The Word Nerd: Indian spice flavours today’s English

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India is second only to the U.S. in the number of English speakers, with 125 million, or 10 per cent of its population, speaking the language of Shakespeare.

English serves an important function in a country in which nearly 1,000 languages are spoken — only Hindi and English are likely to be understood throughout India.

Last winter, I went on a three-week tour of India where, judging by the English used by our tour guide Amit, one wouldn’t suppose that Indian English was at all distinctive. But given that he was addressing two dozen North American tourists, he wouldn’t use normal vernacular.

Had he done so, here’s an example I’ve concocted of the particular flavour of Indian English he might have used, where the italicized terms represent Indian English: “The puskee goonda holding the tiffin carrier was eve-teasing the young woman, notwithstanding that the police-wallah with a lahti was standing next to the grameen bank near the kaccha road.” Some translation is in order: A puskee goonda is a feeble-minded hooligan and a tiffin carrier designates a small lunchbox; eve-teasing is a euphemistic reference to sexual harassment of women; a police wallah is a police officer (wallah denotes a profession); and lahti refers to a stick that is two to five feet long and which may be lead-weighted. A grameen bank refers to a village bank designed to aid the less affluent and a kaccha road is a dirt road.

British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge quipped more than 30 years ago that the last Englishman would be an Indian.

When I was researching Indian English for my book Global Mother English 14 years ago, I came upon some Internet usages that described some of the words and expressions that have become archaic in England. One site stated: “now we can all enjoy a few glasses of jolly good Indian wine without spoiling our reputations” and another used the phrase “out of station chappies.” Terms such as these are less likely to be used in India, however, words that are still used have actually been declared “obsolete” by the OED. These
include “condole,” for to grieve and “prepone” to mean the opposite of postpone.

Indian English is replete with effusive phraseology. “Don’t eat my head” denotes irritation. If your head is “eating circles”, you are most likely giddy. If someone utters “My head is paining,
father serious,” the person has a headache exacerbated by their father being very ill.

Should an Indian inquire “For what joy?”, the individual is trying to find out your reasons for a particular action.

Nobody can accuse Indian English of brevity. The expression “Please respond” is likely to be
replaced with the long-winded “Beg the pleasure of your response” or if a quick answer is required, “Please revert at the earliest reply.” The Indian English newspapers have large matrimonial
sections where you’re likely to find such wordy entreaties as “seeking mutual alliance for a daughter.” My favourite description of the ideal partner for a bride-seeking fellow was the oxymoronic “traditional with modern outlook.”

For more than 50 years Indians have been
exacting a modicum of revenge on the legacy of the British Raj by re-inventing English.

In 1947, Indian writer Raja Rao was one of the early advocates of a distinct Indian style of
English: “We cannot write like the English. We should not… Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.” Given that in the last three decades India has supplied several Booker Prize winners for the best novel in any Commonwealth country, I think it fair to say that time has spoken.

As a character in Hanif Kureishi’s 1995 novel The Black Album affirms, “they gave us the
language but it is only we who know how to use it.”

Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in March 2016.

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