July 28, 2011

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

As humans, we have an ability that is so utterly unique in the natural world – a behavioral pattern that was so transformative, that it effectively changed the trajectory of our evolution. We can take an innovative thought and share it with another person by simply recombining sounds we learned to make as children.

Sure, almost all species communicate. But, only humans have devised this trick called language. Where did this unique trait come from? Why did it evolve? Why are we the only species that has it? While there are not satisfactory answers yet, suffice it to say that there is something peculiar and extraordinary about language that makes simple explanations suspect.

Evolutionary edge from language

According to evolutionary biology, only those traits and behaviors which provide evolutionary benefits survive. An evolutionary benefit is simply anything that helps survival. Example: Tall giraffes survived because they were able to eat from the tops of trees and also developed powerful long legs that can kick even a lion’s head off.

Why language survived is easier to explain than why it arose. Somewhere along the line, humans who had hitherto been “hunters” settled down to become “gatherers”, and formed “civilizations”. In this new construct, language became a “marker”, much like an “identification badge” that was useful in forming tribes. Tribe formation ensured mutual protection of people in the tribe, and so language came to provide an evolutionary edge. Ironically, language which played a useful role in aiding survival, eventually turned into the No. 1 leading killer in the history of humans. More wars have been fought and more lives lost over language than even religion, a sobering reflection on the passions that language can evoke, and perhaps a topic for another day.

English, the World’s Second Language

Once an insignificant language spoken by a handful of people on a tiny island in the North Sea, English has grown to be the global language of science, technology and trade. So much so that China is now the largest English speaking country in the world. And, it’s not just the Chinese. English is in so much demand around the world as the language of advancement that an Indian has built a temple to the goddess English, adding her to the 330 million deities of the Hindu pantheon. Now that English is a global language, with non-native speakers outnumbering native speakers, it has taken on a life of its own in non-English-speaking countries, and the question of correctness, of who owns English, is taking on a new spin.

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

Let no one misconstrue my attitude as mocking or critical. Far from the truth, as a matter of fact. In the peculiarities of Indian English, I see the boundless creativity of our nation, and its charismatic ability to take anything and put its own indelible stamp on it.

10. Convent educated

An excellent vestige from colonial British Raj. Today used to mean “studied in a Christian school“. Convent comes from the fact that back in those days when there were still nuns, nuns used to teach, and nuns lived in convents back in those days. Clear as crystal, right?

9. Issueless divorcee

Telling a thousand lies is a mere trifle if one has to perform a marriage, as we Indians like to believe. Matrimonial ads abound with prevarications of various kinds, and take full advantage of the foibles of Indian English.

“Rohit, so sorry to hear about your divorce. How are you holding up?”

“Oh that? No problem. It’s going swimmingly well. Other than having to give up my house and half my fortune to the ex, it’s been practically issueless”

Issueless divorcee means divorcee without children. Because, err, children have been known to cause issues.

8. Passing out

Translation: Completed or graduated from school or college or university. The term persists, thanks to the national obsession with tests and exams. Graduating college is the equivalent of passing the associated tests and exams.

“You studied at IIT Madras? When did you pass out?”

“Right after I saw the exam questions”

Or, it could be something as simple and straightforward as “All drinking water in this establishment has been personally passed by the manager”

7. Revert

Translation: Will get back or respond. Dictionary meaning is “regress” or “return to a previous state“. In physics, springs revert. In India, humans do.

“When do you expect to reverse the annual fees on my lifetime free credit card?”

“We will look into it, and revert back to you as soon as possible”

Evokes images of the call center individual rushing off to a therapist and undergoing past life regression to understand how he accumulated the karma and gunas in his past life that caused him to be answering my question on that day.

6. Only

There are several types of shenanigans possible with this simple four letter word.  “I am leaving now only”, “I am leaving only now” all the way to “I only am leaving now”. You probably caught the drift of what’s being attempted here already.

5. But

Used to express doubt, when even there is no reason for doubt. And like “only”, it can make unexpected appearances in any part of any sentence.

Lawyer: “You are lying. How are you sure that my client is the murderer?”

Witness: “I saw him stabbing the victim forty three times but”

A combination of “but” and “only” has been known to spook entire fleets of visiting American executives into thunderstruck silence during business meetings. Add “only” to the witness response above for maximum effect.

4. OK

No one really knows how this term entered the English language. Indians use it to mean anything. Just about anything. Period. There is no known translation for its Indian usage. Folks are advised to make their own interpretations which can vary according to exigencies of situations.

3. Doing the needful

This is a delightful phrase, like avara kedavra, with magical powers. It means to ask someone to do something that neither party has any idea how to get done. Use it often and use it early. See below for example of perfect usage.

Boss’s email to employee: “I need one dragon tooth, two strands of unicorn hair and Harry Potter’s Elder Wand right away. Please do the needful”

2. Intimate

In India, there is a rather unusual usage of this word in the context of informing or notifying someone, which connotes common ancestry with “revert”. “Once I revert, I will intimate you” can be intimidating to handle, we imagine.

1. Felicitate

This word is delightful for the simple reason that no other English speaking country uses it. A bit of a tongue twister, it continues to survive in the written form, in Indian newspapers and government memos. No one else in the world felicitates. But, when you set foot in our lovely country, you will be awash and neck deep in felicitations.

The final word

I can understand the angst that some readers may have about the decline of “propah” English. As consumers, we all want dependable and high quality products. But, when we get too much of the same, we seek, nay, crave the unique, the outlier, the imperfection that makes life interesting. This is true for language as well. The way language works, we all get to go off-script from time to time.  Because we are like that only.

Write back and share your favorite Indianisms proudly. And, oh yeah, let the felicitations begin!

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