Monday, March 7, 2011

The Mother Tongue

I’ve gotten so spoiled in India, language-wise.  I haven’t really had to try to master any of the local lingo, since everyone I meet seems to speak English — with varying degrees of success, but still recognizably English.  More recognizably English, sometimes, than other parts of the world I’ve been to this past year; I can understand an Indian speaking English a lot more easily than I can understand a Glaswegian!  (I’m still half-convinced that’s not actually English, it’s another language altogether.)  By some reckonings, India has more speakers of English than any other country (although here, it’s usually a second or third or fourth language, never the mother tongue).

It’s a good thing, too, that I can get by with English, because there’s an enormous variety of local languages depending on what part of the country you’re in.  They’re not all related to each other, either, so picking up some of one doesn’t mean anything will sound familiar the next state over, where they speak something else.    We think it’s hard enough in Canada, balancing two national languages; here, in India, they have twenty-two — yes, really! — enshrined in the constitution.  And that’s not including all the other local languages and dialects that didn’t make the Constitutional cut; there’s something like 1600 of those.

Yikes.  Thank God for English, or I’d be hopelessly lost, reduced to miming and pointing at things, and talking to myself just to have a conversation with someone.

Even though Hindi (which, before coming here, I thought of as the “Indian” language) has official-language status (along with English), not everyone in the country speaks it; there’s about 200 million native speakers (out of a population of 1.2 billion), along with more who speak it as a second or third (or more) language.    I’ve learned a few words in Hindi:  namaste (which everyone knows from yoga classes, meaning hello or goodbye depending on context); dhanyavad (thank you); various food terms that allow me to understand what I’m ordering in a restaurant; and achaa, a useful all-purpose sort of word that can mean pretty much whatever you want it to mean (but is usually used as “I see” or “really”).    

English has even received some words from this language; did you know that “pyjama” and “veranda”, “bungalow” and “jungle” started life as Hindi words?   Even “Blighty”, as a term for England, comes from Hindi (from the word for “foreign”).

Here, in the far south, though, Hindi won’t actually get you far.  The predominant local language in Kerala is Malayalam, which I stand even less chance of mastering; when I listen to Hindi I can at least pick out separate words even if I don’t understand what they mean.  Malayalam, on the other hand, sounds like a continuous blur of sound; quite musical and pleasant to the ear, but sounding nothing like words or phrases or anything I could ever translate into a meaningful idea.

So English it is, usually.  But even there, Indians bring their own twists to the language, with pronunciations and intonations and phrases heavily influenced by local languages.   Some people do still sound as properly British as anyone could have aspired to during the days of the British Raj, but there’s a vast number of people more who speak an entirely new version of the language.   This “chutneyification” of English, as it’s referred to, has resulted in an entertaining new dialect.

The pronunciation is different, with regional variations (depending on the local language that influences it) that are mostly musical, sing-song and lilting to the ear.  The way verbs are used is very different; instead of just saying “I have two books to read”, you’d say “I am having two books to read”, if you wanted to say it in Indian English.   

Words get jumbled from their usual order, into a uniquely Indian fashion of expression:  instead of being asked by a waiter “What would you like to eat?”, I’ll usually hear something like “What you would like to eat?”  Sometimes they’re rhymed; “car” might become “car-var” and  “walking” turn into “walking-shalking”.  And other times, they get doubled up for emphasis; if something is exceptionally good, it might be “extra-extra” or “really-really” tasty, or you might have been out “walking-walking” for a very long time.

And there’s often a tag at the end of sentences (think of the stereotypical Canadian “eh” or the Irish “like”).  Instead of just asking me, “So you like travelling in India?”, people will query, “So you like to be travelling in India, right?” or “”  The most common one, though, is the very illogical “... isn’t it?”:  this is tacked on in ways that don’t ever have to agree with the rest of the sentence.  So you’ll hear things like “You have a job in Canada, isn’t it?” or “She is very beautiful, isn’t it?”.  

Reading newspapers can be especially entertaining, as the English appearing in articles frequently includes terms that have fallen out of everyday use in the rest of the English-speaking word.  Reading about the police “doing the needful” to catch the “miscreants” guilty of “dastardly deeds” and “reckless tomfoolery”, as I did one day, makes run-of-the-mill crime reporting a much more enjoyable read.

Some of language is non-verbal, too; from head nodding to clicking of the tongue to slapping the cheeks to blinks and shrugs and wild hand gestures, much of Indian English is accompanied by an array of physical communication as colourful as the spoken language.  Most characteristic, everywhere, seems to be the “head wobble”; sort of a wibble-wobble from side to side, it seems to mean anything from “I’m listening to you” to “I agree” to “I have no idea”.

It’s endlessly fascinating, anyway.  I can spend hours just listening to conversations around me and watching people talk.  But you really have to come here and see/hear it for yourself to get the full flavour.  Once you do ... well, I think you will be loving Indian English, isn’t it?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, that's awesome. We have to start writing about "reckless tomfoolery" and "miscreants" and "dastardly deeds" - I shall suggest it to our crime reporters!;-)