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English as 'goodly spoken' in South Asia

Published Aug 18, 2011 10:45am


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In this Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011 photo, people stand in front of the entrance to Fancy Market, an area that sells mainly foreign goods, in Kolkata, India. – AP

NEW DELHI: Your neighbors have blamed you for "eating their head." Your colleague is looking for a "convented, homely girl." Your friend wants you to come to his "passing out" ceremony.

Scratching your head? A new website aims to help. Part dictionary, part inside joke for more than 1.5 billion people, Samosapedia is a crowd-sourcing attempt at compiling a "more better" guide to English as it is spoken in South Asia.

It tells you that "eating their head" means you annoyed your neighbours by asking too many questions. That your colleague is looking for a young woman educated at a girls-only Catholic school who enjoys housework. That your friend wants you at his graduation ceremony.

Two hundred years of British rule of the Indian subcontinent made English a status symbol and a key to upward social mobility.

Many South Asians have put their hearts and souls into mastering the language, but in doing so they have created their own dialect, sprinkling Britishisms with a mix of Hindi and regional language words and phrases that make sense only to those raised on curry and papadums, with a hint of Mulligatawny stew.

So while meetings get postponed all over the world, only in South Asia do they get "preponed," or moved ahead of schedule. If your South Asian friend wants to tell you a "non-veg" joke, be prepared for some dirty humour.

Only in this region can one locate the elusive "traditional with a modern outlook" woman, who is liberated enough to enjoy the occasional alcoholic drink but conservative enough to hide it from her mother. She is often looking for a "well-settled boy," a prospective groom with a decent job.

While previous generations would be horrified to see their English mocked, young Indians are reveling in it. Since Samosapedia was started a month ago, it has compiled more than 2,500 definitions and is quickly becoming a cultural touchstone for the young and hip of India.

Named after the samosa, a popular triangle-shaped dumpling, the site was created by four men in their early 30s who live in San Francisco, New York and the outsourcing hub of Bangalore in southern India. Between them they speak English, Hindi, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, French, Kannada, Amharic, and Tamil.

"When one is comfortable with one's identity, and that's happening with us now, we feel very comfortable. We don't feel inferior to any country. From that place, it's very easy to make fun of ourselves," says Mayur Sharma, who travels India sampling roadside eats as co-host of the popular TV show "Highway On My Plate."

"It's like your own little code."

For example, every desi person - and you're desi if you're Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and even if you were raised in Silicon Valley, London's Brick Lane or Toronto - knows that "above mother there is no other."

And it's just about all right to fall in ''lau'' with that dreamy boy, as long as you eventually get over it.

As Samosapedia explains, in a country like India where arranged marriages are the norm, a "lau marriage" is perceived as an irreverent act toward parents and community. One compromise: an "arranged-cum-love," where parents set you up on a date hoping affection will blossom into nuptials, letting them brag of their traditional values and you of your progressive ways.

The entries on the site are a mix of traditional but uniquely south Asian phrases and hip street slang.

There are the phrases from the memos senior government officers routinely send to their underlings asking them ''to kindly do the needful'' and to ''revert back,'' or reply, after completing the necessary task.

Then, there's this trendy phenomenon: the young "enthu cutlet" whizzing about on a zippy "kiney" (ky-NEE). Lost again?

It's a young enthusiastic person riding the popular Kinetic Honda scooter, a powerful magnet for the adoration of other young people.

Comments (12) Closed

G.A. Aug 18, 2011 08:42pm
Tottally mind-blasting! I laughed so much my whole body is 'giuing' me a headache. It is like this only.
Suresh Namboothiri Aug 18, 2011 08:47pm
Pakistan and India make mistake in 1947 by adopting the English learning methods of Oxford / Cambridge, which is developed to teach those people whose first language is English. We can't learn a second language in the same way. The root cause is this: According to Cognitive Educational Psychology, an adult can learn English in only in two ways: 1. Through a theme, you are passionate about, or 2. Through a theme, which has an immediate application at the work place. In technical terms, it is called "Content-based Instruction" or "Theme-based Learning". There are products like "Smart English through Love & Romance", "Smart English through Cricket", "Smart English through Technology & Science" etc. Search Internet. Good Luck.
BRR Aug 18, 2011 09:52pm
Its human creativity, the need to communicate, and innovative expressiveness all influencing local culture. It is the outcome of living on the crossroads of globalization, economic growth and cultural rejuvination. It is fueled by exposure to new concepts, new income modes and new challenges.
Masood Haider Aug 18, 2011 10:41pm
How about 'eve-teasing', 'What is your Good name serw', 'greasing the palms' etc.
Forbidden Fruit Aug 19, 2011 02:31am
Goodly written piece! So what next, a Pakistani "NaanPedia"? :P
M J Syed Aug 19, 2011 02:46am
In 1971 as a young student, fresh from Pakistan at London University, I became acutely aware of my heavy accent and decided to take elocution lessons. My teacher spoke the Queens language better than Her Majesty. By this time I had encountered strong Irish and Scottish accents. After a few lessons I asked her what was wrong with my accent. She said your accent is heavily Indian/Pakistani and needs correction. I quizzed about the American, Australian, New Zealand, Scottish and Irish accents. She explained, those are dialects but you have an accent. My reply to her was that languages have never been the property of territories. The largest number of English speakers in the world spoke like me. I also prophesised that one day the only way to speak correct English will be my way. I quit the lessons and to date have proudly used my original accent despite having remained in Britain since then. I welcome this website and ask you. Was I wrong?
farhan siddiq Aug 19, 2011 03:04am
South Asia has other major problems. Sensible thing would be to focus on them rather than waste time money and space on things that do not make any difference to anyone's life.
Jeddy Aug 19, 2011 11:11am
In American English the 'U' is dropped - you spelt neighbour as neighbor. So this article was written in American English using American Grammar and Usage
Accessible Fruits Aug 19, 2011 11:13am
I liked the comment
Aimal Aug 19, 2011 12:11pm
@farhan . Humour is the king. Even in difficult times one must not loose the sense of humour. Inspite of the problems that one faces in subcontinent, one must have time to laugh. That's what keeps one alive!
Dude Aug 19, 2011 01:41pm
It's all fun, folks - enjoy the Asiatic English.
Aurangzeb Khan Aug 22, 2011 11:26am
The Indians and Pakistanis are isolated and have isolated themselves and thus their poverty of command over English language. Isolated, because they don't read books; reading poorly written desi newspapers doesn't count. Isolated, because they are afraid of the gora, white man; so, most don't consider themselves equals of whites; thus have no white friends. Of course, the Indians and Pakistanis feel superior to the Blacks and Mexicans; and thus can't have friendships with them either, thus isolated from the top and the bottom. I don't know why these folks are afraid of the world; but it is fear that is keeping them in their dreadful state. Isolation and inferiority complex certainly stem from fear. Stop being so afraid and join the human race. Regards, Aurangzeb Khan