And I do not mean Malayalam!!
It may come as a surprise, but there is such a thing as Indian English. I was aware of the most common varieties: American, Australian, Kiwi, South African and obviously the Queen’s proper English… but Indian English?? I am not only talking about unintelligible pronunciation, but there is a whole host of new vocabulary and expressions to contend with. Obviously, it is to be expected that a country that was under the influence of British colonial rule for some considerable time should have adopted some of its language; English was after all the language of the British Raj. And although India’s official language is Hindi now, good knowledge of and fluency in the English language is a matter of prestige and therefore very desirable because Indians are fond of prestige, very fond indeed! But in the absence of the British for the last sixty years or so, the Indians have clearly taken it upon themselves to make improvements and adaptations to the language as they see fit.
My first inkling that I was dealing with an entirely new set of words came during one of my first lessons when one of the children gave ‘dacoit’ as a synonym for robber… ‘Dacoit? Dacoit? Never heard of it! Are you sure?’ I quizzed. But there it was in his English book! I admit I needed some convincing, so consulted the Oxford dictionary online and there it stared me in the face, fully acknowledged as Indian English!
And when inventing new vocabulary, Indians apply a generous amount of logic. When ‘Indian Man In The Know’ needed to move a date forward, he simply ‘preponed’ the event. Let’s face it, many English words are derived by changing and adding a few prefixes or suffixes here and there, so I can see sense in this one. I was however less taken with the suggestion of ‘Nepalese Man in Charge of Organising my Trip in September’ who offered to upgrade or ‘degrade’ my accommodation. He clearly was unaware that the word ‘degrade’ had already been claimed by proper English and as upgrading was not within the budget, I declined to degrade myself and stuck to the initial ‘middle of road offer’, thank you very much!
And ladies, take note. Husbands here indeed come with a sell-by date. They do not merely pass away or move on to the next world, they expire…. When School Manager related the sorry tale of another volunteer’s late husband, I had to think twice about what was meant by ‘expired’… Had the marriage run its course, or had the poor man indeed popped his clogs? Thank goodness there is usually plenty of context in Indian stories to help you fill in the blanks.
Furthermore, I have never come across a people plagued by so many mysteries and uncertainties. Every day a hand goes up in the classroom because one or other student has a doubt, ‘M’am, I have a doubt’. ‘A doubt?’ I echo, ‘That may be sad and rather unfortunate, but hardly my business. We all live with uncertainties in our lives.’ When probing a little deeper, it seems the child wants to ask a question. Now when it is phrased like that, I am prepared to give an answer. I am slowly working on that one and stamping it out, but these ‘doubts’ are so deeply ingrained…
And then there are the other peculiarities due to Indian languages missing a few sounds which are essential to speak English that can be understood by non-Indians. One day, just after giving instructions for a task in class, a child approached me with a desperate urgency. ‘M’am, my friend wants to omit!’ It sounded important, but the word omit did not make sense in the least. Did his friend want to opt out of doing the task, I wondered. So I waved my hand in a vague notion as if to imply it could wait… Two minutes later, another voice: ‘M’am, he really needs to omit…’ What on earth was the matter? Sensing some seriousness in the matter, I asked the child to write the word on the board. Although pronunciation is a big issue, Indian children CAN spell (or can they???)! And on the board appeared the word: vomit… This was an altogether different matter and said child was excused without further ado, I did not want to clean up any mess… But omitting the letter ‘v’ plus putting the stress on the wrong syllable, how was I to get the meaning of this Indian English? There is a world of difference between vomit and omit even though it is only one letter apart!
Although Indian children seem to have mastered the spelling of (some…) complicated English words, the same cannot be said of the adults who are responsible for passing on the knowledge… Just walking along the beach front in Varkala and having some breakfast brought out the best in Indian spelling…
And school, of course!!!