Posts Tagged ‘English’

It’s English… and it’s very, very broken.

After India gained Independence in 1947, a heated public debate ensued about how to tie the newborn nation together with an official language. Hindi was the proposed candidate, but it was controversial for a number of reasons. For instance, the lower castes were concerned that the caste-based prejudices built into the Hindi language would seal their class-fates forever. They felt that English was a more “democratic” language, which might level the social playing field some. However, having just expelled the British, the notion of adopting their language as India’s official tongue was anathema to many.

A compromise was required: India would postpone the decision for 15 years, after which time the whole kerfuffle might be forgotten. I know, it sounds brilliant on paper, but after 15 years, the controversy reignited, and an absolute decision was made: India would have (absolutely) two official languages: Hindi AND English.

India’s current state lines were drawn in 1956 based on major regional linguistic boundaries. There are now 28 states and 7 territories, so there is an equivalent number of major regional languages; and there are myriad other local tongues within each. To these hundreds of languages, the British had already added their own brand of military beaurocratic English. The resulting street-level linguistic fustercluck™ is a combination of innumerable mispronunciations of innumerable regional transliterations of imperial office-English from a bygone age.

What this means in practical terms is that people here speak a bit of Hindi, a bit of English, the language of their state, and likely a language from their “native place,” or birth village. Therefore, we depend upon English to do the heavy lifting, seeing as how our Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, and so on, are not too good. The fundamental mistake we make, almost every day, is to assume that what we think of as English is the same as what others think of as English ;)

We have by now decided that communication is likely much easier in France, Germany, Spain, Japan, or anywhere where it is understood from the start that we speak a wholly different language. In India, we assume a common language and proceed to have an “English” conversation with a tailor, policeman, grocer, driver, for 5, 10, 15 minutes before it becomes clear that absolutely no communication is occurring. Multiply this by every phone call or casual transaction each day, and… woof.

Speaking English words is not the same as speaking English…

Would You Like Buttermilk With That Order?

Food is the big problem. It’s not Indian food in general, it’s the specific meals. Breakfast is served at our sort-of hotel. Every day there are new horrors under the promising stainless steel domes. One day there are bright yellow pancakes, watermelon, and vegetable stew. The next day there is yellow dal, puffy white things, and something they call French toast. I’m learning to like it.

At work, Phil’s lunchtime choices at the Adobe cafeteria are limited to “pots of mush,” while mine involve roaming the streets until I find something I recognize as food and pray to the 330,000 Hindu gods that it won’t make me sick.

Tonight we decided to call out for food so we could hide from the world and watch bad movies like good little Americans. It took me half an hour and two trips down to reception to figure out how to dial the phone. When the restaurant finally answered things only got worse.

Everyone in India speaks English. We heard this over and over while preparing for our trip. Everyone here does NOT speak English. No. Not at all.

There are 1652 different languages in India, and 350 of those are considered major languages. English and Hindi are the official languages, and how they communicate with each other. The accents are thick, and the words sound like rubber balls bouncing down stairs. Our communication barrier is compounded by the fact that these other languages are written in the squiggly alphabet, making it impossible to take an educated stab at pronunciation.

After resorting to a fake Indian accent by putting the em-PHA-sis on awkward syl-LA-bles and popping my P’s and T’s, I managed to give our address, phone number and place our order, I hoped.

Time ticked by and no food arrived. Since beginning work in India, Phil has been going in to an office every day; for the past ten years or more he has worked mostly from home. This is a big shift; by Friday evening he hates everybody and everything. He is hungry. He wants food and a Coke – not too much to ask.

Eventually the food arrives, but there is no Coke, and the order had somehow mutated from butter chicken and butter naan, to butter chicken and buttermilk. “WTF… who orders buttermilk with their chicken?” Phil railed.

I am determined to find it impossible to be frustrated with people for not speaking my language, when I am in their country making no attempt to speak theirs. Phil is too hungry to refuse not to get upset. I dump the buttermilk in the sink, have a few bites of butter chicken and wait for breakfast.