English as 'goodly spoken' in South Asia

August 18, 2011


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.