indianisms, pt. 1

I read a book recently that claimed it was to do with English as it is spoken in India. The book, by a German fellow (if I recall) called Andreas Sedlatschek, is entitled “Contemporary Indian English: Variation and Change” (the book is going for $158 on Amazon, by the way). The book in question turned out to be a bit of a scam. If you visit India, you will soon notice that English-speaking Indians indulge in a large amount of Indianisms in their speech. I would think this would be quite normal for a country with a large amount of English speakers, but virtually none of them native speakers. As a result, Indian English abounds in words and phrases (not to mention pronunciations) not found among native speakers. I don’t say that this is a negative or a positive thing; it simply is. However, Andreas (I can find no information on this fellow, or I’d share it) seems to take as his hypothesis that there really aren’t very many Indianisms; those that we hear and read are from Indians unfamiliar with English, are isolated incidents, are mis-steps, or are occasionally found in English-mother-tongue countries, and thus not Indianisms. However, even a short trip to India will show you that what Andreas considers slips of the tongue or isolated incidents are neither of these, since they are used by virtually all English speakers. ‘Unfamiliarity with English’ is not valid either, when data is taken from major daily newspapers and the like- if the ‘Times of India’, touted as the world’s largest circulation daily English newspaper, is being written by Indians “unfamiliar with English”, it doesn’t say much about English-speaking India. In addition, Sedlatschek seems to rely by and large on some corpus of mostly written and transcribed Indian-English: this is fine, I suppose, for historical Indian English, where it’s all you have, but a ten-minute conversation with an English-speaking Indian will turn up plenty of Indianisms not reflected heavily in any corpus: it’s like saying “cheers” or “innit?” are not Britishisms as they don’t appear too often in Times of London articles. Five minutes of speaking to a British, especially of the ‘pissed’ variety, will show you this. Finally, the fact that an Indianism appears sometimes in other lands doesn’t make the item in question not an Indianism: ‘O.K.’ is used the world over, but no-one doubts it’s an Americanism. In cases where Sedlatschek’s data clearly points to an Indianism or indigenous turn-of-phrase, and thus contradicts his hypothesis, he dismisses it with something like ‘more research is required here’. In short, I was looking for a review of Indianisms and any other relevant information, not being told that what I heard on the streets of India was not real.

Well, lately I have been reading a book by a Mr Tarquin Hall, ‘The Man Who Died Laughing: From the Files of Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator’ (2010)- this is a light mystery novel, very enjoyable so far, about a portly Punjabi fellow who solves crime in Delhi. The author, an American-English fellow, is married to an Indian BBC presenter, and according to the book flap, lives in Delhi; indeed, his website shows him standing in front of some sort of Moghulesque structure in what looks like Delhi. Now, the interesting thing about Hall is that his characters speak in Indian English- this is in stark contrast to most other books I’ve read set in India, by Indian or non-Indian authors, in which the characters speak in a more or less neutral English, perhaps with a few local words thrown in for effect or to name foods or such things. However, Hall’s characters speak an Indian English that is greatly in accord with my notions of that dialect, and so it relieves me a great deal to see that someone else has heard what I’ve heard, despite dismissal from Indians and German academics.

Over the next little bit, I’ll present some Indianisms, and I’ll give an example from Hall to show I’m not imagining it, that it’s not due to isolated turns-of-phrase or statistical outliers, and that it is an example of Indian English as it is spoken. I’ll give the standard American translation of the Indianism, and also an example I have heard in India of the phrase being used.

Today:

So much of for so much, a lot of or very. Examples overheard: I am feeling so much of mad at her (so much of = very). These British are drinking so much of beer (so much of = so much, a lot of).

Example to prove I’m not making it up: “What took you so much of time?” asked the detective… (Hall 2010, p. 40).

See all posts discussing Indianisms by clicking here.

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2 Comments

Filed under english, india, indianisms, language

2 responses to “indianisms, pt. 1

  1. Ess

    While I agree with your argument up to a point, and even enjoyed reading some sections, there are flaws and rather large generalisations in your hypothesis. The kind of Indian English spoken depends greatly on where the speakers are educated, and in which language of instruction. The kinds of “Indianisms” you describe aren’t widely used by people exclusively educated in English language schools/Universities. These people would be far more articulate and nuanced in their deployment of language than the “average” British, Australian or American person. In other words, language use is classed, often gendered, and very milieu specific – and there are as many contemporary Indian “Englishes” as there are Indian languages, ethnicities and cultures. Also, speaking to “a British”?

    • Dear correspondent,
      The examples of Indianisms I have given are reflective of the language used by ordinary Indians. I have not sought to identify caste, class, ethnicity, gender, or other such markers of language, only to give examples of Indianisms in common currency. It may be that such Indianisms are not prevalent among Indians with high levels of English-language instruction (itself a very small subset of Indians who are English-speakers or who self-identify as such), but they are Indianisms nevertheless. The are a great number of words and phrases in English that we may accept as typical of Americans or Australians without being representative of the language of the moneyed, educated, or otherwise socially elite classes. As with India, a speaker’s language in America or Britain may be reflective of their education, but that does not prevent us from identifying words as ‘Americanisms’: ‘OK’, ‘dude’, etc., one would readily identify as Americanisms, though they would rarely feature in academic writing and may not be commonly employed by a highly-educated elite. They are, nevertheless, common markers of American speech (albeit ones that have globalized by this point) and readily used on any given day by Americans from wide varieties of classes and ethnicities, and who are speakers of various mother-tongues. Furthermore, many of my examples have been taken from English-language dailies in India; if the language of English-speaking writers writing in English in major circulation English-language newspapers for an English-speaking audience is not indicative of English-language use in India, it’s hard to see what might be.
      “A British” is a feature of my ideolect.

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