For the past year, I have been working at TIS as its first American employee based in India. It has been a thrilling experience; living in India has not always been easy, but it’s always been interesting. I’ve learned so much at TIS that it’s hard to know where to start, so I thought I’d start with my first day.
On my first day, still jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I was pleased to find that I at least had no problem understanding people’s accents…until lunchtime. At lunch, my new friends took me into the cafeteria, where their work accents, good for conference calls and in-laws, gave way to a fast talking, and, to my ears, nearly incomprehensible banter. It turns out this is a common phenomenon; people unconsciously talk and write one way for business and another way in their personal lives. But at that point I could hardly keep track. People kept weaving in and out of Hindi and using English words in ways I just couldn’t understand.
Indian English is a great language; brash and breezy. It varies enormously from one person to the next, depending on their education and where their parents are from. Some people switch v and w, others pronounce both like Americans pronounce w. Some people pronounce th like Americans do, others just stress the t a little more (give it a little spit at the end…you can do it.) Less educated people speak a functional, pidgin English that lets them communicate across India’s innumerable local languages. Indian English incorporates innumerable Hindi words, such as “wallah,” which basically means a guy. A rickshaw driver is therefore a rickshaw-wallah, a vegetable seller is a subzi-wallah, a newspaper delivery guy is a paper-wallah, and so forth.
Hindi speakers also unconsciously use plenty of English. People who don’t speak a word of English talk about “pest-control-wallahs,” known in the US as exterminators. Similarly, I asked several friends whether they knew how to say “left” and “right” in Hindi; all did, but none remembered which was which.
Some people despair of the quality of English the kids these days are speaking, but I think it’s great. I’m sure that 12th century Norman aristocrats were horrified by the Saxon inflected French their kids were speaking. After all, what’s English if not German + French + time? I think that this new English reflects Indians’ comfort with both Indian traditions and Western culture; Indians now engage with and contribute to English and the West, rather than simply observe them.
Over the last year, my comprehension problems have dissipated and my language has met Bombay half way. I luckily found that I really like the people I had lunch with my first day, even after I started understanding what they were saying; they were less lucky to discover that once I know what’s going on, I’m not actually so quiet or pleasant. While I’ll be happy to return to my friends and family back home, I will also miss TIS, Bombay, and Indian English enormously.
(Daniel Goff spent a year in India, working with Tata Interactive Systems as lead content developer.)