Indianisms: A Colorful Turn of Phrase

Indianisms: A Colorful Turn of Phrase

Indianisms decorate the English language like adorned elephants in Rajasthan.  More than a supplementary language in India, English is one of two languages recognized for use in the Official Languages Act of 1963.  Despite 22 officially recognized languages in India—and more than a hundred unofficial languages—English continues to play an important role in commerce and trade, serving as a symbol of power and influence.  The best part about English is the way Indian’s have made it their own, creating Indianisms as linguistically colorful as a spice market vendor’s cart. 

Don’t misconstrue this to mean that large swaths of the country speak English.  In fact, the number of English speakers could be as low as ten percent.  But ten percent is around 125 million people—more than a third of the population of the United States.  At about 40 percent, Hindi remains the language known and spoken by the greatest number of Indians.

Telangana Man
Indian English is as expressive as the people who speak it.

The growth of English on the Indian subcontinent is impressive, but more significant is the way the Indian’s developed their own version of English.  Perhaps due to the many competing influences—British rule, American media, and Hindi transliteration—Indian’s deploy English with typically Indian vibrance and rich idiomatic style.  Nowhere does the language sound as picturesque as when spoken by an Indian.

Some Indianisms make more sense than the terms they replace.  Phrases like ‘prepone,’ and ‘do the needful,’ are typical Indian adaptations that convey meaning with concise cordiality.  Why would anyone choose to propose a schedule change by saying, “We need to move your appointment from 1:00 PM to 10:00 AM,” when they could just as easily explain, “We will prepone the meeting to 10:00 AM.”  And how much more sharp does it sound to say, “You really need to step up and get this done,” when “Please do the needful,” conveys the same message with a whimsical ring.

Other Indianisms, while no less colorful, can be confusing.  Asking someone to ‘please revert at your earliest convenience,’ rather than to ‘reply,’ to ‘shift to the next window for help’ rather than to ‘move,’ or ‘intimate their needs,’ instead of ‘explain’ garners confused looks on the faces of those unfamiliar with such colorful colloquialisms. 

Rajasthani Man
“What’s your good name?” A phrase that evokes smiles of familiarity.

A number of Indianisms simply can’t be appreciated until they are experienced—and once experienced, adopting them as part of normal speech becomes a fun challenge.  When asked for a ‘good name,’ it might take a few minutes to figure out which name to supply, many consider all of their names to be pretty good—your good name is your first name.  Nowadays it is a personal goal to ask each Indian their good name, a habit that feels right and odd at the same time.

Another is the practice of saying ‘hello’ ad nauseam on the telephone.  One theory is that Indian communication services are so unreliable, Indian’s needed a polite and concise means of asking if someone was still on the line after every silence lasting more than four seconds.  Rather than a long question, Indian’s routinely say, ‘hello’ when they think they’ve been disconnected.  Prior to understanding the practice, I once engaged in a twenty minute conversation where we both said nothing but ‘hello’ until I finally asked if there was a problem—at which point the conversation continued.

Indianisms reflect the Indian tendency toward courtesy and conflict avoidance.  Everyone says ‘sir,’ even young children; the phrase ‘no problem’ is floated even when there is an obvious problem; and it seems nothing can be done unless it is ‘auspicious’ to do so.  It also seems like everyone with a gray hair is either an ‘Aunty,’ or an ‘Uncle;’ and being asked to ‘do one thing,’ always results in more than one thing.  But there is sincerity in the way Indianisms roll off the tongue and into everyday conversation.

Driver in India
Embracing Indianisms is part of understanding the culture—plus it’s just plain fun.

There are a number of linguistic zealots advocating a correction to Indian English.  Blog posts tout how particular phrases as obsolete and should be eliminated.  They would like nothing more than if phrases like: ’I’m having a lot of work to prepare for my sister’s wedding,’ adding an ’S’ to the end of words—pain is “I’m having back pains,” math is “I’m doing the maths”—and referring to every female from cousins to nurses as ‘sister’ could be stricken from every conversation.  But I disagree—these are part of the uniquely Indian communication arts.

Indianisms give Indian English it’s distinctively Indian style.  Terms which are convenient, descriptive, cordial, and occasionally confusing dot the language.  Embracing their unique contribution to communication is part of embracing Indian culture.  So the next time someone asks when you passed out of university, don’t give them a list of every drunken, sorority bash you attended.  The year you graduated will suffice.

Do you know some Indianisms?  Add them in the comments below.

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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look.  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned.  Copyright can be found here for my original work.

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