Monday, August 31, 2015

Indian English

               India  deliciously spices up its English as well as its food


                                         Howard Richler

Guess which  country possesses the second-most speakers of English after the US? The apparent answer is the United Kingdom, but sometimes what seems apparent is erroneous.The correct answer is India where approximately 125 million people (10% of the population) speak English as either a first or a second language. English also serves an important function in India as the country possesses almost 1000 languages, but only Hindi and English are  likely to be understood throughout the country.

This past February I went on a three week tour of  India where judging by the English used by tour guide Amit, one wouldn't suppose that Indian English was at all distinctive. But given he was addressing two dozen North American tourists, he wouldn't use  normal vernacular. Had he done so, an example of the particular flavour of Indian English would be the following sentence I've concocted 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 long stick two to five feet long 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 thirty years ago that the last Englishman would be an Indian. Particularly in the past this held true  and I recall when I was researching Indian English for my book Global Mother English fourteen years ago I came upon some Internet usages that described some of the words and expressions that have become archaic in England. For example, 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 now 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.

In addition to archaic use, Indian English tends to be replete with effusive phraseology. “Don't eat my head” denotes irritation,  and 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.Also, 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 wordy entreaties such as “seeking mutual alliance for a daughter.” My favourite description of the ideal partner for a bride-seeking fellow, however,  was the oxymoronic “traditional with modern outlook.”

The syntax and grammar in Indian English can sometimes be perplexing to outsiders. The sentence structure can vary from the norm. In Indian English it is acceptable to say “What you would like to buy?,” “ It is the nature’s way”  or “my all friends are waiting.”   Also acceptable are verbal constuctions  such as “He is having many books” or “I am understanding it.” The present perfect is used often instead of the simple past so someone might say “I have brought the book yesterday.”  Single nouns are sometimes assigned a plural form of the verb or plural nouns a singular verb, e.g. “My marriages was typical arranged.”  Certain verbs might be employed differently. For example, one doesn’t “obtain” permission;  rather one “’takes” permission.

Notwithstanding that even some Indians view Indian English as sub-standard, for more  than fifty 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 spring 2016.