Indian English

Landau, James James.Landau at NGC.COM
Tue Sep 18 19:56:10 UTC 2007

Laurence Urdang, you present the ADS list with such interesting inputs that I do not give a Continental whether you are on-topic or not.

I'd like to take some issues, not with what you said, but with the article you quoted:

          It has taken decades of struggle, but more than half a century after the British departed from India, standard English has finally followed.
                   Entry From Backside Only

  Young and educated Indians regard the desire to speak English as it is spoken in England as a silly hang-up from a bygone era. Homegrown idiosyncrasies have worked their way into the mainstream to such an extent that only fanatical purists question their usage.

Now Penguin, the quintessentially British publishing house, has put the nearest thing to an official imprimatur on the result by producing a collection of some of the most colourful phrases in use - in effect a dictionary of what might be called "Indlish".
  Its title, Entry From Backside Only, refers to a phrase commonly used on signposts to indicate the rear entrance of a building. Binoo John, the author, said young Indians had embraced the variant of the language as a charming offspring of the mingling of English and Hindi, rather than an embarrassing mongrel.
  "Economic prosperity has changed attitudes towards Indian English," said Mr John. "Having jobs and incomes, and being noticed by the rest of the world, have made Indians confident - and the same confidence has attached itself to their English."
  The 50-year-old journalist said he was inspired by the success of Lynn Truss's guide to punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and by years of reading newspaper reports of politicians "air-dashing" to a destination, "issueless" couples (those without children) and people "preponing" (bringing forward) meetings.

  But such phrases are entrenched. A driver, when asked what he does, may refer to his occupation as "drivery". He keeps his "stepney" (spare tyre) in the "dicky" (boot).
  Housemaids on their way to buy vegetables tell their employers they are going "marketing". Receptionists ask callers, "What is your good name?" before informing them that the boss has gone "out of station" (out of town) with his "cousin-brother" (male cousin). A government official urged farmers in Rajasthan to grow "herbs in their backsides" (backyards).
  "Everyone is breaking the rules and being creative about how to use English," said Rukmini Bhaya Nair, a professor of English at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. "It is finally being claimed by Indians as their own, instead of a relic of the Raj."
  Despite the changes, English has enjoyed phenomenal popularity over the past few decades. Good English can transform the lives of the impoverished - leading to a better job, a rich spouse, a more exciting social life, and social superiority.
  Couples who live on less than 25p a day will skip a meal to pay for their children to attend a school where they will be taught in English. The English-teaching industry is estimated to be worth £150 million.
  For the better off, fluent English and a "good" accent convey status faster than titles, names, addresses or offshore bank accounts.
  A 1997 survey by India Today magazine estimated that about a third of the country's population of more than one billion could carry on a conversation in English.
  The columnist Anjali Puri said pride in Indian English also stemmed from the success of writers such as Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie: "These writers have used English to portray Indian reality and it has given people the confidence to try out new words and play around with the language without being scared about whether they are correct."
  If spoken English can be curious, the written form is even more so. In railway offices, a standard opening line in correspondence is: "Dear Sir, with reference to your above see my below."
  As in Britain, employers complain that the standard of English is so abysmal that recruits cannot write a sentence without three grammatical mistakes. One call centre executive in Bombay said a new recruit wrote an email that began: "I am in well here and hope you are also in the same well."
  A glossary of the latest lingo as spoken on the streets of India
  Dear sir, with reference to your above see my below - popular opening line in official letters.
  Teachress - a female teacher.
  Timepass - a trivial activity that passes the time.
  She freaked out last night - she had a good time.
  Your lyrical missive has enveloped me in the sweet fragrance of our love - from a book advising lovers on how to write to girlfriends.
  How often do you take sex? - question from doctor to patient.
  Pritam Singh has left for his heavenly above - a death notice.
  Hue and Cry notice - title of police missing person newspaper advertisement.
  Don't do nuisance in public - government admonition against urinating in public

A new language flows like the Father of Waters from an older language by three major processes:
1.  new or changed vocabulary ("semantic drift" is included here)
2.  changes in grammar
3.  changes in sounds
Yes, ADS-L members can add more processes to the list, but I will make my point with these three.

The quoted article cites ONLY new vocabulary, and part (most?) of the new vocabulary qualifies as "slang".  The only grammatical error cited is "I am in well here" and was cited as an idiosyncracry of a single illiterate rather than a widespread usage.  "in the same well" is not an error in grammar but rather an admirable attempt to recover from a grammatical error---any prescriptivist's replacement of the second clause would sound worse than the original.

"heavenly above" is nothing more than an eggcorn and should be referred to the eggcorn database.  (OT---some ADS-Ler said "even a blind pig can find an acorn", obviously unaware that a "blind pig" is an illegal saloon.)

"backside" for "back yard" is jarring to US readers, who use "backside" as a polite way to say "buttocks", but, Senor, the average English-speaker in India probably has no idea what a "patio" is.

"Hue and Cry" was the King's English back when Uncle Toms in the Indian peninsula spoke Dutch.

"teachress" is grammatical English, similar to "actress" or "empress", both of which are also two syllables, and toss Mama down the stairs the news that until recently teachers in India were mostly male.

There is nothing wrong, by US standards, with "Your lyrical missive has enveloped me in the sweet fragrance of our love", particularly it if is addressed to one's squaw (although a little too saccharine to be said to one's papoose), and I must say I love the double-entendre with "enveloped".

Judging by the information in the article, this unreconstructed Suthner reckons that Indian English differs from the Queen's English no more than US English does, and it does not take someone from Missouri to doubt the article's thesis.

Let's just say that the author of this article has his burro up an arroyo in flash flood season without a GPS and his thesis would have better prospects in Cyclone Alley during twister season.

I might also point out that the author has shown no evidence whatsoever that Indian English has picked up anything from Hindi (or Bengali or Gujarati or Tamil).

Question:  how many varieties of reasonably standard English have developed grammatical differences from the Queen's English?  I can think of only two in educated US English: "directly" is not allowed as a preposition and indirect objects are used when the Queen's grammar would disallow them.

The author might have done better to discuss Singlish (Singapore English) which has changed phonetically, e.g. in Singapore "syringe" rhymes with "orange".

James A. Landau
Test Engineer
Northrop-Grumman Information Technology
8025 Black Horse Pike, Suite 300
West Atlantic City  NJ  08232  USA

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list