“Indian people are more decorous and even florid when they speak...”
When I joined the BBC Delhi bureau in 1999, I was told to be prepared for daily news briefings led by then bureau chief, Mike Wooldridge.
He had been the kindest and most considerate of four interviewers I had met before being offered the job I eventually took, and the thought of starting my first day at the bureau with a meeting held by him seemed like a most un-alarming proposition.
Little did I know what I was in for!
The entire bureau had gathered around the news desk area, and Mike was partly perched on a nearby table. Although all was fairly quiet, except for the incessant ringing of phones in the background, I was not able to understand A SINGLE WORD of what he was saying.
This was not only because he spoke very softly and quickly, but also because his spoken English was the kind which I had not had the opportunity to be exposed to on an everyday basis.
During the weeks and months ahead, as I listened even more closely when he led meetings, and came to know him as a person and senior journalist, it became easier to ‘crack the code’ - and more easily follow what he was saying.
Later, during my time with the BBC, when I was sent to London for training and work, I was stumped when women in shops, and a few close colleagues in the office, would regularly address me as ‘my love’. Although I was under no illusions about the intention of the phrase, it did hit me each time - it sounded so intimate, so personal.
Other expressions that took me some time getting used to were ‘so knackered’ (so tired), ‘oh blimey!’ (oh goodness!) and the use of ‘bloody hell!’ among Londoners, as a common exclamation for any occasion.
Anthropologist, Ruchi Chaturvedi, who holds a PhD from Columbia University, New York, says the common pronunciation of the alphabet, ‘z’ as ‘zee’ (i.e., phonetically pronouncing the word zebra as zee-bra in place of zeh-bra) used to grate on her ears during her first few years in the U.S.
“Another thing that used to regularly enervate me was the word route being pronounced 'rowte', although this was far more common in New Jersey than in New York. And I found it even more annoying when Indian Americans said it!” she says.
A few American English words and phrases that I personally heard a lot from my American colleagues, when I lived in Stockholm, Sweden, were ‘I feel like such a klutz’ (I feel like a clumsy idiot), ‘I'm really beat’ (I’m really tired), and ‘he’s a real airhead’ (he’s so dumb).
“There are a few idiosyncratic phrases common in Australian English including, ‘see you in the arvo’ (as in, see you in the afternoon), ‘she'll be right’ – meaning all is good, ‘you serious?’ meaning I can’t believe it,” says Indian-origin Australian citizen Niyati Sharma.
She says her family’s Indian roots have helped her easily pick-up on phrases and words peculiar to Australian English, which her extended family and Australian-Indian friends take time to get used to.
She also referenced phrases used in Australia, which have their origins in the English spoken by Indigenous Australians. For example, “What youse mob up to tonight?” – which means “what are you all up to tonight?”
My own experience with Australian English in an international office in Stockholm, was dominated by the newness of the accent – the way the sounds are drawn out in often-used words such as ‘mate’ and the unique musicality of the language.
Which brings us to the variant of English most of us are more familiar with – Indian English.
Former BBC Radio journalist, Aasiya Lodhi, a British-Asian of Pakistani origin, says what strikes her as distinct about Indian English is not so much the vocabulary, but the grammar and the very formal structuring of sentences.
“Indian people are more decorous and even florid when they speak and that could be because of something lost in translation or because they think British people really speak like ‘Yes Minister’,” she says.
“I remember reading the heavy use of Victorian English in Indian newspapers especially in crime (news) stories: `Miscreants', `dacoits', `dastardly', that kind of thing!,” Lodhi says.
And this antiquated style of English, she argues, is in sharp contrast to the attempts British society has been making, in her view, to try and “lose its classist image”.
“So it’s all ‘hiya Dave’ [editor’s note: meaning ‘hi, hello Dave’] - type of stuff nowadays,” says Lodhi. Quite a contrast to the very formal and stiff, "Good morning Mr. Smith, Sir’ that would be the common rule in an Indian setting.
“I think most Indians would be shocked to arrive (in the U.K.) and discover how it's all ‘hiya’ and ‘bye’ and first names only in an academic or professional setting,” Lodhi says with a hint of bemusement.
As for any memorable phrases in Indian English, Lodhi says that what continues to make her laugh, whenever and wherever she hears it, is the much satirised Indian pleasantry, “What is your good name?”
Here's our quick reference guide to some of the unusual phrases unique to each English-speaking nation!
‘Chuffed’ for proud; ‘knackered’ for very tired; ‘wicked’ for cool; ‘gutted’ for devastated; ‘whinge’ for whine; ’give me a bell’ to say ‘give me a call’
‘Don’t be a chicken’ for ‘don’t be a coward’; ‘rubber’ for condom; ‘restroom’ for toilet; ‘cilantro’ for coriander; ‘eggplant’ for aubergine; ‘lady’s fingers’ for okra; ‘clippers’ for nail-cutter; ATM for the British ‘Cash Point’
‘Alf’ meaning stupid person; ‘dinkie die’ for the whole truth; ‘to hump’ meaning to carry; ‘mozzie’ for mosquito; ‘Sheila’ for woman; ‘chooks’ for chicken; and the famous ‘g’day’ for ‘hello’.
‘Passed out’ for getting through an examination; ‘revert’ for getting back in touch; ‘to intimate’ for giving notice or information; ‘do the needful’ usually indicating an affirmative response to some request.