Thus spake the Indians in English

While in the UK, I had a colleague, Kenny, who was Scottish. He was a great chap, and would often stop by my workstation and with his elbow propped on the desk, he would crack jokes. Just looking at him made me want to laugh – not in a bad way, he just was someone who brought cheer to the room with his very presence. Which was just as well, because after we finished laughing wholeheartedly and Kenny would go away, I would have to turn around and ask my colleagues in the room, ‘what did he say?’  I worked in that office for about 6 years, and everyone there, all white Caucasian English, – with but one or two exceptions who had the lilting Welsh accents – and in all those years I never managed to understand a whole sentence which Kenny spoke. Lip-reading was useless too, because he was too fast. In that most generous of places to work in, my colleagues all admitted without reservation that I knew and spoke the best English among them. I never quite understood why the Brits use an ‘r’ after every word ending with an ‘a’. So idea sounded like ‘idear’, comma became ‘commar’. They were most of them not even aware that they said those things.

English. It has been the language which has incorporated the most from cultures and countries it has been to. Or lorded over. Words like verandah, bungalow, pyjamas, jodhpurs all originated in India. And we Indians, in turn, have taken their language and turned it on its head almost, making the Indian English morphology very creative and filled with new terms and usages. The compounds cousin-brother and cousin-sister allow the Indian English speaker to designate whether their cousin is male or female — a function which is inherent in the terminology of most Indian languages. My theory about this (based on nothing but my thoughts), though, is that this is also a vestige of our joint-family systems where cousins lived together and one never quite distinguished between children of same parentage. My friend brought it to my notice, as she used to sit and watch and hear us talk on the phone to Indian friends and she always spoke about how much English we spoke in our day-to-day mother-tongues. Several idiomatic forms, derived from Indian literary and vernacular language, also have made their way into Indian English. Despite this diversity, there is general homogeneity in syntax and vocabulary among the varieties of Indian English. As in, the mistakes made are fairly similar all over the country despite the totally different languages used within India. And now of course, with cable TV, they are further universalized. I do not know any other language well enough to comment on whether this sort of thing happens in languages in other countries too, but sample this:

  • The Indian might say: ‘Seriously, she is a good person’ instead of just ‘she is a good person’. It is not because she has a poker face or because her being a good person has any serious ramifications; he only wants you to take the matter not as a joke and for you to believe it.
  • The Indian might say: ‘I only told her to do that’. Instead of ‘I told her to do that’. What he wants to do is take credit for being the one who told her that and the extra word is unnecessary, but if you point it out, you’re a snob. I am one.
  • The Indian might say: ‘Vivek was not there but’, instead of, ‘but Vivek was not there.’

Indians also shorten many words to create commonly used terms. Enthusiasm is called enthu; and it can be used in new ways. One can say, “That guy has a lot of enthu.” While this is simply an abbreviation, enthu is also used as an adjective where enthusiasm cannot, as in “He’s a real enthu guy.” I have heard this a million times and am now too tired to correct it. Along similar lines, what you are saying in Bengali as ‘Ore khub cali achhe’ cannot be translated, even in this confused English that we speak today, as ‘He has a lot of cali’ (cali being the Indian-made diminutive for caliber, I am assuming, – but this has become something like folk lore and I won’t be able to vouch for its origin. The same applies for fundamentals, which is shortened as fundas. “She knows her fundas.” Fair enough, you would think. What is interesting about fundas is that when the -as ending is dropped and -u is added, it takes on a new meaning and can be used in a new way. Fundu basically means fundamentalist, to this breed. Another aspect of grammar that is often inconsistent is the use of also (a very popular word in Indian English). It can be found in various parts of a sentence, but it tends to be placed at the end, “We never even used Hindi word also.”

One of the most indicative signs of Indian English grammar is the use of the progressive aspect with habitual actions, completed actions, and stative verbs. This produces sentences such as “I am doing it often” rather than “I do it often”; “Where are you coming from?” instead of “Where have you come from?”; “and “She was having many sarees” rather than “She had many sarees”

When I first came to the boarding in La Martiniere, in Calcutta, I found it quaint and faintly ridiculous– and do so even in retrospect, but now I also find this clinging to a linguistic past cute. Here’s why: the fairly ugly blue-with-white-border-sheets which we had to place over our personal bed sheets were called, (fancy that!), “counterpane”. Napkins in the dining hall were called serviettes.

I can remember a time in our lives when we did not have this vegetable we call capsicum. Yes, that is how old I am. And then our bazaars got flooded with them. In the US, they call it peppers, bell peppers if you are lucky. All our childhood, I only knew one kind of pepper – the small, mole sized black thing one either found ground or could do so with the mortar and pestle. My brother got a scholarship after 4 years in IIT Kanpur to realize he was back in ‘school’ again. I went to UK and realized people read English when they study it. So if you are a neuroscientist, and if you are told ‘oh, so you don’t read English’, note that it is not a reflection on your English- reading capabilities, but just that you are not doing English Literature as a subject.

Crisps – that is the first jolt I got when I went to UK. After staring completely dazzled by Heathrow airport (and after Calcutta airport, even in its much exalted set up now, it was a huge jolt), I walked up to a newsagent and asked for a packet of chips. The man said, quite naturally, that they did not sell chips. By now I was beginning to get angry, and thought he was pulling a fast one on me, seeing how my utter bewilderment must have shown on my face, because I could see several packets of chips lining his shelves. So I went to the shelf, got the packet and handed it to him. He looked at me, and said, bless his heart, ‘sweetheart, those are called crisps here’. And there is another culture shock, a stranger calling you sweetheart. Even my mother or my husband (then fairly new, and hence not as romance-less and wife-weary as he is now) never called me that. But I heard him say the same to a fairly elderly lady, and then decided it was par for the course here. Now if I brought back that bit of education and say, use it on a salesman in any shop here, even the posh ones selling vulgarly priced shirts with alligators stitched on their pockets – I would either get a curt rebuke, or given my age now, I would be stared at so furiously I would never risk entry in that place again.

All my childhood my mother screamed at us to have a bath. But hello, the bath that you have under a shower is not a bath, it’s a shower, and that which you have filling up a hot tub with all kinds of useless high-priced salts, which Body Shop and M&S and now other places sell, is a bath. They don’t have a variant for the type where you take water from a large cemented structure filled with water in mugs and poured down heads. I will keep you informed when they do.

When you are mad at someone, you are angry. But being mad about something means something completely different. Now don’t ask me why that is – there is only so much knowledge I have about any subject, and mine ends here. When you wish to accelerate in the US, you normally are supposed to ‘step on the gas’, but try saying that to someone, say, my dad’s age, he will wonder why I am instructing the driver and making rude comments about his alimentary canal. And this one is a whopper – if you mention in England or elsewhere, you could be what is considered a weirdo. I did it a few times before realizing what I had done. Here in India, if you are asked to open the boot, the usual term is ‘dicky’. Do not say that in the context of your car boot. Ever. (to find out the reason, contact me – the mail quarantine will catch me otherwise.) Also, when you want a lift, make sure you don’t talk about taking a lift, because your audience will wonder what sort of escalator you can find in the middle of the road. You either get a lift, or you get a ride.

And since I have taken you for a ride, pretending this is a serious blog, let me say goodbye for now, because I really do not have much else to say.


3 thoughts on “Thus spake the Indians in English

  1. As entertaining as it is educative. The Indians also have a penchant for suffixing ‘no’ with most sentences- you see no, he had come no, let’s go no!! They may have shortened , sliced or spliced English words but their polysemous potential is not lost in the usage as Lali illustrated with the examples on cali, funda and enthu. The real divide in the language is, however, I guess across the Atlantic than the Suez- I mean the divide which gets an Englishman’s goat. Write more no!!

    1. I toh can’t keep writing about English – I am being viewed as this nose-up-in-the-air person, a grammar nazi. I need to write simpler stuff, I can hear :).

      Shall write more about the Atlantic divide soon – got a few more requests for that too. Thanks for your comments, Vivek.

  2. Nice article, I am thinking. Too good, seriously. Maybe you made a mistake, but ? See the following :

    ” They don’t have a variant for the type where you take water from a large cemented structure filled with water in mugs and … ”

    should be, I am thinking,

    ” They don’t have a variant for the type where you use a mug to take water from a large cemented structure full or water, and … ” or

    ” They don’t have a variant for the type where you take water with a mug from a large cemented structure filled with water and … ”


    Seeing where you are coming from, it is OK but (pun not intended). Can’t help saying : lol !

    All said and done, nice post, thanks for sharing.

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