English In Three Nations: Local Rules For A British Language

by V.S. Ravi - Dec 17, 2022 06:00 AM +05:30 IST
English In Three Nations: Local Rules For A British LanguageOxford Dictionary (@maneeshbookshop/Facebook)
  • Local variations in the usage of a single language are natural, and not errors of grammar.

During a visit to Chennai, a couple of years ago I attended a party at a friend’s house. He had returned to India after having spent several years in America and had invited several of his other friends, including a few representatives from different countries. 

Among these guests belonging to different nationalities were an Italian, a Frenchman and a Venezuelan, all three of whom became the centre of attraction. 

The Italian was not exactly a Rudolf Valentino, but his pronunciation of words beginning or ending with 't' and ‘d’ by adding ‘h' made his conversation sound ‘sexy’ to the ladies. The Frenchman was no Charles Boyer but was no less popular with the girls if only because there were echoes of Maurice Chevalier in his accent. The Venezuelan did not lag behind in as much as his sentences were sprinkled with words like ‘Vestido’ or ‘Bonita’. 

No one was sure what the words meant but then who cares about meanings if the accent sounds exotic! Which incidentally brings me to the main subject of this essay, the manner in which English is spoken or written in other parts of the world, particularly England, America and India.

The euphemism is a difficult figure of speech that needs delicate handling. According to Merriam Webster, euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also: the expression so substituted.

In Shakespeare's great play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is instigating her husband, Macbeth, to murder Duncan, who is their unsuspecting guest. This is clearly a delicate subject, as conspiracy to murder the king is a very grave crime, attracting the death penalty. Therefore, instead of bluntly telling the nervous Macbeth that he should murder the king, Lady Macbeth, uses soft language to encourage him by saying that Duncan “must be provided for.” Macbeth sees through her euphemism, and understands that she wants Duncan to be killed by dead by the morning.

Another example is Iago telling Brabantio in the play Othello:

"I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" meaning Othello and Desdemona are having sexual intercourse.

Yet another  example is  a sentence of Churchill: "Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes”  (meaning  not telling the exact truth). 

America is probably the one country where euphuisms are used liberally. Thus for example:

All over the world people visit, a toilet, or a bathroom or a lavatory. In America one visits a restroom.

One famous American comedian listed out some of the most hilarious euphemisms used in his country. I am giving below a few.

1. Toilet paper has now become bathroom tissue

2. Sneakers have become running shoes

3. Car crashes have become" automobile accidents"

4. False teeth have become  "dental appliances" 

5. Information has been replaced by "Directory assistance"  

6. "Used  car" has now become "previously owned transportation"

7. "Room service has become "Guest room dining"

8. Constipation has become" Occasional irregularity"

9. A person who is Deaf is now referred to as "hearing impaired"                      

10. A Blind person is now referred to as  "Visually impaired"

11. In the past a person went to see a doctor, in a hospital, now he has to go to a 'wellness centre' or a 'Health maintenance organisation' or to see a 'health care delivery professional'.

12. There used to be a condition in combat when the nervous system of a soldier who took part in the First World War, reached such a peak when he could not take mental tension anymore. It was called 'shell shock', a simple expression (two syllables). After the Second World War the same condition was called" battle fatigue". Following the Korean War it was called "operational exhaustion (eight syllables). Following the war in Vietnam, it is now described as "post-traumatic- stress-disorder! "

I am also unable to explain why Americans say that the bus will leave  momentarily (it's actually faulty grammar) instead of "in a moment". This is heard before a ride in every theme park! Of course the bus may stop momentarily at some place!

Now let us take a look at the state of English in our country, which has had an association of more than 200 years with that language. We have novelists, writers and journalists famous the world over. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore is respected all over the world not only for his chaste English but also his noble thoughts and ideas. Hundreds of newspapers, journals and books are produced in English on almost every subject. 

Despite all this, most Indians do have a sort of complex with respect to English. No doubt an ability to write good English or speak fluently is to be admired. But a tendency to regard those who lack such skills as old fashioned, as is noticeable in our country, has to be discouraged. No German or Japanese would feel awkward on account of an inability to speak good English. He has a natural attitude of taking such a limitation in his stride. 

After a victory in a match the Tennis legend, Nadal, answers questions put to him in a Spanish accent. He pronounces his words ending with 't' and 'd' in the manner indicated above. Whoever interviews him may ask questions in chaste English but Nadal is least bothered. The moment is his. The whole world is watching him. Every time he answers the question the crowd cheers him. That reminds me. When you leave England and travel to other countries in Europe, your knowledge of English is of no use. The French will get positively offended if you insist on speaking in English. Notwithstanding the gibe of Professor Higgins that "in America they have not spoken English for years", the Americans really don't care and stick to American English. Nor can you expect Australians not to talk in their accent and use expressions peculiar to Australian English. 

In south-west Asia more than a billion Chinese do not speak English - nor do they want to. The same situation prevails in Japan, Korea and Thailand and other neighbouring countries. 

So then, why should we in India have contempt for those of our countrymen who have not had the opportunity to become proficient in English? As long as Americans retain ‘rain check’, ‘couch potato’, ‘momentarily depart’, ‘phoney’, ‘fun guy’ and ‘a bunch of crap’ is there really any need for us to give up ‘pin drop silence’, ‘neck out’, ‘issueless’, ‘co-son-in-law’, '  ‘cousin-brother’, “good name" and the phrases 'foreign returned', for someone who has returned from abroad , ' fluke shot' for 'fluke' 'full pant' for trousers, cooling glasses for 'sun glasses', furlong for a quarter of a mile and even words like Crorepati.

According to one Westernised Indian politician who prides himself on his knowledge of English, the word 'brinjal' doesn't exist. He is wrong. It does. It is known as Eggplant, or aubergine in America  and brinjal in India and a few other English speaking countries. It  is a plant species in the nightshade family Solanaceae. Solanum melongena is grown worldwide for its edible fruit. Most commonly purple, the spongy, absorbent fruit is used in several cuisines. Typically used as a vegetable in cooking, it is a berry by botanical definition. Therefore, we should perhaps continue to refer to what the Americans call egg plant as brinjal!

He says that the phrase "lady's finger" does not exist. He is wrong again. It does. Abelmoschus esculentus, is known in many English-speaking countries as "ladies' finger" or ochro, or okra. It is a flowering plant in the mallow family. It has edible green seeding pod. It is used in several dishes in the whole of India.  In fact the phrase "lady's finger" is a picturesque description which we should retain !

Similarly there is a vegetable known as "snake gourd" in India. Trichosanthes cucumerina is a tropical or subtropical vine. Its variety T. cucumerina var. anguina is raised for its strikingly long fruit. In Asia, it is eaten immature as a vegetable much like the summer squash and in Africa, the reddish pulp of mature snake gourd is used as an economical substitute for tomato. In south India it is used as a tasty vegetable dish . Let's continue to call it " snake gourd"!

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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