Queen’s English in the Land of the Maharaja

[हिंदी]


So … are you wondering whether you should call PETA about the Child Bear seems to be sold by this dingy shop?

You might feel rather silly if you do. The poor people are only trying to advertise their chilled beer.

For some reason, non-Indian people always seem to be slightly surprised by the omnipresence of the English language in India. To me, it’s not surprising. The language is the legacy of two hundred years of history. But we never use something without leaving our mark on it. The English language has not escaped Indianisation.

What is the opposite of post-war? Well, pre-war. So what is the opposite of postpone? Well, to most people it might be “advance”, but to Indians, it is “prepone”! (Even as I type the automatic spellchecker tells me “prepone” is not a word. I think we can safely say that my spellchecker is not fluent in Hinglish.)

But never forget: bilingualism in India is rare. Monolingual people are rare too. Usually people are multilingual. And we like to showcase this fact in just about every sentence. Indians can take an English sentence, put it into the Indian syntax (Subject-Object-Verb) and what emerges is classic Indian English. Sample this, a typical admonition: “Pukka rascal he is, man.” This translates as, “He is a complete rascal.” “Man” is just a friendly address, mostly redundant, and often used for people of both sexes.

Indians believe family to be a very inclusive term. You never have just one brother. No, wait; actually, you never even have just one kind of brother. In India, your brother is your “real brother”, your cousin is your “cousin brother”, and your sister-in-law’s husband is your “co-brother”. If you mention your brother in a conversation, always expect to be asked, “Cousin brother or real brother?”

And when I say that family is a very inclusive term, I mean very inclusive. Every man on the street older than yourself is to be addressed as “Uncle”, and every woman as old as your mother is “Aunty”. No, never “aunt”, it’s always “aunty”. Also, remember this golden rule: the title follows the name. As a result, when Aunt Maria comes to India, she instantly becomes: Maria Aunty! What complicates things even further is if Maria Aunty has a “pet name”. In India, a “pet name” is a nickname, and most Indians would be extremely surprised to learn that “pet name” is not a universally known term.

In some parts of India, if you don’t know someone’s name, it is perfectly acceptable to call them by these generic titles: a girl between age 0 and age 14 is “baby”, after which she suddenly becomes a “madam”, destined to remain so until she attains the age of an “aunty” at 50. Of course, you could have a situation where a lady of age 50 and above has a “pet name” of Baby, in which case she is “Baby Aunty”. Simple.

Another complete anomaly of Indian English: if you have ever been to India, you cannot have missed the big goods carrier trucks. On Indian roads, these trucks are a regular sight, and every single one of them has the cryptic message on the back: Horn OK Please. Just like that. Never “Please Horn OK” or in any other order. And what does this mean? Well, I have to admit, I have absolutely no idea!

Of course, I guess that that last part is in common with a lot of other phrases from Hinglish too.

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3 thoughts on “Queen’s English in the Land of the Maharaja”

  1. “….every single one of them has the cryptic message on the back: Horn OK Please. Just like that. Never “Please Horn OK” or in any other order. And what does this mean? Well, I have to admit, I have absolutely no idea!”

    There is a legend (if I can call it so) behind this. I don’t know to what extent it is true but this is how it goes:
    It is compulsory by law to write “Horn OK Please” on Indian commercial vehicles. ‘Horn Please’ means ‘please honk before overtaking’. Decades ago, the word ‘OK’ was actually a light which was operated by the truck driver to indicate whether it is safe for the vehicle(which is honking) to overtake the truck. Here, ‘safe’ implies absence of oncoming traffic, pedestrians, cows etc.

    Over the years, that indicator light has disappeared but the word ‘OK’ continues to survive.

    P.S. – Some truckers use ‘Blow Horn’ or ‘Awaaz Do’ (sic) as a variation to this. Note the absence of ‘OK’.
    P.P.S. – Please excuse my poor English.

  2. In some parts of India, if you don’t know someone’s name, it is perfectly acceptable to call them by these generic titles: a girl between age 0 and age 14 is “baby”, after which she suddenly becomes a “madam”, destined to remain so until she attains the age of an “aunty” at 50. Of course, you could have a situation where a lady of age 50 and above has a “pet name” of Baby, in which case she is “Baby Aunty”. Simple.

    Genius!

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