A heady marriage


English and Indian influences – Zimbly English

You start to notice the real difference only after you travel to other parts of the world. As we grew up in India, the English we learnt and the English we heard in the streets were we thought, the norm or the standard. So many usages that we assimilated were commonplace, and interestingly they arrived on the scene due to literal translation or adaptation of a Hindi, Urdu or even a South Indian phrase. Let us take a look at some of these interesting usages and as you can imagine, it is ever growing.

It was very common in the India of the 80’s, to hear the question, Sir, what’s your good name? The usage of Sir at every juncture can be heard only in India, and it for sure does not indicate that you are knighted. The honorific usage came about as a translation from sahib or janab, and coupled with the question above does not mean there are bad names, the ‘good name’ part comes from the colloquial Hindi, shub naam. Another typical usage is ‘boss’ every now and then, amongst the younger crowd. Hey boss, no problem boss, a usage which gets corrupted to ‘bass’ as you hit the Tamil and Telugu regions and ‘buuuss’ in Kerala. Now note here that the usage does not really mean that the person to whom it is directed is your supervisor, but somebody who is temporarily placed at a higher standing during the conversation, again like the use of Sir or Sahib.

And then you hear the usage, how was the lunch? Are yaar, it was First class! How on earth did that ‘first class’ come about? Perhaps due to the railways where the best was for the first class travelers. Sometimes you hear the question ‘when is he passing out’ and wonder, is he getting really drunk or not, only to realize that the question was about your son’s impending graduation. Ek kaam kar, a typical usage from Hindi gets translated to ‘Do one thing’. Maa ki kasam becomes ‘mother promise’ and you often come across ‘out of station’, a usage from the old EIC bureaucracy signifying ‘away from town on company duty’. I used to jot often whilst forwarding emails, the phrase ‘please do the needful’, and once a Turkish employee came to me asking what exactly that was supposed to be. It was then that I realized how stupid the usage was, when placed out of Indian context. Another typical office usage is ‘will revert back’, meaning I will work on it and get back to you, and does not mean the situation will go back to what it once was. Spoken English in India has many such usages and a common usage you will come across in India is the ever common addition of ‘no’ or ‘na’ to the end of the sentence, once attributed to ‘convent educated’ people!

Usages like ‘prepone’ and ‘like that only’ can never be found anywhere else and when somebody comes to you and says ‘I have a doubt’, you understand it instinctively only in India. It is most definitely not a part of a longer sentence such as I have a doubt on Chris’s experience, but it means you are unsure! In America, people get mugged all the time, accosted and deprived of their belongings violently, while mugging in India means cramming for your exams. FiancĂ© or FiancĂ©e becomes ‘would be’ in India. But there are mixed language sentences which firanghees cannot pick up - like in Bombay you hear the usage ‘tension mat lo yaar’…meaning don’t get tensed up. Sometimes you make a lame joke and the hearer in Delhi says, ‘aree, poor joke’. I wonder – since there were langada beggars, lame became poor? Schoolmates, classmates and batch mates take such important positions in the hierarchy of your memories and are not to be fooled with. It does not mean a mixing of genders in any way, and they need not be friends but belonging to a particular group connected by the calendar and an alma mater.

Nothing to beat the usage of rubber, which in India is precisely what it is, something that can also be used to erase pencil marks, but with its popular usage as a term for condom, you have to be careful these days. Another term I had issues with was the usage ‘co-brother’, while working at Madras. I used to wonder what exactly it meant – brother in law? Step brother? Well, generally it means your wife’s sister’s husband i.e. your wife’s brother is brother-in-law, and to convey a proper relationship, your sister-in-law's husband is your co-brother, a usage common in the Tamil regions of India. These days it is difficult to hear the Tamil usage cent per cent, but once upon a time, it meant ‘very sure, pukka or ‘definitely’! ‘God promise’ is something you will not hear in any other country (another version of - I swear!).

A most commonly used word is ‘fired’. If you say ‘he fired me’, it means ‘he shouted at me’, in India, not that somebody who has been thrown out of his job! Or there is the common place usage ‘by chance’ often heard in the Delhi regions added to Hindi sentences. The wife or missus usually go ‘marketing’ to the mall, and puts all the stuff in the ‘dickey or boot’ (trunk). The drivers in India has to have knowledge in changing the ‘stepney’ (spare tire) and you leave your RC book in the ‘dash’ (glove compartment). But it is only in Bombay suburban trains that you come across ‘time-pass’, which signifies roasted peanuts (eaten to pass time!). In India we have brothers and we have cousin brothers, and everybody who is not your parent is still an aunty or an uncle. I have come to the conclusion that this is so since we have been taught from childhood that ‘all Indians are your brothers and sisters’.

I read the other day that Amazon is teaching Alexa to learn Hinglish, but to be very frank, my experience with Siri and all other similar assistants has been simply terrible. They just do not understand me. The other day my friend was trying to instruct Siri to call me and the phone kept telling him it did not know his mother (for Siri – ‘man madhan’ sounded like ‘my mother’).

I read recently that English colleges are these days offering Hinglish as a subject finally signifying that it is not really ‘same same, but different’. Portsmouth College has offered it as a course and all British diplomats have since a few years been instructed to learn it! But the problem in India is that there is more than Hinglish, as you travel around, there is tanglish, manglish and what not. The only trick is to think in context, especially as the pronunciation of the original word also gets clobbered as in jeebra for zebra! You remember the usages with cum in India? I was in Rooms to go the other day and a young couple from the new state of Telangana were asking the wide eyed Latino sales girl for a ‘Sofa cum bed’. She looked flabbergasted. Well, don’t try using that in US, cum is ejaculate, in colloquial usage. Dual usages such as seat cum berth, toilet cum bathroom and so on are applicable only in India.

The version of Punjabi English mostly heard around Birmingham and London is quite different though, it is more modern in origin and reading a remarkable novel ‘Londonstani’ helped me understand some of the usages from that ‘rudeboy’ world. It is very difficult to follow if you have not lived in England or listened to it for a while. You get to know for example that coconut is the Indian Englishman who is brown outside in looks, but white inside in thinking. So many such similar usages common to the Punjabi dominated suburbs around Heathrow.

Indians actually get upset when you try to tell them they are not native speakers of English or that it is perhaps an alien language for them. They learn it all the time starting from kindergarten and use it effectively every day and at all occasions, sometimes even at home and trying to imply that others speak it better irritates them no end. Take for example Krishna Menon in the 50’s. Menon was complimented by a well-meaning Englishwoman on the quality of his English. "My English, Madam," he said to the hapless lady, Brigid Brophy, "is better than yours. You merely picked it up: I learned it."

In olden times we did have bad English speakers who spoke a broken English, what they called Babu angrezi, and without doubt, such English is still spoken not only in the remote parts, but also major cities and for that matter even more literate states such as Kerala. Nissim Ezekiel once wrote a nice book called Very Indian poems in Indian English and an example from ‘The Patriot’ will suffice to illustrate it

I am standing for peace and non-violence. Why world is fighting fighting - Why all people of world are not following Mahatma Gandhi, I am simply not understanding. Ancient Indian Wisdom is 100% correct. I should say even 200% correct. But modern generation is neglecting- Too much going for fashion and foreign thing.

Pakistan behaving like this, China behaving like that, It is making me very sad, I am telling you Really, most harassing me. All men are brothers, no? In India also, Gujarathies, Maharashtrians, Hindiwallahs All brothers -Though some are having funny habits. Still you tolerate me, I tolerate you…..

The usage of English on Indian signboards, mainly in the North leaves you dumbfounded at times, but when you understand the intent, you can only smile at the mix-ups in usage, when a beer bar become ‘bear bar’, where a tailor offers ‘alteration of ladies and gents’, where they launch a new drink called ‘computer juice’, and a popular Samsung advertisement states that ‘penis is mightier than sword’ and Anu S Sharma’s English school becomes ‘Anus English school’, or instances where they inform- that ‘shop lifters would be prostituted’. And of course there is the famous signboard seen often in Indian towns and cities ‘entry from the backside’ or when you hear it ‘open the backside of the car’. But these are examples of mistakes. It is also properly used, for Hinglish is popular in mainstream advertisements like ‘Hungry kya’? for Dominoes, ‘dil maange more’ for Pepsi, ‘life ho to aisi’ for Coke, ‘what your bahana is’ for MacDonald’s and so on…

Now coming to manglish, the heavily accented English spoken by Kerala’s, especially South Travancore Malayalis, a typical example can be seen below. My brother left koliage and zimbli went to gelf, agjually thubaai where he became very bissi. Agjually my ungle got him the joab. Now he yearns luot of mani and does not pay ingum tax. You know, they have no tembles there, but he listens to lot of pope music and he is planning to do his yum bee yae. The other day his car had an accident with a loree and his aandy had to jemb out of the window to escape. No otos in thubai!

There are more complex ones as documented by the British council, of the ‘teacher sitting on your head’ (wo sir par baitha hai). He is ‘eating my brain’ (demakh khata hain), my neighbor is ‘foreign return’ and was ‘doing his graduation’ in London, and even his sister is ‘convent educated’! There is also the special application of words like belong ‘I belong to Delhi’, but the usage ‘monkey cap’ can only be found in India, try telling you are looking for a balaclava, nobody, I am sure not a single soul would understand the term but a monkey cap, is definitely Indian. Talking about that, we have a number of baby-sitting parents visiting US during the April-Sept time frame and in our neighborhood, we can still see some of them going for their early morning walks in the pedestrian pathways with a monkey cap around their heads, imagine, in May – June when it is like 80 degrees Fahrenheit!!

I will always remember how my boss once corrected me when I said ‘yesterday night’ many moons ago. He explained patiently that it is ‘last night’ or as in ancient English ‘yester night’, never yesterday night. Similarly today morning is always ‘this morning’. Another oft used Indian phrase is ‘years back’ I remember him from years back! ‘Let’s discuss about movies’ is not considered right, it is ‘let’s discuss movies’, similarly ‘let’s order for pizza and fries’ is wrong, the ‘for’ is not required in the Englishman’s English. Now these rules are the so called Victorian English rules, todays rules are more relaxed with so many versions of grammar, spellings and so on. Microsoft word offers various English (US, Australian, UK, Indian, Caribbean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Philippines, South African, Singaporean and so on…..) options for language proofing!

Then of course, we have the interesting case of Parsees who added English trade and food names to their names as surnames, and without doubt are hilarious. And so you will come across Canteenwalas, Cakewalas, Masalawalas, Narielwala, Paowala, Confectioners, Messmans, Bakerywalas, Peppermintwala, Daruwala, Rumwala, Toddywala, Tavernwala, Biscutwala, Hotelwala, etc. But nothing to beat the sodawaterbottleopener wallah. That was a constructive and practical method of designating Parsees by profession in Bombay, I suppose.

It is always good to check out how some of Indian lingo entered mainstream English. Take the word Ginger – It was originally a Malayalam Tamil word, Inchi. Similar are the origins of Copra, Coir, betel, catamaran, cheroot, areca, calico, pappadum, teak, mango, curry.” There are so many similar ones from Hindi, Urdu and other Indian languages. The word Blighty – shows how language is constantly evolving. “It’s usually used by expat Brits referring to Britain and the homeland as in ‘good old Blighty’ but it comes from the Urdu word for foreigner or European, ‘vilayati’. One of the most delightful books you can refer to is the voluminous ‘Hobson Jobson dictionary’ which I introduced to you all some years ago. You will find many examples of worlds which are now part of English and this book tells you their origins.

Sometimes, it all makes sense, our own Ami - Madhavi Kutty aptly expressed it all, while introducing her ‘Summer in Calcutta’

I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don't write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness’s
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don't
You see?

There are many papers and books which have analyzed Hinglish and its development, and some even go on to point out that Shoba De writing in Stardust was the originator of popular Hinglish in Bombay while at the same time, Salman Rushdie used a similar vein in his books, living in Britain.  This is a topic you can write or talk about on and on, especially if you have lived in India and traveled about. But I promised myself to make this short and that I will.

Strange isn’t it, they say that about 300-400 million in India speak English, out of which 100-200 million speak it perfectly. Just imagine, that signifies the highest number of Indian speakers in the world and so wonder not why this new lingo was born, but see how it is going to develop! It is time for Alexa, Cortona and Siri to figure it all out and factor it in. After all most of the coding for those voice apps is being done by Indians anyway!


And there will always be Shashi Tharoor to gently guide us with great examples of how an Oxford educated English lord in London would have put it. He said - The purpose of speaking or writing is to communicate with precision. I choose my words because they are the best ones for the idea i want to convey, not the most obscure or rodomontade ones….

Recommended reading
Entry from backside only – Binoo K John

Hinglish by the way is defined as - a portmanteau of Hindi and English, is the macaronic hybrid use of English and South Asian languages from across the Indian subcontinent, involving code-switching between these languages whereby they are freely interchanged within a sentence or between sentence

Pics - Courtesy Amul

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