Indian English

The lingua franca in India is English. If you can only know one language in India, this is the one to know. A common misconception if you’re from outside India is that the entire country is culturally and linguistically as one. This is incorrect! India is more culturally diverse than Europe! There are thousands of native languages in India. State lines are typically drawn between regions where the major language changes. So, imagine, in your home country, that as you move to a different state or province, the language changes, but also the script, so you can’t even read signs phonetically. Crazy! I asked some Indian friends if there is a language I should learn before coming to India and, sadly, they just told me “English”. Take two random India people from anywhere in the country, and it’s possible the only language they have in common is English, and possibly Hindi.

But despair not readers and adventurers! English here is different! I may think I speak the local language already, but there are many subtle differences in meaning I am slowly picking up on. An interesting question though: are these differences in meaning a result of a group understanding a fundamentally different meaning to the word, or is it because of some cultural difference? I actually do not think these are separable. (And the Eastern Philosopher says to me “can anything be truly separable?” and I say to shut up and stop being meta). It is, of course, incorrect to think that any use of a word here is wrong, but rather its “just different”.

When talking about a project at work and defining responsibilities, I had someone say “Fine, fine.” after we had come to an agreement. This bothered me, as in Canada at least, “fine” translates to “I agree, but I am not happy with it.” I heard several other people around my work use this word with each other, and I started wondering what kind of passive-aggressive environment I had found myself in. Finally, I asked someone to define what “Fine” meant to them, and they said it was the same as “Okay” or “Sure”. It doesn’t carry the negative connotation that I’m used to. So I have adjusted now, but initially I kept getting offended.

Consider in the West, you’re having a conversation with someone, and then they say “Come” and turn and start walking away from you. I found this overly forceful, especially if I don’t know the person. Normally, I’d expect a “Could you come here?” or “Follow me please.” or “Come this way.” The extra linguistic complexity of the phrases I just suggested wouldn’t be a problem for the people I was talking to, so they aren’t just saying only “Come” for lack of vocabulary. I just kind of take offence to someone telling me to go somewhere without the requisite linguistic ceremonies. I haven’t figured this one out.

The use of the word “Only” here is really strange, and I have tried to come up with a consistent definition for it. Typically in Canada, putting “only” before a phrase means “instead of more”. For example, “I only won $5!”. More generally, it implies “instead of something better”. More examples: “It only arrived just now!” “I only love you a little bit. I only wanted to be friends.” It tends to carry a negative connotation.
In Indian English, “only” also can appear at the end of a phrase. The most weird example is on pay cheques I receive, which say “Blah Blah thousand rupees only”. As if to make fun of me that I could be making more money. And this is from a bank! I’ve seen “only” on prices in shops too, which made sense because it implies that something is inexpensive. Yet, its not just on big flashy, price signs, but on small price tags, taking up valuable real estate that the bar code also has to occupy. The closest I can come to defining “only” is that it is used to cement an amount. “5 rupees” implies “about 5 rupees”, whereas “5 rupees only” means “exactly 5 rupees”. Only I’m not sure.

The Indian Head Bob
Oh man, this has been the most confusing this so far. This isn’t part of the spoken language, but since it is confusing and directly conflicts with what I’m used to, it fits in here. In the Western world, an up-and-down head movement, or “head nod” indicates a “Yes”. A side-to-side movement, specifically a rotation of the head about the vertical axis, indicates a “No”. In India, the head nod is not really used, because nothing is really certain in India, ever. Rather, the gestural expression of choice is the “India Head Bob”. This is a rotation of head about the axis pointing backwards and forwards. If you want to try it, just make the left side of your head go down, then right, then left and then repeat. This feels very different, but when you make it fast and subtle enough, as all linguistic expressions eventually become, it looks very similar to a side-to-side head shake. Yes and No look the same. I have had many conversations like this:
“So how much to go the MG Road?”
“100 rupees”
“That’s too much. How about 60 rupees?”
“60 rupees” (followed by Indian Head Bob, which looks like a Western head shake)
“60 rupees? Is that too low?”
“60 rupees” (followed by the same gesture)
“What? Yes or No?”
Fortunately, I have become used to this now, and I can tell them apart, but it still catches me some time. The India Head Bob, as I said, is still not as definitive as a “Yes” though. Rather, it’s like someone saying “Sure, sure, sure…” to agree with you as you are speaking. This was also very confusing in the beginning, as I would be talking to someone and suddenly they would look like they were shaking their head and I would stop to say “What’s wrong?”
More on the Indian Head Bob in the wikipedia article. This shit ain’t in the guide books.

Note that all of the described experiences above apply to Bangalore, and don’t necessarily apply to the rest of India. In fact, the subtle meanings of words and expressions probably do change.

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7 responses to “Indian English”

  1. I’ve always written only on cheques that have round dollar amounts. When I first got a chequebook I was told to do that and to add an extra line going across the unoccupied space on the amount line to prevent possibilities like people adding some amount of cents or writing in some extra word to make the amount bigger.

  2. Hey Dustin,

    Being an Indian I find your blog posts about India quite amusing and fun to read.

    By the way, reason for cheques having “only” at the end of an amount is safety. Since we place our currency symbol at the beginning of an amount, the “only” is to prevent anyone from adding extra amount at the end of it.

    For e.g. if you had a cheque of amount “Rs. Fifty Thousand”, any one could add to make it “Rs. Fifty Thousand, FIve Hundred and SIxty”. “Only” is to mark the end of a amount. Same as we add a “/-” at the end of a number.

    However I found it hilarious on my first pay cheque too.

  3. Julian sez:

    I have seen “only” and “exactly” used on cheques; perhaps it’s a British thing, historically?

    I’ve always thought it was there to make it impossible to someone to sneak in some extra zeroes; rather than an ungainly line or something, you can simply put the word and it definitively closes off the area for writing more numbers.

    Well, it looks like the case of only on cheques is solved. I still feel it shows up in weird places outside the context of cheques. I’ll try to find more examples – I couldn’t think of any at the time of writing.

  4. This post sounds very familiar to me. I experienced the same “Come!” from a Chinese intern in my previous lab, and found it particularly gross as I was not supposed to be at his disposal. But I figured out later that it was for the same reason: lack of vocabulary. Anyway, I kept getting offended as well.

    But your post also sounds familiar because, as a non-native speaker, my English fails me. I do use whatever words that I think do fit the most with what I actually mean. But I often feel very inaccurate, or even wrong. That’s frustrating! I always worry about me being too harsh, too friendly, not enough this or that…

    Cultures being very different, I find it difficult to always get the appropriate tone and also use the appropriate tone. For example, you wouldn’t say “Take care” in France to someone you just met. You have to be pretty close friends before saying that kind of things. I found it very confusing at the beginning: “Does this guy want us to be best friends or what?” :-|

    And my “Indian Head Bob” here in Canada (I should say North America) is when someone says: “Aweeeeesooooome!” or “FantAAAstic!!!”. I keep not being able to figure out if it actually means: “I really don’t care, but continue, I pretend I’m interested”, or just “Nice” but nothing that would justify someone to be so enthusiastic, or if what I just said is actually very exciting (what I doubt…).

    I really look forward to visiting Quebec so that I’ll find the same kind of interesting differences of use of my own language.

    Keep posting your stories about India, they’re so informative and funny!

  5. Fanny:

    Oh Man, I can’t wait to hear your Quebec stories. I suspect you’ll have very similar experiences. I suspect a language experiences a bit of “drift” when it becomes isolated in different groups.