Kindly read with regards: On English in India

Scene one: After I woke up Monday morning, my host brother told me we’d be going for a “picture”. Having already had an ID photo taken my first week here, I was confused. Should I put on nice clothes? Who would be in the picture with me?

As it turns out, “picture” means “movie” here, and I watched Predators in Hindi that afternoon with Mayank and two of his friends.

Scene two: I’d just finished lunch, and my host grandmother sent a water bottle with me as I was about to go upstairs. I asked if I should bring down the empty bottle from my room.

The problem was, she didn’t quite understand what I meant. Instead, she and my host grandfather explained I was not to drink the tap water, something I already understood. Only when I brought the empty bottle down did we clear up the misunderstanding, and it was all smiles from that point on.

Scene three: As I read a headline of the local print English newspaper, The Hitavada, I did a double take. I wondered how the “largest circulated English daily in Central India” could let such a headline slip by. “Surely it must be a misprint,” I thought.

The headline? Exactly as it reads here, except there were no apostrophes. See the power of punctuation?!

To be fair, the article was about cricketer Salman Butt, and a “dead ball” in cricket is when play stops, but my point stands:

Indian English is very different than American English.

In Maharashtra, Marathi is the language in which most children speak their first words. Conversations within the house, among friends, and with locals are usually in Marathi. It’s the language my host family and many of the people in Nagpur are most comfortable speaking.

Hindi is the language that usually comes to mind when people think of the “Indian” language. On the street in North and Central India, Hindi can be very useful. Since 29 languages in India are spoken by over 1 million people, Hindi is a language Indians use from Gujarat to Odisha to Uttar Pradesh.

So English is a second or third language for most Indians. But it has a unique role in the Indian lexicon. Whereas Hindi has failed to unite the country linguistically, English is now a language of hundreds of millions throughout India. As it becomes the language of instruction in more and more schools across India, people are becoming more and more comfortable using it. Many video games, movies, songs, books and websites are English-only, making English not just a language of education, but entertainment as well.

The ethos of English has changed over time, too. Because English is a remnant of India’s colonial days, it was initially an unpopular language with the majority of Indians. But as more and more Indians have come into contact with the outside world, the taboo against English has lessened, to the point that India by some estimates will soon have more English speakers than any country in the world.

That said, there’s something to be said about the power of the mother tongue. I could certainly survive the year without learning a word of Marathi or Hindi, but that’s not my intent. I know and use only a few short words, such as bas (enough) or nai (no), but each time I do, smiles show up on my family members’ faces. Just as food, religion, and holidays define a culture, so does its language.

India is about the best country I could have chosen for this blog. Only here or in Australia could I have traveled to a country where writing in English wouldn’t hinder my growth into the culture. But were I to have chosen Australia, I wouldn’t have learned a separate local language. By the end of the year, I want to be able to speak Hinglish and Minglish – perhaps not fluently, but at least conversationally.

As for this blog… I think I’m going to stick with American English.

🙂

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8 Responses to “Kindly read with regards: On English in India”

  1. John Says:

    Great writing Chris; and thanks for sticking to English 🙂

  2. pyoder Says:

    Kudos on reaching 2K!

  3. buck Says:

    the headline was completely unexpected and made me laugh a little. Im happy youre so determined to learn as much hindi or marathi as you can, especially when itd be much easier just sticking to english. keep it up!

  4. jaber2 Says:

    Chris, are you righting up a list of ten new words each day?

    BTW, how is the writing in each language?

    • cyoder Says:

      Nahi.

      Chan.

      Ok fine I’ll stick with English. ;P nahi=no, and chan=good in Marathi btw. I have such a rich Marathi vocabulary!

      Actually Saket made me a list of about 50 Marathi words and phrases the other day, and I’ve been using it for basic phrases. I think I’ll also take Hindi classes in school. My school will teach all in English.

      Marathi and Hindi both use Devanagari script, which you can read more about here. Yes, this blog is very Wikipedia-friendly.

  5. Amelia Says:

    My husband is an Engineer in South Carolina USA and he works with many Indian engineers overseas and he told me today that it kinda bugs him when the Indian engineers end a conversation with “Ok Joel, fine” it seems kinda passive aggressive. Actually he says it doesn’t bother that much because he knows what they mean, but he is concerned that if they do this with other Americans it may send the wrong impression. To someone else that phrase sounds like “Ok shut up now”
    How can he tell them without causing hurt feelings? He just wants to help them.

    • cyoder Says:

      I actually think I have an answer to this that makes sense.

      Theek is the Hindi word that most closely translates to “okay”. But Hindi speakers also say acha (good) in situations where English speakers would say “okay”. In situations like the one you described, it would make more sense to say theek hai if the conversation was in Hindi. Thus the person in question may be thinking “theek” (okay, fine; no problem) rather than “acha” (okay, good; all right).

      Indian English is quite different than American English, in part because of how Hindi translates to English. Body language and tone of voice can also be interpreted differently in each culture.

      Hope this helps.

  6. marathi Says:

    @Chris!
    Bhau lay mast! 😀 (Bro, really nice)

    Well It’s been really great while reading such a nice blog. I hope you will get mastery in Marathi. Believe me that will give you a great push for your entire life!

    I hope for your best!
    Jay marathi, jay maharashtra

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