Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It Just Trips Off The Tongue

“Language -- we play with it, argue about it, spar with it, judge others on it. Who said language was only for communicating?”

When A-Word-A-Day’s daily snippet popped into my mailbox this morning, the lines above got me thinking. One’s command over the English language, which I long thought was a really solid advantage anywhere, is, as it turns out, something of a double-edged sword.

Choosing to look at the glass half-empty, let’s see how one’s fluency in this language of foreign origin now adversely impacts an Indian in India - here are the commandments for all those (unfortunate?) Indians who are apt to believe their first language/mother tongue is English:

1. Thou shalt be entitled to titles.

No “Lady” or “Lord” type British titles for you. The titles bestowed on the comfy English speakers here are a lot more colourful. While my dad dealt with the likes of “East India Company”, I had to contend with tags like “White Pig” (literally translated from the Tamil phrase) thanks to delightful classmates in cordial Chennai - until the day I walked up to a blackboard and corrected a Tamilian’s Tamil spelling for the word “yaanai” (elephant). Almost needless to say, the look on their faces was absolutely priceless. Then there’s the more mundane “So-n-so’s British.” My mother’s son-of-the-soil brother insists that his “sister is British” because “her father was British!” Who am I to point fingers? I tell everybody “my mother is British” and “KO is related to the Queen.”

2. Thou shalt be the butt of all jokes.

You are always the “outsider” in any gathering where a vernacular language is the chosen medium of communication. Even if you do choose to converse in the vernacular, your conversation is subject to intense scrutiny by the vernacular experts who cackle at any slip-up or, having found no grammatical errors, then attack your “anglicised accent,” mimicking you with an even more ridiculous accent - something akin to playing a Geoffrey Boycott commentary on slow.

3. Thou shalt be infallible in all things English.

If you are good at the language, the bar is set even higher for you with almost no margin for error. This mean you cannot afford a single typo, errant comma or grammatical error in any of your written works - be it a simple email to a colleague, a note to a neighbour, your college thesis, the to-do list tacked to the fridge, or a hurriedly scrawled recipe for prawn curry. As for pronunciations and the spoken word, God save thy soul if you happen to spout a more vernacular expression. For instance, an “Arre yaar” or a more colourful vernacular expletive. (No, B-C, that still does not mean we will stop laughing at you for saying “I promise on Lord Jesus…”)

4. Thou shalt be witness to double takes.

You speak in the vernacular. Listener does an exaggerated “I-freeze-in-my -tracks” before saying, “Oh, my God! You speak Tamil/Hindi/Kannada/Malayalam/Fill-in-lingo-of-your-choice?”, which may or may not always be followed by the obscure observation “You do not LOOK like you speak xyz lingo.”

5. Thou shalt be the English language ready reckoner.

Move over, Google, Websters, Oxford, Wren & Martin. You are a cheaper, handier version of a dictionary and thesaurus. You shall provide spellings, definitions, usage and synonyms at anybody’s behest for any word or wannabe word in the English language. A failure or inability to do so will cause ripples of amazement wider than even George Bush Sr.’s keeling over and throwing up on the Japanese PM evoked.

6. Thou shalt be the Brit wannabe.

Somehow, an “English language expert” in this country is immediately construed as being one who idolises the Brits and all things Brit,is dying to live in the UK, turns up the old honker at anything Indian. Does having fluency over a foreign language immediately make one a traitor to your land? How about looking at it as being able to cock a snook at the Brits in their own tongue? In any case, I don’t quite get what all the competitive hype and hoopla is about when it comes to the various races. I am not the one who hoists the Union Jack every morning nor do I even know (or care)what the UK national anthem is. I prefer a hot samosa to a drab old scone any day. I might be guilty of preferring a man in a suit to a lungi, but then, that really is a matter of personal taste rather than allegiance to a country! (Basically Blah prepares for hate mail from a certain N Rajakutty)

7. Thou shalt be perceived a snob.

The “English type” come with a tag attached that can never be shaken off. Absolutely no opportunity to prove otherwise. You have been, are and always will be a snob. It doesn’t matter that you may not actually think of yourself as too cool for everybody else around you. You are “one of those” and you just have to be a snob, looking down upon anybody else who may be more fluent in the vernacular and whose English skills leave a lot to be desired. Sigh! When a neighbourhood nanny trying to get a colicky baby to sleep shushed a woman squabbling on the road outside for disturbing the little fellow, the belligerent passerby shot back, “Oho! You English people in your bungalows (we live in apartments, fyi) think you can tell us what to do?” The nanny had made the mistake of speaking in the lingo of the sahibs. So apparently, speaking in English makes you appear to be a cut above the rest - who cares what you really think about yourself?

To the wise auto driver (a dying breed in Bangalore) who said that learning and knowing good English in this day and age is a must else it will get you nowhere - there is plenty of truth to what you say.

However, in my next life, Oh Big Guy Upstairs, can I please be Vatal Nagaraj, bastion of the local language? For starters, he is male (I haven’t heard anything to the contrary); secondly, he is on the other side of the fence (or the 'English Channel' as I like to think of it) and it looks like the grass is far greener on that side - just ask the camel he's seated on (not seen in pic).


  1. I had to Facebook it. Awesome read. We speak the vernacular (gasp) but we have accents. And being a Kannadiga I've had an 'ohoho maha' directed at me one too many times often because I said "Please" or "Shut up" instead of anything Kannada.

  2. I had to battle a lot of Ohohos and Ahahas while in Bangalore as well and I began to think my knowledge of English would take me anywhere, it was my security blanket.
    But a short year in Germany, where stuff on cereal boxes and any other direction was written in 15 European languages from Romanian to Bulgarian and Svenska but God forbid, not in English!! Gives you some perspective of your skills then.

  3. Sigh! How right you are! One also ends up being the "official editor" of websites & newsletters & the like! One would think we are a dying (or soon to be!) breed!

  4. Point 3: All I can say is, " I am my own worst enemy!" Do excuse any typo's, punctuations gone wrong, spelling mistakes, incorrect sentence construction etc. I am lowering the invisible bar that others seem to set for me in this manner now!:p

    Enjoyed the read, sweet "vellai panni!" ;-)

  5. @Bhumika: Hahaha! I can actually hear that "Ohoho maha!" in my head... We are (pea) pod sisters!

    @Rati: Now that's an interesting take! I really like to know what the "bastions of locals language" would do in such a scenario!

    @IMM: I think we are... move over, extinct Dodo birdies.

    @KO: dai, vai moode di...[oooshooshoo..vellai panni speaks Tamil, da!]

  6. Ok, I think I bitched too much and the server disrupted my comment posting.

    Let me try whatever I said earlier in a nicer way:

    Love the post, you had me nodding vigorously at every point. By the end of point no.7, I had a mild head moving disorder.

    I'm sick of all these language witch hunts in different ways and forms and I think after this post, I might just bite the head off someone who tries any ooshooshoos or the sort. Btw, I'm still laughing uproariously at "vellai panni," can just imagine the whole scene vividly and it reminds me of all the priyas you encountered in good old Chennai.

  7. My response to all the "Aren't you ashamed you're so much better at a foreign language than your mother tongue?"s is "I don't think it is a foreign language anymore." Think about it, I can only read what you're saying because it is in English. I can understand what my boss is saying because it's in English. I can in fact spend 5 years in Bangalore working with people from ALL over the country only because we speak English! In what way does it make me un-indian???


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