Amitav Ghosh on Laskari

amitavghosh2There are several striking differences between the Laskari dictionary of Lt Thomas Roebuck[i] and Anthony Vaz’s Vocabulary Of Nautical Terms[ii]. The most important perhaps is that Roebuck was attempting to make the case that ‘Laskari’ was, if not a language, then certainly a dialect in its own right, created out of the merging of many different languages – Arabic, Portuguese, English, Bengali, Malay, Malayalam, Tamil, Kachhi and so on (although a few Marathi words figure in his dictionary I cannot remember any specifically Konkani terms). But Vaz does not anywhere acknowledge or use the term ‘Laskari’ – the very word ‘lascar’ does not figure in his book. This is probably because this word had, by the late nineteenth century, acquired pejorative racial connotations: as a seaman himself Vaz would have been acutely aware of these overtones. Such indeed was the stigma attached to the word ‘lascar’ that it more or less fell out of usage after the Second World War.

Throughout his dictionary Vaz insists that the language of Indian seamen is Hindustani, except for the ‘technical names’ which, he asserts ‘are all Arabic in their origin’. In this he was mistaken: many of the words for the rigging, masts, sails etc. came from other languages, especially Portuguese. For example, the Laskari word for ‘mizzen-sail’ was trikat which comes from the Portuguese traquete. Similarly, taliyamar, the Laskari word for ‘cutwater’ came directly from the Portuguese talhamar. There are innumerable such examples.[iii]

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