.
But, since we have addressed the “sober” questions above, I want to now begin addressing the following question: what makes these expressions fun to utter?
I believe it is because reduplication taps into one’s linguistic creativity – reduplication allows you to play with a number of possibilities to convey specific meanings. Reduplication allows for language play, which connects you to your inner-child; playing with language as we did from the beginnings of our life.
Typically from birth, we enter a world of language play, as the adults surround us with all sorts of baby talk, at six months we have games like round and round the garden (or the equivalent), as we get older we move to nursery rhymes, then story time comes along with interesting words and rhymes, and we arrive at the school playground. Children begin playing with new and old rhymes, riddles, talking backwards and all sorts of tongue-twisters. In a cumulative manner, we then come to a point of realisation that language is not just for fun, but for serious reasons.
Perhaps, it is here when we begin to develop language ideologies, which may also be related to the development of the inner-critic or sensor that manifests in the form of “pardon my language”. Julia Cameron mentions how the inner-censor is what prevents us from playing whether that’s painting a picture or singing a rhyme. This censor can overpower the inner-child (aka inner-artist), and in her course book The Artist’s Way, she gives you tools, tasks, and activities on how to reconnect to one’s creative self.
The majority of adults are notoriously known to abandon play and their creative endeavours, however it is not all doom and gloom in our language use, as we do continue to play in our every day language. The inner-critic seems to have a blindspot: creativity manifests in every day speech.
There are so many examples of adults playing with language whether that’s with the sentence structure (syntax) or the grammar of a language to scrabble, crosswords, and cockney rhyme. What is quite interesting is that people especially like to play with sounds (phonetics). Therefore, reduplication in these South-Asian languages is an example of language creativity as it allows you to play with every day language to convey subtle and nuanced meanings, and perhaps at times coded meanings.
In creating expressions via reduplication, you’re let loose(ish) into the world of language play, as you did as a child. Not only does the creative aspect of reduplication connect one to their inner-child, but it is the repetition and rhythm of reduplication that our inner child loves, just like the beginnings of our life when our child self loved the rhymes filled with repetition and rhythms. These phrases can be seen as verbal art and child toys played in the adult world of language to express different meanings.
To wrap up, there seems to be a collective emotion that these expressions evoke in individuals which we may perceive and describe as fun, joy, happy, and childish. The giggly joy evoked by reduplication expressions is an example of us connecting to our inner child and ultimately our creativity. Reduplication is a word formation process which is a limitless linguistic resource for creating new words and meanings. The way they make us feel goes beyond descriptions and penetrates deep into our conscious.
Specifically, chai/cha/tea for many is a form of coming home, so it came to me as no surprise that the entire phrase chai shai gave me a feeling of joy. I feel joy, gratitude, and generosity when I or another utters chai shai. The joy is a special type of nostalgia that connects me to my ancestors. But, despite the specialised nostalgia I feel, I believe the warmth of the words chai shai can be extended to non-native speakers, just as one extends an invite for chai shai.
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