There is a language few outside of India have encountered that — like so many trends originating in the sub-continental mind — is quietly going global. This is Indian-English or ‘Hinglish’ as it is affectionately known. Spread mostly by Bollywood movies and within the liminal world of the NRI (non-resident Indian)-that is, Indians living abroad-Hinglish has even begun to rub off on foreign visitors to India. The influence of Hollywood movies and American music on Indian youth means that Hinglish can often sound more like “Himerican”, though the American part sounds quaintly dated. Indians youths of both sexes call each other “man” and “dude” more than any hippie did back in the 60s.
Even with the creep of modern slang, the English skills of the average eight-year-old Indian schoolgirl is more sophisticated than today’s average British child. English was inherited as it was spoken in the days of the British Raj, and has maintained much of its Victorian character and clipped precision that sounds very old world to modern-day Western ears. There are subtler influences too that can often be overlooked. I had a funny debate with an Indian shopkeeper who insisted that “almiri” was the English word for wardrobe (he had never heard of the word “wardrobe” or the more American “closet”). When I did some research, I found that “almiri” entered Hindi not through the British but via earlier colonizers-the Portuguese. (Other Hindi words of Portuguese origin all seem to be connected to either tools or architecture; words such as hammer, sword, spanner and room.)
This public schoolboy Victorian-style Indian English is even more pronounced in the written word. In newspapers it is often used for effect to condemn or malign an opponent that gives a certain Gilbert & Sullivan tone to it all. For example, you might read about such-and-such a party or political group described as “rascals and scoundrels”. A victim in a fraud case might be described as having been “bamboozled” or an academic might call a questionable historical theory “bunkum” meaning that it’s nonsense. Perhaps due to the influence of British military culture in colonial times, a number of everyday expressions sound like armed forces banter. When someone is out of town they might text you to say that they are “out of station.” (When I first received this message I thought they meant they were at the train station waiting to be picked up.) A play or cricket performance that’s considered high caliber might be described as “first class”. Politicians give speeches reminiscent of Churchill, with this or that policy decision described as “the need of the hour”. When a young man told me that he had “passed out” from college, I initially thought he was saying that he’d partied too hard when he should have been studying, not understanding that the phrase (which in the military means to graduate from a class or course) is used by Indian students to mean graduating from college.
Some Hinglish expressions are altogether Indian and yet a non Indian English speaker can quite easily infer their meaning. For example, an office -clerk might complain that his boss is “after his life” or “on his head”, meaning that he is being pressured by higher ups to deliver something or other. Office English is its own special dialect. In an email, a colleague might ask you to “kindly revert” which means you should get back to them about the topic at hand. If someone asks you to “do one thing”, you should understand this as a prelude to a request or advice that may well involve you doing multiple things. You may also be asked to “do the needful” which assumes that you actually know what to do with the information you’ve been given (and if you ask what it is you are supposed to do, the response may well start with “you do one thing…”) Meetings can be “preponed” meaning set at a time before the original schedule-a handy reversal of “postponed” and a term that I think should get more traction in the West.
After only a few days back in the country, I would find myself slipping into
Hinglish, responding to people with phrases like “rightly so” or “as he rightly said”. I enjoyed this tremendously because it sounded like the way people spoke in boys adventure books from the fifties. Have a go. To ease your way in, you can start by adding the words, “in fact” after sentences. You can do this almost at random without concerning yourself over whether it’s an actual fact or not. You can add it to the end of pretty much any statement. “I’ve had enough to eat now, in fact,” or “I’m taking the train to Dehradun tomorrow, in fact”. Then there is the liberal use of the word “only” at the end of a sentence to emphasize the action, as in “I am doing that now only.” It sounds odd in the beginning but it’s funny how sentences began to seem a bit bare without the occasional “in fact” or “only” tacked on the end. And then there is the way Indians use “even I” which doesn’t mean what you think it means. If someone says, “I like your outfit”, someone else might say, “Even I like it” which can be perplexing at first until you figure out that they don’t mean that normally they hate what you wear, but simply that they like it too.
Although you may never quite master the Indian headshake, since there are levels of significance to this gesture that would take a lifetime for a non-Indian to comprehend, there is one expression you can use that will make you sound like you’ve been around the chai shop a while. It’s actually more of a sound than an expression. You often hear it when someone is listening to someone else explaining something. It sounds like a very nasally haaar that emanates from deep in the back of the throat. It roughly translates to “Yes, I’m listening. I’m hearing you” (although I suspect that sometimes people do it to pretend that they’re listening when really they’re thinking about something else.) It doesn’t necessarily imply agreement though, except when it’s articulated repeatedly with gusto.
I first encountered this lingual habit while I was telling my bus companion about my trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival. After almost every sentence (and sometimes in between them), she interjected with a vigorous “ haaar, haaar, haaar.” I thought there must be something wrong with her. Perhaps a sinus infection or a nervous condition. Two years later, while talking to a wildlife conservationist who was briefing me about her work with Himalayan elephants, I began “haaaring” it up with the best of them. I was so engrossed in her story that I didn’t even realize I was doing it until she stopped speaking in mid-sentence and declared with astonishment, ‘You sound just like an Indian!’
You’ll often find English and Hindi mixed together in a melange whimsically called the “chutneyfication” of English. One example is “ek minute” meaning I’ll be with you in one minute (although you should take the ‘one’ with a grain of salt since when people say “ek minute” they often just mean that they have noticed your request and plan to attend to you some time in the foreseeable future). You also might hear English words sandwiched between two Hindi words, as with “kya problem hai?” What’s the problem? To confuse you further Indians regularly sneak in English phrases when they speak to one another. You might hear two colleagues chatting away in Hindi and then suddenly break into “totally off the charts, yah?” For a moment you think, Wow, I’m beginning to understand Hindi! But when you tune in again, it’s gone. You wonder if you just hallucinated that snatch of English, but then it happens again. Hindi, Hindi, Hindi “90% rating” Hindi, Hindi, Hindi “it was terrible, dude” Hindi Hindi Hindi “adjust the ratio”. If you don’t actually speak Hindi it’s a bit like listening to a radio with dodgy reception.
There is often a curious lack of formality on the phone (and a curious excess of it in person). “Tell me” is a common way for someone you have already met to answer your call. When this first happened to me and the woman I was calling answered by saying “tell me” in a softly therapeutic voice, I had the urge to divulge something personal, like, “Well, actually, I’m having a really tough day….” when all she meant was, tell me why you are calling. But the phone is an altogether different animal in India, and I’ve never quite got the hang of it. One of the most frustrating things is that no one ever says who they are when you call them, so you are never quite sure if you have the right number. If you call a bank in Chicago, the person at the other end will answer by saying the name of the bank and their name, followed by something along the lines of how can I help you. In India you are lucky if you get a hello. You are left to flounder in uncertainty until you are able to determine their identity through induction. The conversation might go something like this.
Dial tone, phone picks up
YOU: Hallo. Is this State Bank of India?
YOU: Yes, hallo. Is this State Bank of India?
THEM: Hallo. What do you want?
YOU: Is this State Bank of India?
THEM: Yeeees (said with deep suspicion, since obviously no one in their right mind would talk to them like this).
To this day, I struggle to break this odd semantic glitch. I think the assumption is that I should just dive in and state my business because when I try to clarify the identity of the person on the other end, I am generally treated as if I’m an idiot. Of course, it’s the State Bank of India, I can almost hear them saying, You called this number, didn’t you?! It’s possibly an example of how Westerners always want to assure designation before engaging. An Indian is much more likely to steam ahead, even if he or she finds out half way through that they’re talking to the wrong person. But it also works the other way around. I’ve had dozens of people call my mobile number by mistake who continue to shout “Hallo” down the phone at me, leading to a comical exchange of hallos that threaten to never end.
On the whole though Hinglish is more fun than frustrating. It’s hard not to love being invited to “full enjoy” a trip or a meal; an expression that I have come to fully embrace. And I find it endearing that most Indians, except those who have lived abroad, seem unaware that Hinglish is any different from the English that’s spoken in Britain. Another fun cultural moment is when some asks you the question, “What is your good name?” instead of just “What is your name?” It is always amusing to see foreigners grapple with this question for the first time just as I did once. It is not, as it might first appear, simply a quaint form of respect in the style of Downton Abbey, as in “Tell me, my good man, how many pheasants did you shoot today?”
Indians have two names; a ‘good name’ and a ‘pet name’. The ‘good name’ is the name that a person uses to the world, to their colleagues and acquaintances. Their ‘pet name’ is only used by family and very close friends. It is similar to a nickname but not quite. A pet name can be an abbreviation. Samiha might be known at home as Sami, or she might be called something completely different like Nannu. A person might introduce himself as Mishra, but then you hear his brother calling him Gugaloo. Pet names are usually very cute, like something you would name a puppy-Kuti, Pappu, Chiku, Chota-and sometimes, especially with the youngest child, the pet name sticks more than the good name.
Knowing a language is one thing, knowing how to use it is quite another. While Hinglish can be charming and fun, there are cultural differences to watch out for to avoid offending people. Something worth bearing in mind is that in India it is considered disrespectful to say “no” directly. People will say almost anything to avoid having to say the dreaded “no” word, especially to someone senior in age or rank. So while you may be convinced that the person has just agreed to do something for you, it may not be the case, even (and perhaps especially) if he or she has responded with something that sounds on the surface to be quite encouraging such as; “I will do my level best.” After a little practice, you will be able to confidently engage in conversations such as this one.
YOU: Tell me
CALLER: I’m calling about the meeting on Thursday
YOU: Didn’t you know it got preponed, man?
CALLER: No. But I can’t miss it. My boss is after my life.
YOU: Ek minute let me check.
Yup, preponed to Tuesday, in fact.
CALLER: Oh, that’s a problem.
YOU: Kya problem hai?
CALLER: My son is passing out from college on that day. Couldn’t we do it on
YOU: Wednesday I’m out of station. Okay you do one thing. Give me the dates
you’re available and I’ll revert.
CALLER: Okay I’ll do that. Can you send over the agenda?
YOU: (mentally shaking your head) I will do my level best.