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Ban The British Language

Scene: On a street outside Madras Central station. A foreign tourist asks a local about some information.

Foreign tourist: Could you tell me where I can get a postcard?

Local: Go to the post office. It’s over there.

Foreign tourist: (slowly) No, I need a postcard (draws a rectangle with his fingers).

Local: (slowly) Yes, go to that post office.

Foreign tourist: No, I don't… I need a card with a photograph on one side, you can write something on the other side. You post it...

Local: You need a greeting card?

Foreign tourist: No, a postcard.

Local: A picture-postcard?

Foreign tourist: Yes.

I was the local guy. The incident illustrates the fact that simple words like "postcard" mean different things to different people. Like many Indians, I had such great confidence in my English-language capabilities that I did not see this coming.

Another thing the incident taught me was that the language we speak is only as good as the audience. During hey days of the British East India Company, experienced Indian servants spoke English so well that it unnerved their masters. As can be expected, the Indians were ordered to speak English like "Indians."

Our English may work fine within India. But, it needs some work if we are to use it with foreigners whose mother tongue is English. For most of them, English is the only language they will ever learn to speak or use. Indians, however, learn an Indian language first and then proceed on to English. Our English then becomes affected by the knowledge of our Indian mother tongue. This is why most Indians "speak in English," while Americans and Brits simply "speak English." We say "too good" when we actually mean "very good." Many Indians claim that Indian English is very close to British English. This is outrageous and nothing could be far from the truth. (I am not of course suggesting that we all join a school for British butlers.) When we speak, we simply translate word-by-word from our mother tongue to English blurt it out. American and British expatriates working in India are always surprised to find that they don't have to really care about the order of the words in a sentence; so long as all the words are present, the Indians always seem to understand.

Having lived in India for all of our lives, it is always a challenge to write knowledgeably for people living abroad. In the United States, there are laws for everything and for the most part these laws are assiduously followed. In places like New York City, the police will take away your wife and children if you are caught committing any traffic violations. While working on a topic about traffic rules, I wrote that a road user should always yield "to the right-of-way of another road user." On the lawless Indian roads, the maxims "This is my grandfather's road" and "Might is right" rules. Hence, a colleague thought that the sentence should be about the driver yielding his "right-of-way to another road user." If in doubt, it is always best to ask the natives and that was what we did finally.

Thus, despite our best efforts, the ugly Indian in us somehow makes his appearance. When we speak English, we make references to copulation (sh*t) and excrement (f*ck), even when members of the opposite sex are present. Using the same words in an Indian language would have got us excommunicated. Here, I am reminded of a story in The Economic Times titled Pretty Crass: We Are Like This Only about Indians who visit 5-Star hotels and use the swimming pool facilities in their regular undergarments. You see, they have never heard of special garments called "swimwear." These are the same people who like to make fun of others when they use words like "is-style" or "is-spoon."

The problem is that we never know when we are wrong. If our language does not raise eyebrows, it can always raise a great deal of laughter. Peter Sellers made fun of Indian doctors and their diag-noses. Indian English can cause so much hilarity that there is an Indian character called Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons cartoon precisely for this purpose.

Native English speakers are by no means sticklers to correctness. They are also worried about their diction and vocabulary. In the United States, the New York Times is considered the ultimate standard for English. Studies have shown that the Times has one of the biggest vocabularies of any person or publication. Despite this, the Times is eminently readable by one and all. Our English teachers have long considered BBC English as the standard. How does the Times and the BBC achieve this status?

Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, Swami Vivekananda, and Raja Ram Mohun Roy were all known for their mastery of the English language. All of them wrote in a language that was simple and whose flow was natural. Many Indians, in their attempts at sophistication, make use of complicated sentence constructs. Couple this with inappropriate use of prepositions, metaphors and clichés. No better way to get really bad reviews. A sentence such as, "I have one foot in the graveyard and the other on a banana peal." has its charms, but I draw the line at, "On one hand I scratch my scalp and on the other hand I explore my nostrils." Such constructs are not all for seasons and serve no real purpose in technical writing. I have found that we are prone to misuse words like "just," "only," "to," and "too."

In our ongoing battle against errors, we have also made ourselves slaves to standards. One such standard is about passive voice. We have been told to avoid passive voice and go steady with active voice. I find this rule totally ridiculous. Imagine an American news anchor announcing the Kennedy assassination. She will say, "At 10:10 this morning, President Kennedy was fatally shot dead by unidentified assailants in Dallas, Texas." Not, "Some nice gentlemen put holes Kennedy’s head." Passive voice has its uses. If the focus was on the assassins, then of course active voice would have been appropriate. The rule should have been about the focus of the discussion, not about the voice. Poets, writers, philosophers, and statesmen have been using passive voice for several centuries until Microsoft Word came up with an objection.

I am not an expert in English. So, I will simply recommend the Wikipedia page about Indian English. The section devoted to Grammar, idiom and usage in Indian English will be very useful for Indian writers.

  1. Passive voice is not recommended when it tends to hide the perpetrator of the deed.
  2. For connoisseurs of Indian English, I have a Dictionary of Indian English with over 500 entries (even more hidden in the database) complete with alternate spellings, euphemisms, misspellings, mispronunciations, politically incorrect terms, slangs, etc.
  3. Here is an extract from The Economic Times article:

    "The middle-class Indian is travelling to the upper reaches of good life and he is feared today by all in the business of standing with folded palms and salaried smiles. He screams at the hotel staff to secretly ensure good service. He mistakes the waiter for his domestic help back home. He tries to eat everything in the breakfast buffet because it is obviously profitable that way. His wife is in the pool in a saree, mixing water sports with modesty. And his we-two-ours-two kids are all over the place." - From The Economic Times

  4. This piece was written as part of my activities at work, where I used to masquerade as a technical writer.