English, local and global (2008)

The Tribune, Chandigarh 19 Feb. 2008

English, local and global
by Rajesh Kochhar

At an international scientific gathering some years ago somebody made the obvious remark that English is the international language of science. A venerable old gentleman, whose mother tongue was not English, interrupted to make a small correction. Bad English, he declared, is the international language of science. At a recent astronomical meeting the chief guest peacefully declared that astronomy played a role in whole of human life right from “infantry” till old age.

A Hungarian Sanskrit woman professor who had been visiting India for many decades was accompanied by her husband. She explained that he had never been to India before but this time she seduced him to come. May be she meant induced. But come to think of it, a wife’s seducing her husband is not a bad idea either.

English indeed must pay a price for being the world language. It must serve local needs and thus evolve variously. A wife was heard admonishing her husband thus: “I have to tell you one-one thing two-two three-three times”. Let the puritans fret; the sentence makes perfect sense.

In the years immediately after Independence school masters were hypersensitive to what they called correct English. We were told that cousin sister was wrong, the correct term was cousin. Very many years later when in the university I realised that our teacher was wrong. Describing a girl as cousin or cousin sister sends two entirely different messages. If you introduce a girl as cousin sister to your friend, you are telling him: She is my sister. Treat her as your own. But if a girl is described merely as a cousin, he is free to try his luck (I understand the modern term is line maro-ing).

What English did to other languages or its own antecedents, others are now doing to English. The word cockroach has nothing to do with either cock or roach; it has been made up of two familiar words in imitation of the sound of the Spanish original. Skirt and shirt have the same etymology.

In the cold climate of England, vest and brief both constitute underwear (the marketing people now prefer to call them innerwear). But in India it is perfectly respectable to be seen with a banian, so the term underwear has shrunk in meaning.

The irregularities of the English language baffle many of its users who in turn enrich it at various levels, including with unintended humour for the initiated. There is an anecdote no doubt created by a grammarian. A hotel guest tells the boy: Call me a taxi. He looks at her and says: OK. You are a taxi.

There is a hilarious story about a drycleaning shop which had put up a notice: “Drop your pants here for quick service”.

A school teacher recently told about the mother of a student of his. She proudly declared that her son was abnormal, meaning that he was extraordinarily gifted.

There is a story representative of modern business software-driven times. A beaming grandmother distributed sweets in her neighbourhood. My granddaughter, she said, has not yet finished her graduation, but she has already been hired as a call girl (what she meant was a job at a call centre).


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