Tuesday, 26 April 2011

English, but not as we know it

One of the great delights of India was they way it felt familiar, but in a very strange way; or sometimes, strange, but in a very familiar way.  In South America, I felt I was in a completely different world; India, somehow, didn't feel nearly as different as I'd expected it to.

Perhaps that was partly due to the widespread use of the English language. But it's not quite the same English as I hear every day in Norfolk or on the BBC. It's English put through a few chemical processes and with some spices added, rolled out, squeezed a few times, and pressed into a new shape.

I found that sometimes conversations would go like this:

- How do I get to the railway station?

- The what?

- Railway station.

- ???

- Railway.

- ???

- Going to Kochi. Train.

- Ah!!!!!!! REL-WEH!!!!!

Vowels are often flexible. I've seen a Brass Bend, I've eaten sendwiches. Spelling is as joyfully mutable as in the English of Shakespeare's day; often, a word will be spelled three different ways on the same sign.

And words have changed their uses, or sometimes, there is a different word - traffic circles instead of roundabouts. Hotels may or not have rooms - often they are 'food but not lodging hotels' - so it can be safer to ask for a 'lodge', which has nothing to do with Masonry.

My favourite usage has to be 'backside'. In English English, backside is arse, ass, fanny, bum, butt, bottom, fundament, posterior. In Indian English, backside is what it says on the tin; the back side - the other side, the road behind a station for instance, or the back garden entrance to a house. It is somewhat startling the first few times you hear it; even now, it makes me smile.

Then there is the (ever) present participle which is dominating the Indian-English language with its particular flavour; the continuous present is almost always used, in fact I'm not sure there is an alternative. I found within a few weeks I'd started using it myself; it gives the language a lilt and a sense of continuing time that the simple present tense of English-English doesn't possess. (Though it would be nice to know whether the tiger is actually eating people, or just does eat people from time to time, before I approach it...)

Journalistic Indian-English is particularly good fun - I was soon addicted to my daily paper, whether Times of India or (great paper) New Indian Express. First you have the extra words - gherao, dharna, neta, goonda, babu, the lakh and crore. (I did have a fleeting vision of Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan escaping to Hyderabad when I read the headline 'Goons hit local supermarket'...)

And then you have the superbly vivid way Indian journalists use the language. No one surrenders; they cave in, crumble, are whacked, smashed, crushed. It took me several weeks to get attuned enough to the language to read the op-ed columns, with their imaginative, slangy, dazzling way of throwing language at the wall to see if it will stick.

Indian English isn't quite the Queen's English. It isn't quite a different language either. But it's definitely alive and kicking.

(A good resource if you want to find out more about Indian English is the  excellent list of Indian English words which adequately translates all those I've used in this post.)

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