(Editor, EKL Review)
Barbe-a-papa literally means ‘daddy’s beard’ in French, a popular term for candyfloss, equivalent to “buddhikebaal” in Hindi, from which the cartoon character of the same name was inspired. Barbapapa, the sugary, cottony delight that melts in the mouth, comes in various shapes and sizes, and Barbapapa, the species, is malleable, and can shape-shift at will.
To equate language with a 1970s cartoon character that was fashioned after a piece of candyfloss might just seem like the kind of stretch one makes in a state of near-total inebriation, and it probably is, but like Bob Dylan had famously advised, “Be groovy or leave, man!”. Just kidding.My apologies to Annette Tison and Talus Taylor, the creators of Barbapapa, for this piece. The human mind is doomed to imagine and to draw strange analogies, and with a toast to that, here is why I think Barbapapa resembles language- not a language but the language.
To begin from the beginning, one fine spring afternoon, Barbapapa had suddenly blossomed from the ground with the flowers, not unlike how the faculty for language in the human brain, the LAD, had suddenly appeared one fine metaphorical spring in the history of human evolution. Both germinated in the soil (of earth and of the human mind) and grew, hidden from prying eyes, until they were significantly evolved to blossom.
The original Barbapapa wasn’t born out of anything; it was just there. Just as language is just there- it isn’t born of us; on the contrary, we are born into the symbolic order of language. At the risk of overstretching the metaphor to death, the original form of Barbapapa can also be seen as langue- the concept of language, and the different forms it assumes may be seen as speech/parole- individual utterances. To illustrate with an example, Barbapapa, in its natural form, is the concept of chess; Barbapapa, in a state of metamorphosis, is an individual game of chess. (The chess analogy was originally used by uncle Saussure and is as battered, frayed, and overused by now as the old Sorting Hat of Hogwarts, but works just as well).
The premise that instead of being the medium for us to express ourselves, language is a medium that expresses us, finds the metaphorical nod, or the vigorous-shake-of-the-head, in the big, bubble-gum pink, blob of head of the beloved Barbapappa. To reduce language to a medium that is under our constant beck and call to help us find expressions to, say, the ant biting us in the bum is, to put it mildly, conceited and hubristic. Language is a medium that expresses us instead. Language forms our worlds, shapes our points-of-view, and designs our worldviews. We are defined by it, caged in it, cooped up in its comforts, and also limited by it.
Another point of similarity stems from the fact that the Barbapapa species transfigures depending on the needs- its own and that of its immediate environment. For instance, when encaged by humans, it was able to transform and wriggle out of a cage and assume a number of different guises before successfully escaping the zoo. On another occasion, when a massive fire had engulfed a building, it was able to transform into a giant staircase to rescue the humans who were stuck on the upper floors. The external environment, thus, is what affects its transformations. There is a cause and effect relationship between the two.
Likewise, the most important quality of language is that it doesn’t fossilize; it is in a state of constant metamorphosis depending on changes at the social and cultural levels of the human society. Language, flexible and elastic, raises its pink blob-like head and undergoes a context-based shape-shifting as and when required. An example of this is seen in situations when novel ideas require expressing for which no known terms exist in a language. Linguistic malleability then is seen either in the form of inter-mixing of languages to form a new term, or through loaning a word and subjecting it to the phonetic rules of the language it is loaned into, or sometimes straight up pulling a new word like a rabbit from a magician’s hat (think words like fleekand bling). I now leave you to ponder over the shared malleability between Barbapapa and the superstructure that is language, so “Clickety-Click, Barba-trick!”, and adios.