The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 5, 2011

Indianisms and DMello

A chap called Daniel DMello recently wrote a piece titled "10 Classic Indianisms: 'Doing the needful' and more". It has been doing the rounds of the web and eliciting chuckles from Indians and others. I am the first to concede it is amusingly written. But the author's smugness and condescension are palpable. He evidently believes that the God of Grammar has revealed rules of English usage to him. He does little to verify that his 'Indianisms' really are limited to the subcontinent. Worse, he hasn't even bothered to check if his assertions on grammar hold water at all. He is funny. If you are only interested in his humour, stop reading right here. But if you have any inclination towards accuracy, read on. His piece, I'm sorry to say, is specious. It is vacuous. It makes me, dare I say it, bilious.

Prescriptivists of language usage very often don't know what they are talking about. Consider the widely held injunction against the passive voice. Prescriptivists in many ways are hidebound people with little understanding of how languages develop. They are conservatives with pet peeves. They would do well to go to the superb Language Log and learn about grammar and language from real experts. This is not to say that all of DMello's complaints are unsound. Let us examine them one by one.

0. What is your good name? Clearly this is a literal translation of the Hindi आपका शुभ नाम क्या है? Why is this any less valid an addition to the corpus than anything invented by, say, the Romans? English abounds in Latinisms. After all, they said 'cum grano salis' and we have translated it to 'with a grain of salt' and nobody scoffs. Languages admit new usages all the time, some of which become entrenched while others fall by the wayside. Survival of the fittest, what?

1. Pass out. DMello says that to pass out is to faint. He dislikes its use to mean 'to graduate from an institution'. He says only the Indians say 'pass out from college.' Bunkum. In Britain, if you graduate from a military college, you are said to pass out. I can't say for sure, but isn't it possible that the usage was extended to mean to graduate from any college when the Brits came to India?

2. Kindly revert. DMello says that 'revert' means 'return to a former state'. It is incorrect to use it to mean 'reply'. Well, it's not just Indians who are culpable. So are the Singaporeans and Malaysians. And in the Caribbean, too, it's used to mean 'get back', as in 'I will revert (get back) to you.' True, it originates from Indian English. But the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary has accepted this usage in its latest edition. DMello should check his facts before pontificating.

3. Years back. DMello insists it should be 'years ago'. It's true that the usage of 'years ago' vastly outnumbers 'years back'. Searching on Google, 'years ago' brings up about a billion hits, while 'years back' brings in only 33 million (about 30 times fewer). But DMello again makes the mistake of attributing the phrase to Indian English. A member of the English Stack Exchange checked both the British and American corpora of contemporary usage, and discovered that 'years ago' is used about 10-20 times more often than 'years ago', both in formal and informal speech/journalism/fiction (although the Brits don't use 'years back' at all in academic literature). But Americans and Brits do use this expression. How about Jeffrey Kluger in this article in Time? Is Kluger desi, DMello? (DMello also resents the use of 'backside' to mean 'back'. As in 'put the suitcase in the backside of the car'. What can I say, DMello, you are correct here.)

4. Doing the needful. Ha. Okay... It's a fair cop, guv. Except it isn't! It's an Englishism - search for it and you'll find uses from the Law Journal of 1833, and Marine Insurance documentation of 1866, and in Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers, and letters from some incensed Glaswegians to the abdicating King Edward VII in the 1930s, and the Kenya National Assembly Official Record of 1986 and, for heaven's sake, what the Dickens are you on about, DMello?

5. Discuss about. Why add the 'about', asks DMello. Good question. It appears to be unnecessary. And yet it's not just Indians who say this. There are 6 million hits on Google for this expression, not all by desis. The occasional Iranian bureaucrat has been heard to use it. Even the New York Times has stumbled.

6. Order for. DMello doesn't like ordering 'for' anything. 'For' is gratuitous. I agree.

7. Do one thing. I suspect this comes from the Hindi एक काम करो. It is a colloquial expression that generally precedes a suggestion. It is an Indianism - I haven't seen or heard this used anywhere else. I'm no oracle, of course, so you are free to do your own investigation. DMello says, drolly, that a person who says 'do one thing' usually proceeds to suggest five. Yup, that can happen. But that's a matter for logic, not usage, surely?

8. Out of station. This, like 'pass out', comes from British (and American) military usage. DMello's complaint is that this is archaic. A brief online search reveals that it is not all that dated. It's not particularly restricted to subcontinentals either. In West of the West: Imagining California (by Leonard Michaels et al, University of California Press), page 283, appears the sentence 'One continues to run into people who, literally and metaphorically, are out of station.' And a little later, 'The out-of-station are to be met with at every twist and turn.' The book was published in 1995. There were no desis involved in writing it.

9. Sleep is coming. DMello objects to the anthropomorphism here. On the other hand, finer writers than him have written "Winter is coming", and "Night is coming", and, well, it's all very portentous when they say it, and it loses a bit of that sense of awe when someone is about to clunk into bed, so, okay. Point taken. I think.

10. Prepone. DMello doesn't object to this Indianism and an Indianism it is, to be sure, a very logical one, a most apt one indeed, as DMello himself is eager to add. This is clearly a neologism, and that's yet another way languages change. Were it not for neologisms, there wouldn't be 'laser' and 'photon' and 'torpedo' and Star Trek would have been that much duller and the wife and I wouldn't have watched it, or if we did, one of us would have hated it, and then had we ever met, we wouldn't have gotten on as well as we did, and that doesn't bear thinking about.

So there you have it. What do you have to say, DMello?


Arundhati said...

Wow, you did quite some research to respond to Dmello's article. The graphs were impressive. 'Do One Thing' prolly has an equivalent in almost every Indian language, I think, since 'one' and 'a' are used interchangeably in many Indian languages. Personally, I hate 'Kindly do the needful'- it reminds me of a pedantic babu in a PSU sending an interoffice memo. And yes, 'prepone' really should be made official. It is long overdue.

Anonymous said...

>> He evidently believes that the God of Grammar has revealed rules of English usage to him.


Loved this post.


Fëanor said...

Thanks, guys!

sapera said...

"sleep is coming" is probably "neend aa rahi hai" :)

ywolve said...

Hehe you chap, have sound knowledge of vocabulary :) sorry if i am being wrong ..But You Sir, have smugness and condescension in you

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