Indian English

"An accent is like an eccentricity, everybody has one but you."
I've always thought of myself as perfectly normal, no accent, nothing. But that lasts only as long as you stay in one place all your life. Travel widens your horizons, opens you up to new experiences and makes you wiser. Bullshit! Travel really makes you a stranger to yourself and gives you an accent, even if you never change a thing about yourself.

I grew up in India and until I migrated to the US, I spoke in what is now universally known as "Indian English". The most noticeable feature of Indian English is its syllabic rhythm in speech, which can be a source of comprehension difficulty for those used to a stress-timed variety especially when speech is rapid. The second major difference is in the grammatical structure of sentences. Examples of grammatical variations are as follows:

  • The progressive in 'static' verbs: 'I am understanding it.' 'She is knowing the answer.'

  • Variations in noun number and determiners: 'He performed many charities.' 'She loves to pull your legs.'

  • Prepositions/Phrasal Verbs: 'pay attention on, discuss about, convey him my greetings'

  • Tag questions , or what Indians tend to refer to as "tonal questions": 'You're going, isn't it?' 'He's here, no?'
  • Word order: 'Who you have come for?' 'They're late always.' 'My all friends are waiting.'

  • 'Yes' and 'no' agreeing to the form of a question, not just its content --

  • A: 'You didn't come on the bus?'
    B: 'Yes, I didn't.'"

Another prominent and ineffaceable aspect of Indian English, to quote Gritchka, results from the usage of the retroflex sounds for the alveolar t d n l in English. Sensei states that the retroflex gesture of the tip of the tongue touching the back of the hard palette occurs extensively in Sanskrit. For example in "pundit", the "nd" sound is formed with a retroflex. This is much more pronounced in Sanskrit was designed with clear articulation of the various phonomes and their combinations in mind.

While Pundit, Guru and Wallah have found their place in Websters, below are some words, you may not be familiar with, but are native to Indian English.

  • Prepone: the opposite of postpone
  • Cousin-brother: male cousin
  • Crore: ten million
  • Lakh: hundred thousand
  • Eve-teasing: harassment of women
  • Godown: warehouse
  • Himalayan blunder: grave mistake
  • Opticals: eyeglasses
  • Nose-screw: woman's nose ornament

And then, there are the words that everyone is familiar with, but are used to mean different things in Indian English. The one that always gets me is issues. During my last trip to India, at the end of the wedding ceremony, the family pundit very graciously blessed my cousin and his new bride with the words: "You will be blessed with issues very soon." My American friend stood aghast, wondering what the newly-weds could possibly have done to offend the priest and warrant a curse, until I explained. Except for the ultra-modern, it is still de rigueur for people to refer to children, especially unborn ones or infants as "issues".

Another curious expression that has sprouted among the youth is the use of the phrase freak out to mean "having a good time". Until I figured this one out, I began to wonder why Aquatica, the new water-park in Kolkata was scaring everyone out of their wits!

Apart from the difference in syllabic rhythm, the tone and cadence, and the acquired words, there is also the accent, which distinguishes Indian English from the language the British tried to impose upon us. With its hundreds of languages, it makes sense that Indian English is accustomed to many different accents.

My parents were born and raised in Tamil Nadu, in the South and although they have lived in Calcutta for more than three decades now, the second my dad opens his mouth, all doubts regarding his place of origin vanish.

For instance, the southern parts of India, where a variety of Dravidian languages are spoken, impose their inflections and accents, quite distinct from the varieties spoken elsewhere. The "South-Indian" accent as my dad's is commonly referred to, is really the "Tamil" accent, which differs from the "Malayali" accent, even though the four southern languages of "Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam comprise the "South-Indian accent". It is typified by a carelessness in the enunciation of consonants, softening the "S" sound in December, to a "Z" sound, a switching of "V" and "W" sounds, with "W" sounds used most often, even in words such as "Very" or "Vintage".

The different "Englishes" are identifiable as such and are a source of great delight in a mutual game of stereotyping. It is very common to make fun of the South Indian accent, especially as popularized by various Bollywood movies and primetime shows on television. Growing up as a Tam Bram (short for Tamil Brahmin, but note also, that Tam may stand for Tamarind, a popular ingredient in Southern Indian cuisine) in Calcutta, without an accent, I was able to go through grade school without too much ragging, which is how we refer to "hazing" in India. But I watched the rest of my Tam Bram sisters fall like a stack of dosas, when their "Southie" accents were exposed.

For my Bengali friends, who took to calling me tetul (Bengali for Tamarind), their failing was in the irregular plurals. And I still watch them struggle to get "yesterday" and "tomorrow" in the correct chronological order, since the Bengali word for both is "kaal". They pronounce "heart" as "hurt" and the other way around. When Shipra reads this node of mine, I am sure her "hurt will begin to heart" a little, but after five years in America, I already sound like a stranger to her, with my "American Accent", so I'm forgiven more crimes now, than ever before. I have been trying to go through life without an accent, and this, let me assure you, is no ordinary task. An accent makes you feel like you don't belong, and that's the only thing I ability to fit in, wherever, whenever. So I've been trying my darndest to perfect my American accent, and just when I get it down, a visit to my roots in India, makes me feel like a stranger in the very home I grew up in. And by the time I get back to San Francisco four weeks later, I am asking tonal questions and once again, speaking in Hinglish quite effortlessly - An enviable tranformation, you might say, but one that often confuses me, and brings to mind the one Hindi saying, we immigrants love so much:

Dhobi ka kutta
na ghar ka, na ghaat ka

Its a reference to the dog, that accompanied the washerman as he carried his load of dirty laundry down to the river , in times gone by. The dog never belonged to the house, nor to the banks of the river. It always ended up somewhere in between.

And that's Indian English for you: somewhere between its British antecedents and Indian inheritors, it has made a place for itself in the most populous democracy on earth and is certainly here to stay. But that's one guarantee that cannot be made for my own accent...for one thing, as I mentioned earlier, What Accent?...I still want to get through life without one.

Thanks to Gritchka and Sensei for their node on retroflex

Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

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