Being Indian in English

Linguistic innovation

Being Indian in English

playing with words Indian English writing is gaining popularity.

Whatever you choose to identify as the cause — globalisation, the Indian diaspora or perhaps even the growing international popularity of Bollywood movies — the world is becoming increasingly aware that Indian English has its own identity.
More than 60 years have passed since the people who brought English to the subcontinent returned to Blighty (Surprisingly, that affectionate term for Britain — conjuring images of the homeland’s white cliffs — originates from a Hindi word.) Of course, the British did not go empty handed. By 1947, dictionaries were brimming with pukka English words — such as ‘caravan’, ‘bungalow’ and ‘shampoo’ — whose origins can be traced back to India.

Post-Independence, the Indian and British versions of the English language have experienced some divergence in their development. Yet, that of course, is not a new phenomenon. Think about the differences between British and American English. Spellings, pronunciation and even some word meanings differ. George Bernard Shaw was prompted to make the now famous observation that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” I’ve always been fascinated as to why the word colour is spelt ‘color’ — without the ‘u’ — in the United States but course is not spelt ‘corse’.

India, of course, is home to numerous languages and dialects; these, of course, influence how people speak English on the subcontinent. Some provide words and phrases that are gradually absorbed into English. Yet, it is usually stock phrases that make ex-pats from places such as England, Canada or the United States aware that Indian English is somewhat different to the version of the language they speak in their “native place”.

To foreigners living in India, even a walk in Cubbon Park can bring exposure to Indian English phraseology. In the bigger cities of the UK, being surrounded by a group of youths while out for a stroll in an inner-city park would often be the adrenalin-inducing warning sign of impending trouble. In India, though it is more often than not a friendly encounter and usually the precursor to posing with the group’s members for a photo and being asked questions such as “what is your good name?” and “where are you put up?” In such circumstances, for a few moments, it’s easy to feel like a bit of a film star and to empathise with people like Brad Pitt who must be asked to pose for photos with strangers on a regular basis.

On an official level, the English used in India has some interesting turns of phrase. When first asked, “What is your designation?” while in a busy waiting room, I have to admit to feeling like a bashful schoolboy, unable to answer a question in front of the class. A lot of inquisitive eyes were focused on me. Feeling pressurised, I said ‘mister’. I had no idea the receptionist expected me to give a job title. Such experiences are all part of life’s learning curve.

The first time I heard somebody bark, “tell me!” from behind their desk, I felt like turning on my heel and leaving the room. I was shocked. A childhood of being told to be polite, to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, was being challenged. I checked with friends and they assured me that ‘tell me’ is not at all impolite. “It’s implicitly polite,” I was told, “an invitation to explain what you need”.

My favourite Indian English phrases tend to be found near the final lines of letters and emails. “Please revert with comments” is a beautiful way of asking for a reply. How can you not respond when you are asked so politely? It may sound a tad antiquated, but it’s so much nicer than saying “please get back to me...”

In terms of Indian English, my favourite phrase — I actually like the fact that repetition is used to emphasise a point in India — has to be, “please do the needful.” It is polite, open and so clearly understandable. It’s a term that, as far as I know, is not used elsewhere in the world. In that respect, “please do the needful” is to India what “mind the gap” is to London.

What to do? Isn’t it a cause to celebrate that we can make ourselves understood, whatever version of English we speak, and that the language is robust enough to exist in various forms.

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