“What does your tattoo say?”
“Your name written in Telugu?” “Uh …
that’s exotic.” After a relatively short interlude, the
person with whom I am speaking forgets the word
“Telugu,” never to understand how much this language
connects the world.

Kate Green

Telugu is more than a language that 66 million people speak
— it connotes a geographical location, a people and a
culture. Telugu speakers originate from the South Indian state of
Andhra Pradesh. While the more popular South Asian languages, Urdu
and Hindi, are spoken in the larger cities of the state, Telugu is
the predominant language in the populous state, earning a
consistent spot in the top 20 most spoken languages in the world.
People who speak the language live in all parts of the world but
are concentrated in Andhra Pradesh and Singapore. This diaspora
creates a tapestry of culture based on the language that Western
languages lack.

I choose to write about this language, not because I am a
linguist or a language snob who thinks my language is better than
others. I hold onto the language because of a somewhat traumatic
event in my youth. After a few years in America, I had fleeting
memories of written Telugu. This did not stop me from attempting to
write a letter to my grandmother who lives in India. Unfortunately,
I misspelled my name in the signature, calling myself Srivya. What
was a simple, misplaced vowel created an uproar within the family:
I was losing my cultural identity and was letting go of my
roots.

Since Telugu is the language that connects the people from the
state, the connotations go beyond just the syllabary. Telugu people
are identifiable by their polysyllabic last names. We are known for
the dances that originate from our culture, be they kuchipudi or
koolaatam, classical style or folk dance with sticks,
respectively.

Telugu people in the diaspora are especially proud of this
heritage. There are associations in most metropolitan areas, a
national organization and an international association. These
groups meet for cultural shows, Telugu film screenings (a very
large movie industry is based in the Andhra Pradesh capital,
Hyderabad) and to network within the community.

One of the most recent endeavors in the local Telugu community
is the establishment of Telugu courses at the University. With the
support of the community, five other South Asian languages are
already being taught at the University; establishing the sixth
requires similar community backing. Not only is the community
responsible for half of the funds necessary for the course, but
members are also expected to inform students of the courses’
availability (the University has thus far done nothing to introduce
the class — they still fail to include it in the course
guide).

As a member of this community, I take it upon myself to
highlight the many reason the language is so impressive. Currently,
knowing a foreign language comes in handy the same way Pig Latin
provided means of communications with my siblings when we were
trying to coordinate something under our parents’ watchful
eyes and radar. This secret language is beneficial when the
situation is most awkward (think: someone you really don’t
want to dance with thinks he is the Michael Flatley of the
Sprinkler), as it is easy to signal a friend to save you —
undetected. A note of caution though: If you have any suspicions he
might be South Indian, refrain from using Telugu; it is, as has
already been noted, a very popular language. While understanding an
“exotic” language is fun, it is a superficial reason to
learn this particular language.

Understanding this language opens a door to ancient wisdom and
to high-tech centers such as Hyderabad, where one of IBM’s
main hubs is located. The connections languages offer transcend
Telugu, English and whatever other dialects about which you are
knowledgeable. Perhaps I only enrolled in the University course to
learn to write a letter to my grandmother, but this experience
allows me to connect with a culture that seems all too distant.

Chirumamilla can be reached at
“mailto:schiruma@umich.edu”>schiruma@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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