LITERARY REVIEW

A matter of syntax as well

THE previous "Wordspeak" that quoted a r�sum� as an example of Indian English made readers such as Ravikiran Phadake of Coventry, England, wonder if anyone in fact could write something so "absolutely incredible." Many others, including several MBAs, sought advice on composing a r�sum� or wanted to have their r�sum�s corrected. To them, my regrets that I neither have the background nor the skill to give such help.

Most Indians accept that they speak English in a different way, which amounts generally to acknowledging a difference in accents; seldom are they aware of the difference in the choice of words and phrases, and in the use of syntax.

After all these years in North America, I can say that besides food habits and their dress, immigrants from India to this continent are often noticed for their distinct way of speaking English and for their use of "Indianisms".

Such linguistic usage and/or custom is common in situations where English is used by Indians mainly to communicate with other Indians. Speaking with non-Indians, these Indianisms are rarely used, except in occasional instances where their use might be puzzling or amusing or both.

Commonly used Indianisms are frequently noticed by the speakers of Standard English, while those peculiar to Indian speakers of English require the finely tuned ear of a linguist. Many friends of Indian origin claim that they can identify a person's hometown in India from the way he or she speaks English.

According to the Oxford Companion to the English Language (1993), "An estimated 30 million people (four per cent of the population) regularly use English, making India the third largest English speaking country in the world." Although this includes those with a rudimentary knowledge of English, the actual figure might be a little higher. However, it is universally accepted that for the past 55 years, Indians have been carrying out their own revenge on this legacy of the British Raj by inventing their own varieties of English. Some of the given examples have been borrowed from published work on this subject.

First generation immigrants, who learn their English in India, are fond of using verbs in continuous form: Are you having a cold? I am not understanding exactly what you mean? Jarring, may be to the Standard English ear, but the meaning is perfectly clear.

The verb "take" is frequently used in a different way (Standard English usage is in parenthesis): I have to take the boss's permission (obtain, ask for). I take my bath in the evening (have). May I come and take the ashtray (borrow)? Since communication is accomplished, such mixed usage may survive even after other peculiarities have been cleansed from one's speech.

North Americans are often puzzled by the use of "uncle" and "auntie" to refer to any male or female adult, if only to an acquaintance of the parents or sometimes to complete strangers. "Cousin-brother" and "cousin-sister" are used to indicate the sex of the cousin because most Indian languages indicate gender in the word itself. But the adaptation of idioms, set phrases and figurative expressions can sometimes be confusing to a foreigner: "to sit on someone's neck (to watch someone closely)" and "to stand on some one's head (to supervise the person closely)". Consider, in this light, "to neck someone out of the room" which is supposed to mean, "taking somebody by the scruff of the neck and ejecting from the company."

A newly arrived immigrant from India would try to speak "chaste English" with people he would meet, ask their "good name" and how many "issues" they have, and insist that they do not "observe formality', but "have a beer bottle" or two with him. They cannot meet his "better half", because she is having "a head bath", but being "newly married", he is "cent-per-cent" sure that she is "carrying". Since he is not "a busybody" today because he has had his "offs" changed to Sundays by "oiling" his boss, he might offer them a ride in his new car, but will make sure there is a "stepany" in the "dickey", otherwise they might have to "foot" it in case of a "puncture".

Most of the words within quotation marks may not make sense to someone unfamiliar with Indian English.

Some other distinct characteristics noticed by non-Indian English speakers: a tendency to drop the article "the", and an urge to insert a word or particle (up, on, out, down) after a verb. In the contexts where either "pay" or "pay up" will do, an Indian will almost always use the latter. Formal or old-fashioned words like "demise" and "expired" are still used for death.

The strengthening of the adjectives by duplication as in "hot hot" for "very hot" is frequent, as is the Indian usage of what, when and why: What for I am reading this book I do not know. Another tendency towards pronunciation-guided spelling ends up in statements like "Unauthorized cars will be toed (towed) away at owner's risk and expense." and "No pats (pets) allowed in the park."

I wonder if the readers will notice the dropped articles in this column.

E-mail the author at

ANAND

Recommended for you