July 30, 2005


Recently, I've been intrigued by mentions of Benglish in the UK press. It sounds quite unlike anything an Indian would call Benglish or Bonglish: this new variety has been described as a London vernacular that crosses West Indian patois with the Sylheti dialect spoken by East End Bangladeshis. That's about all the information I've found, apart from a review of Tony White's Foxy-T which quotes the following passage, supposedly written in Benglish.

Couple a well fit girl make straight over where Shabbaz and Ranky is wait at the bar. Them two was dress up init and Zafar find him cant take him eye off them behind and how them G-strings show through them white trousers. Them G-string is disappear right up there arse. Easy now Zafar. Shit man them two girl was lean over and say something in him spar ear and touch them arm and laugh init but Zafar just watch them behind like he never seen a girl before... Him no figure how some fit woman like Foxy-T aint make the most of herself is it and just wear them trackie bottom and polo shirt.
Not much Bangla there, innit? If anyone out there has any more information, do let me know.

July 25, 2005

Wodehouse Babu

Baboo Jabberjee, BA, was a character created by the English humorist F. Anstey for Punch, an Indian law-student in England who has learnt his English from books and speaks in absurdly inflated phrases. (He describes himself as 'saturated to the skin of his teeth in best English masterpieces of immaculate and moderately good prose extracts'). Anstey's Punch sketches were compiled into a book in 1897 and the character also featured in a sequel, A Bayard from Bengal, published in 1902. I've read both the Jabberjee books: they're politically incorrect, of course, but also quite funny, with devastating parodies of Babu English. Apparently, they had a great influence on P. G. Wodehouse's style: I've just discovered this extract from Richard Usborne's Plum Sauce at the Random House site, which shows how Jabberjee's words are sometimes repeated verbatim by Bertie Wooster, 'if perhaps with faint quotation marks in his voice'.
Jabberjee writes: 'As poet Burns remarks with great truthfulness, "Rank is but a penny stamp, and a Man is a man and all that."' This is a pleasant skid on the banana skin of education. Bertie and Jeeves, you remember, get tangled up in this same quotation at a moment of great crisis.

Rem acu tetigisti, non possumus, surgit amari aliquid, ultra vires, mens sana in corpore sano, amende honorable - these are gobbets of education that Jabberjee uses and Jeeves takes over. And (this is sad) we find that it was Jabberjee, and not Bertie, who first made that excellent Shakespeare emendation, only conceivable through the ears, only translatable through the eyes. Jabberjee writes: 'Jessamina inherits, in Hamlet's immortal phraseology, "an eye like Ma's to threaten and command".'
Journalists like David Gardner have claimed to find echoes of P. G. Wodehouse in Indian English, but it seems more likely that the reverse is true: Wodehouse's style owes a debt to Babu bombast.

July 23, 2005

A Posteriori - II

Nitin Karani's pointed out that an earlier post seems to be missing - I must have deleted it while I was clearing out some unused drafts. Here's an excerpt I found in my notes:
Tariq Rahman, speculating about Akbar’s proficiency in Indian dialects in Language, Ideology and Power, notes that the great Mughal used a Hindustani obscenity on at least one occasion. On Abul Fazl’s testimony, when Akbar was about to kill Adham Khan he exclaimed ‘ay gandu!’ before punching the traitor in the face. (The relevant line from Abul Fazl reads Hazrat ba zaban Hindustani farmudand ke ai kandu, or in translation, ‘My sire said in the Hindustani tongue, O catamite!’)

July 20, 2005

Mera Song Bhi Sexy

Bollywood's Hall of Shame should have a room reserved for all the veteran Urdu poets who have attempted songs in Hinglish. Your average Bollywood hack can write songs like 'Meri pant bhi sexy' and get away with it, but mixing English with literary Urdu is like pouring Coke on caviar (not to mention that it's downright embarrassing when a Javed Akhtar or a Gulzar tries to get jiggy). You can't but cringe when someone like Majrooh Sultanpuri writes songs for 'youngsters' with lyrics like this:
Main ek disco
Tu ek disco
Duniya hai ek disco
Disco 82! Disco 82!

(I am a disco
You are a disco
The world is a disco
Disco 82! Disco 82!)
Have Hinglish lyrics evolved since 1982, when Majrooh wrote these immortal words? This article in the Indian Express claims they have, and lists some contemporary examples to prove that Hinglish songs these days are 'less corny and more direct'. I'm not convinced: Javed Akhtar's 'It's the time to disco/ Kaun milega kisko' might pass, but 'Burn the dancefloor, O baliye' is the most awkward mix of languages I've heard in a long time.

July 19, 2005

Feeling Tinglish

Joie De Vivre asks: 'So much babada bibada over this thing called Hinglish... how come no one is mentioning Tinglish?'

July 16, 2005

Righta? Wronga?

One of the wonderful things about English as it is spoken in south India is the way it acquires an alien music. I once asked a stranger in the street for directions and was told to keep going straiiiighta. It was the most remarkable pronunciation of the word I’d ever heard: the tongue curled back on the t to stretch the diphthong as far as it would go and then moved forward swiftly to tap on the palate. I could tell that it would be a long journey, there would be a bend in the road at some point, but it would curve back eventually and I was to stop right there. Not too abruptly: that last t was softened with a half-vowel, after all.

There’s something about closing a word with a hard consonant that irks the Tamil speaker, so the inflections of his own language are applied to English loanwords: in Chennai, it's quite correctu to say leftu, rightu, and straightu. This linguistic tic is so common, it's become a standard feature in spoofs of South Indian English. So you have advertising slogans that claim 'Eastu, Westu, Northu, Southu, Vasthu bestu', and joke translations from the Tamil that read like this:

Moonu broughtu
tied it on the cotu
cloudu broughtu
put it on the bedu
(Sathya Sankaran, Corrupted Mind, June 30, 2005)
Usage of this kind is highly informal, of course, so there's no standard way of rendering the half-vowel. One person may write tightu, another tighta. Tight-aa? on the other hand, is how you might ask a friend if he's had too much to drink: the aa tag is a separate device altogether that conveys emphasis or interrogation. (A Tamil De Niro, if such a thing existed, would stand in front of the mirror and say 'You're talking to who? I-aa?', to which the reflection would doubtless reply 'Amaa! You-e!'). I'm sure a native speaker could point out many more variations and uses of the vowel tag: this blog goes so far as to suggest, tongue in cheek, that you can get by in Chennai without any Tamil, 'all you need to survive is to put an "A" after an English word'.

example: Yogu sits in Chennai auto.

Yogu: Po!
Rajnikant Autowala: Aiyyo!!! Po whereA!?!?!
Yogu: Amma!!! Po Lefta...then Righta!!!
Rajnikant Autowala: Aha...OK ma...understanda.

Destination Reacheda.

Rajnikant Autowala: Pathu ruppes saar...
Yogu: Pathu rupees ma!?!?! Tambee!!! Vermina!!! Mongrela!!! Appa Kundee!!! Chenee rida BIG fareA!?!?! shiva shiva...
Rajnikant Autowala: Sunday ma! Shiva temble yextra farea!!!
(Yogustus Caesar, GetAFix, 17 Oct, 2004)
Chico Marx in a mundu? Well, not quite. Unlike the Marx Brothers' mock-Italian, this brand of Instant Tamlish is used even when no parody is intended. You'll find it in internet forums frequented by Tamilians, where people tend to write as they speak. Here, the vowel tags merely reproduce the inflections of the spoken language. Some random examples from the TFM and Sysindia forums:

Romba correctu!

Original-a illa duplicate-aa?

Iyya naga sonna sonathu than correctu mathavanga yellam corruptu.

Anyway, ippa noveloda plot tighta irukku.

It sounds like a combo of maalkouns + chandrakouns, correctaa ?

Telugu films are stepsu, dancu & fightu. That's all.
Yes, that's about it. I'm going to watch TV now, see if I can catch Righta? Wronga? on the Tamil channel.

July 15, 2005

A Tikkus to the Beskop

Jamyang Norbu, author of The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes has a five-part essay in the Times of Tibet which attempts to refute propaganda myths about the Chinese 'modernization' of the Tibetan language. In response to the claim that the language lacked a scientific vocabulary prior to Chinese intervention, Norbu methodically lists every neologism adopted in the early 20th century, demonstrating that the Tibetans had names for modern inventions like electricity, radio, photography and the airplane long before the occupation of their homeland. In the process, he creates an unusual portrait of a society and a language adapting to modern times.

It's a long essay with many interesting historical asides, so I won't try to summarize it here. However, one of the strands in Norbu's argument is worth mentioning on this blog, because it deals with hybridity. The Tibet he portrays is neither a fairy-tale Shangri La nor the insular, monk-ridden society depicted in Chinese propaganda: though geographically isolated, the country had many contacts with the outer world through Muslim mercantile communities and encounters with Anglo-Indian society. Not surprisingly, the Tibetan language had acquired many loanwords from English and Hindustani. Tibetans called the telegraph tar from the Hindi for wire, a motorcar was a mota or gari, from gaadi, flashlights were known as bijili after the Hindi word for electricity, and the postal service was called dak. Borrowed words like these were in common use throughout the country, while in Lhasa you could smoke a shik-ray (cigarette), chew gig-chiri (chewing gum), or buy a tikkus (ticket) to the beskop (bioscope, cinema) to watch the movies of Charlie Chumping. (Hollywood movies and Western-style dancing were popular among the elite - we're informed in an aside that the foxtrot had been introduced to Lhasa, and the 'Palais Glide' and 'Boomps-a-Daisy' too had their moments in the Holy City).

With all these new products flowing into Tibet, such commercial terms as 'dozen' (Tib. darzen), as well as the concept of commercial brand names, which Tibetans termed lemba from the English 'number', entered the popular vocabulary. So in cigarettes you had amo-lemba or Camel brand and cheaper Indian brands, tadri lemba , Battle Axe brand, and sashu lemba, Lantern brand. Fabrics, sewing thread, soap etc, also came in a variety of brand names...

The term lemba was also used to designate certain famous ladies, especially amongst the Lhasa demimonde. Most well known, in this context, were three female vocalists of the nangma musical ensembles of Lhasa : shimi lemba (cat brand), porok lemba (crow brand) and naptu lemba (snot brand). Another lady of easy virtue who is said to have worn Western style shoes ( jurta, from the Hindi juta) instead of the traditional Tibetan boot lham, was called jurta lemba. One lemba lady (who shall remain nameless) moved to Darjeeling in the forties and, as Miss Lily, is said to have contributed to the War effort by entertaining American GIs on leave in that hill resort.
Governments everywhere tend to frown upon these illicit encounters between languages. The Chinese went further: under Communist occupation, the Tibetan language was 'modernized' by the creation of a new politically correct vocabulary which discarded foreign loanwords and commonly used colloquialisms in favour of loan-translations from the Chinese coined by collaborators and anonymous apparatchiks. (Some striking parallels here to the official Sanskritized Hindi propagated by the Indian government around the same time). Later during the Cultural Revolution, the Tibetan language itself came under attack and its teaching was banned in many parts of the country. Norbu notes that 'Tibetans in Tibet now use a large percentage of Chinese terms in their everyday speech, in much the same way that citizens of former Soviet satellite states were compelled to use Russian'. The home language now differs greatly from the variety used in exile: Tibetans in India continue to adopt words like the 'decidedly peculiar' barabaji (lunch), derived from the Hindi for 'twelve o'clock'.

July 14, 2005

Visible Chaddi Line

ABCD normally stands for American Born Confused Desi, but this month's Time Out Mumbai provides an alternative Marathi expansion of the acronym.
Acronym used by senior Maharashtrian women to describe women in low-slung jeans: Aga Bai Chaddi Diste. Example: I'm sure she's the one who plays that loud disco-shisko when I'm doing pooja in the morning. She's the only ABCD in the society.

July 13, 2005

Slang Sighting: One-Tharah Types

Bangalore slang, mixing Kannada and English. One tharah types are one of a kind, eccentric, idiosyncratic, 'like that only'.

Cosmopolitan people, you think? Yeah, they're a mixed bag. Different, one-tharah types. Not so hard-and-fast. A chill crowd, like. Doing ultra-cool things chumma, simply, for no reason other than to do it. (Lavanya Sankaran, The Red Carpet)
Sankaran has a good ear for Bangalore talk, and as she mentions in this interview, her publishers have been 'gracious enough to let her chumma and one-tharah be without qualifiers'. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

July 12, 2005

Coarse jocosity catches the crowd

Manmohan Singh, distinguished economist, politician, Prime Minister... and now, stand-up comedian?
Dr Singh, who received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater Oxford University, had an audience of professors and students in splits when he said that Indians had experimented with the Queen's English, which is now 'just another Indian language'.

The choice of prepositions may not always be the Queen's language and they might occasionally split the infinitive and drop an article here and add an extra one there, the Prime Minister said, deliberately pronouncing 'split' as 'saplit'.

(The Tribune, 9 July, 2005)

Kidnap Aunties and other kin

'Kidnap Aunty' is what the Indian media is calling a conspirator in the Vaibhav Agarwal ransom case. "The mess-up", comments Bachi Karkaria, "endorses my theory that 'Aunty' suffers from a permanent bad-hair day, unlike the always coiffed 'Aunt'."
Only colonial hangovers such as the Parsis and some Christian communities have 'Aunts'; all the rest only have 'Aunties'. But it's not that simple. Only the old-money Dadysetts or DaCunhas had an 'Aunt Lily'. In the wealth-tax bracket below, she became 'Aunty Lily'. However, on the other side of the Privilege Line, the relationship also switches places and gets downsized as 'Lily Aunty'...This prefix-suffix divide is like caste and monsoon rivers, absolute and non-crossable. (Bachi Karkaria, Never, ever call me Aunty again, Sunday Times of India, July 10, 2005)
The article isn't online yet, but meanwhile here's a link to Bachi's column.

July 11, 2005

Thulp it all I say!

The ever excellent Double-Tongued Word Wrester examines thulp, a slang word that must be part of every IIT-M guy's vocabulary. I've heard it used most often to describe the act of consuming vast quantities of food: for some reason I always associate it with eating thair sadam with the hands. Need I add that this usage is almost exclusively South Indian?
Thalpu : Eat rather, Gobble. eg. 'Thalp it all I say !' is famous when you go to free Luncheon in a star hotel. (Colloquial Kannada)

July 07, 2005

Wheatish Girl Seeks Alliance

Vishy's Indian English Dictionary covers the vocabulary of Indian matrimonial advertisements - including a word that is usually reserved for household pets.
Not used in the 'When were dogs domesticated?' sense, domesticated is a term applied in particular to prospective brides that indicates a good sense for maintaining a home and cooking good food for her prospective husband.
It's a brief note, hardly exhaustive (no 'innocent divorcees', no 'cosmopolitans', no 'clean-shaven Khatri boys'), but still worth a read.

July 06, 2005

Surreal Moments in Parliamentary History

Shri S.C. Malhotra, Chief Parliamentary Reporter, and Shri P. Kulasekharan, Supervisory Sr. Parliamentary Reporter, have unenviable jobs: according to the Lok Sabha website, they are 'officers responsible for supply of the information for Wit and Humour, Poetry and Couplets'. They take their work seriously, trawling through transcripts of parliamentary proceedings for the anecdotes compiled on the site.


During the question hour on 16.12.2004, on the subject of filling up of top posts in public sector undertakings, hon. Member Shri Gurudas Dasgupta put a supplementary to the hon. Minister of Heavy Industries, Shri Sontosh Mohan Dev as follows:

"Taste of the pudding is in the eating. There is always a gap between promise and performance. I hope it will not be so in this case…"

To this, Shri Sontosh Mohan Dev quipped:

"Sir, I am a diabetic patient. I cannot eat pudding!", and the whole House burst into laughter.
I guess you had to be there. Quite wisely, our parliamentarians seem to prefer Poetry & Couplets over Wit & Humour, quoting Sanskrit shlokas, Urdu shairi and Hindi poetry. The rare instances in which English verse is cited are worth noting. Let the record show that on 26th April, 2001, the Hon. Member of Parliament Shri Anadi Sahu recited the following rhyme during a debate on farmers' problems in the Sixth Session of the Thirteenth Lok Sabha.

..Old McDonald had a farm
Yeah, Yeah, ho
A quack, quack here
A quack, quack there
A quach, quack everywhere

Old McDonald had a farm
Yeah, Yeah, ho
A mow, mow here
A mow, mow there
A mow, mow everywhere

July 05, 2005

Junoon Tamil

The variety of Tamil spoken on dubbed television shows, named after the serial Junoon which used to air on Doordarshan's Metro channel. Typically, the original Hindi dialogue is translated by hacks who tend to translate idioms literally. The exigencies of dubbing impose awkward constructions, resulting in a language which bears little resemblance to colloquial Tamil. The term also seems to be used loosely to describe any artificial Tamil, whether it's advertising copy translated from another language, the Tamil songs of North Indian singers like Udit Narayan and Sukhvinder Singh, or the speech of those who 'think in Hindi or English and speak in Tamil'.

As teenagers, our lives had revolved around Doordarshan. This was an institution that had even spawned an atrocious new version of Tamil that was dubbed 'Junoon Tamil;' it went on to become the biggest joke in the city in the mid-nineties. It so happened that the serial Junoon was dubbed in Tamil. Both the translation -- it was literal, with no regard for grammar or local idioms -- and the pronunciation were atrocious. (Hemanth Kumar, Beware: Friendly Auto Driver Ahead, rediff.com)
Then there's the Hindi of dubbed American sitcoms and children's programmes, which is quite unlike spoken Hindi, or even the anglicized Hindi of magazines like Stardust (their Hindi edition was famous for translated idioms like 'billi tokri se nikal chuki hai'). The language here is more like an artificially constructed Hinglish in which all the troublesome English words are left untranslated. Well, for instance, is one of those words for which there is no exact Hindi equivalent, so it's left untouched. Pronounced vail in dubbese, it pops up in every second line. 'Vail, main aa gaya', says Dad as he enters the room. 'Vail, tum phir laut sakte ho' replies Mom. Canned laughter.