English in India – Part 3

5 Mar

05-03-2017, 21:05 hrs

****The Noble Language of Milton and Shakespeare – Part 3****

This is the third of the pieces I had promised on English in India.

A 2001 census on languages spoken in India showed that for about 2,26,449 individuals, English was the primary language. It is reckoned that this miniscule minority can “speak, read and write [English] well enough to be considered acceptable in England and USA”. More than 86 million listed it as their second language and another 39 million as their third language. This puts the total number of English speakers in India at the time to more than 125 million, for a population of 1,028,737,436 (2001 Census) which is 1.2% of the total.

This is about twice the population of the United Kingdom (63 million in 2011) or half the population of the USA (325 million in 2016). The assumption is that both UK and USA populations are of English speaking citizens.”
With a population of 125 million Indians who speak some English (2001 Census) which is rapidly growing, we can expect that English will undergo changes and be adapted to local use depending on the native language of the region.


Recognizing the great diversity of Indian regional languages and cultures, in 1580, Akbar divided the Mughal empire into 12 Subas or provinces. The Subas included territory now under the modern states of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of the 12 Subas, seven (Ajmer, Delhi, Agra, Malwa, Awadh, Illahabad and Bihar) spoke dialects of what could be called Hindi or Urdu. The other five (Kabul, Lahore, Multan, Gujarat and Bengal) had their own regional languages and distinct cultural identities.

After 1595, important regions organised as subas were Ahmadnagar in the Deccan, Orissa, Kashmir, Sindh, Telengana/Bidar, Bijapur, Golconda/Hyderabad, and Sira (in modern Karnataka).

Tipu Sultan and the Nawab of Arcot controlled territory which fell into the modern states of Karnataka, Kerala (Malabar) and Tamilnad.


The word “Urdu” is derived from the same root as the English word “Horde” telling us that it was the language of the army. It became the state language in the Subas although local lanuguages and hybrids became street languages.

A form of Urdu spoken in Muslim courts of the Deccan plateau showing strong influence of Marathi, Konkani, Telugu and Kannada was called, “Dakhini”. This dialect is still spoken in Andhra and Karnataka.


During the Fifties and Sixties, speaking and writing English correctly constantly reminded us that we were speaking a foreign language. Command of the language and an accent free of other language influences determined the impression created on listeners.

Our teachers asked us to listen to All India Radio, and model our spoken English on presenters like Surajit Sen, Melville de Mello, Lotika Ratnam, Nobby Clarke, Manoranjan Bharati and Preminda Premchand.

For the last 20 years, television has been the major source of spoken English for the masses and even those with elite English medium education.

Since English continues to be an aspirational language, and since television has almost universal reach in India, it is not surprising that television is influencing thousands of new learners and old users.

It is of interest therefore how English is spoken by TV presenters from various regions, exhibiting what is known in the Call Centre industry as “Mother Tongue Influence (MTI)”.

In the UK, over the past 25 years, the BBC has increased “the range of regional accents – from the Newcastle brogue to the West Country burr – on BBC shows as part of a drive to end the domination of the standard English accent.”

Accent is the part of dialect concerning local pronunciation. Secondary English speakers tend to carry over the intonation and phonetics of their mother tongue to English speech.

There are pronunciation errors and grammatical errors. Pronunciation errors are probably less important than grammatical errors and we may have to accept these as part of the hybridisation process. Grammatical errors, use of cliches and unthinking use of certain expressions are considerably more important. Living with our differences, we learn to decode our distinct accents and even enjoy humour based on our accents.


The “Indian Accent” has been mimicked and made universally known by entertainers like Peter Sellers and the producers of “The Simpsons”, an American animated sitcom created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company.

Within India, English speakers have various accents, almost always influenced by the tone, cadence and lilt of their mother tongues. During the days of British rule, the British mocked the Anglo-Indian accent calling it “chi-chi” (an expression of disgust frequently used in Indian languages) and drawing attention to the supposedly “singsong” speech.

If you listen carefully, regional accents have their own “singsong” quality, based on the mother tongue in question.

Today we can live quite happily with our English accents just as Australians and Americans proudly flaunt their distinct accents which, like ours, developed from Imperial “Queen’s English”. Today the only requirement is that we should be able to understand each other.


Each region has its own Mother Tongue Influenced English pronounciation.

The Hindustan region (Hindi speaking states) accent (Hindish) is quite distinct. This is the dominant accent of news presenters and anchors on Indian Cable TV English programmes. As the most influential accent beamed out 24 hours a day, it deserves a closer look.

A dead giveaway is “Pulis” [for Police] because that’s the way the word is written in Hindi.

From the same region, we have the pronunciation “Currier” [kəriər] for the word Career [kərɪr].

The phonetic transcription is from:


I was certain that a Currier, would be a manufacturer of curry powder by Royal Appointment to HM the Queen. On checking, it turned out to be a person who dresses and colors leather after it is tanned.

A similar interesting Hindish word is “burry” [for “bury”].
A common ambivalence between “w” and “v” sounds is evident…Power (Pavar) and Hour (Ouwer)

A very common pronunciation is Deelay (for Delay) and Eevent (for Event)
Gurnment (gurn-ment) for Government (gəvərmənt)

Another Hindish classic is, “Heldhy” for Healthy (hɛlθi). The use of the Greek alphabet theta makes it quite clear how the word should be pronounced, although care must be exercised to make it a “soft” sound.

There are some words which create typical pronunciation dilemmas.
Original (ərɪdʒənəl) and Origin (ɔrədʒən),

Political (pəlɪtəkəl), Politican (palətɪʃən) instead of which we frequently hear, “Politeesian”, and in the same vein, “Offeecial” (Official). and Ineeshial (Initial).
From the above, we have “Politeesian of Indian Ori-gin (as in Original).

Economics (ɛkənamɪks) and Economy (ɪkanəmi)

Category (kætəgɔri) and Categorical (kætəgarɪkəl)

Rhetoric (rɛtərɪk ) and Rhetorical (rətɔrɪkəl)

Interpretation (ɪntərprəteʃən), Interpret (ɪntərprət), Interpreter (ɪntərprətər)

Dev-lup-ment, for Development (dɪvɛləpmənt) and Dev-lupped for Developed (dɪvɛləpt)

Cliches, Idioms and Expressions

A cliche is an expression or idea that has lost its freshness, originality, or force through overuse.

One of the most boring expressions we hear on Indian Cable TV is, “Under the Scanner” for anyone who is under scrutiny or investigation.

Another equally boring expression is, “Blamegame”. It appears to have become popular with Hindi speakers also, who say, “Blamegame shuru ho gayi”

Some other overused expressions are, “Needle of Suspicion”, “Finger of Suspicion”, “Spot of Bother”.

Playing spoilsport – “The rain played spoilsport during the cricket match”.

In a deeply religious country like India, we are treated to gems like, “Beefing up security” where “beef” invariably refers to the flesh of the cow. This expression no doubt comes from the idea of adding beef stock to vegetable soup to “strengthen” it.

To leave someone or some institution “red-faced” in a country where we have skin colours in all shades of brown is somewhat startling.

“Gob-smacked” means to be astonished, where “Gob” is slang for mouth and “smack” is to bring one’s palm against the mouth in a gesture of astonishment. How teddibly English!

“Egg on the face” might illustrate a situation of a mess that sounds odd in a food-scarce country where it is bad manners to “play with food”.

“A Tad-bit”! Really?

“Hunky dory”… this is an expression meaning quite satisfactory but opportunities for its use must be carefully chosen. For an Indian English speaker, “Hunky dory” is as alien as “Tickety Boo” and could indicate an unconscious singsong slip into Babu English. As a matter of interest, it is thought that the Imperial English expression “Tickety Boo” is actually a corruption of the Hindi, “Theek Hai Babu” meaning everything is fine. Midnight’s Children reading this will remember the 1958 Movie “Merry Andrew” starring Danny Kaye, which had a song, “Everything is Tickety Boo”.

“Give an exam” for “Take an exam”. in Hindi, the phrase is “exam dhena” which translates directly as: “give an exam”. In both British and American English, “take an exam” or “sit for an exam” would be correct.

He took my name (naam letha hai) for “He mentioned me by name” or “I was named”.

“Allegations flying thick and fast”… like arrows?

“Creating ruckus” or “Ruckus broke out” instead of “Creating a ruckus” or “A ruckus broke out”

“Spanking new stadium”?…Well… if we knew that the origin of this expression is from doctors spanking a newborn baby to make it cry to start breathing…. would we use it to describe a new stadium?

Why is it that almost all TV anchors talk about “slipping into a break”? It has almost become part of the Cable TV Pidgin … Like slipping into a negligee (ne-glə-ˈzhā)?

“Murky saga getting murkier by the day”

The great double negative usage is of interest: “Till you don’t give up smoking your cough will not go away.” (This again from Hindi, “Jab thak thum…). What we want to say is, “As long as you don’t give up smoking, your cough will not go away.”

“Caught on the backfoot” meaning “at a disadvantage; outmanoeuvred or outclassed by an opponent” is a favourite.

“Sen-tense” for “sentence” with the accent on the second syllable instead of the first.

“Find closure” had its day in the sun… even attempting to literally translate itself into Hindi.

“He slammed the Government” (Ouch!)

“He lashed out at the opposition” (Cracking the whip, no doubt!)

Is there any other way we can convey the same meaning? Using “slammed” and “lashed out” again and again makes them clichés.

Word Coinage

A word that has almost become part of the Indian English vocabulary with a new meaning is “Martyr”. When a policeman is killed by a Naxalite, that is also described as “Martyrdom”.

Please visit my blog on “Martyr and Martyrdom” for which the link is:


( 1758 Words)

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