There might be some debate as to exactly what percentage of the world’s population speak the English language, but there can be little doubt that it covers a very large swathe of the globe. After all, not for nothing did the Brits sail around the world a couple of centuries ago, seeking whom they may devour. While their avarice to conquer and stay on as uninvited guests for long periods has been resented by the colonised, and rightly so, we need to graciously acknowledge their sagacious contribution in leaving behind a language that binds many nations and keeps the wheels of commerce well oiled. Else we might have been bumbling our way through with French, Dutch or perhaps, Portuguese. It is true that in each geographical region, the English language has been suitably adapted to cater to its own vernacular needs, resulting in uniquely different accents and emphases on words and phrases. Why, in India the way a typical Bengali speaks English is vastly different from how his compatriot in Chennai would hold forth in the same lingo. The native mother tongue influences the English pronunciation and phraseology. In that respect we Indians laugh at ourselves all the time, good-naturedly mocking our fellow countrymen and women.
The rapid spread of English has been, by and large, helpful though it has provided much comic relief when people attempt to mimic the way English is spoken in different tongues. All those years ago, British comic actors Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, through their immensely popular Goon Show, attempted to create a ‘one-size-fits all’ Indian accent and had their admirers from all over the world helplessly rolling in the aisles. Listen to the song Goodness, Gracious Me! featuring Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, recorded as a promo for the film The Millionairess (though excluded from the main film) and you will know what I mean. A more recent reprise of the same song, enacted by Rowan Atkinson (whom I otherwise admire) falls way short of the original.
My own preoccupation for some years now, has had to do with the wonder that is the way English is spoken in the United States of America. Notwithstanding allowances made for marginal differences in the way a Texan would drawl as opposed to a New Yorker’s staccato, rapid-fire way of communicating, one can safely club American English into one unique slot. In India, for obvious reasons, most of us have been more used to the British way of speaking and writing English when it comes to spellings, idioms, phrases, aphorisms and so on. Bernard Shaw’s fictional Professor Henry Higgins (Pygmalion and My Fair Lady) famously complained that ‘in America, they haven’t used it (English) for years.’ The reason American English intrigues me is that, while they seem to be speaking English, there are many phrases and expressions they employ that continue to baffle me. The Australians too speak English in their own, unique way. Listen to former Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting or eccentric tennis star Nick Kyrgios, speak. You will need an interpreter to translate what they are saying into decipherable English, but that is simply the accent. The Americans appear to have a vocabulary all their own. That said, now that we have cable television and any number of American TV serials and films readily available at our finger tips, English as she is spoke, particularly by the younger generation in India, is slowly but surely morphing from the Union Jack to the Stars and Stripes. And who are we fuddy-duddies to complain?
Several years ago, on my first visit to New York City, I called my hotel from the airport where I held a reservation. The conversation went something like this.
‘Good morning, my name is Subrahmanyan. Not Submarine. No, no, I am not from Suriname. My name is Subrahmanyan, and you are holding a single room for me. Could you kindly confirm the same? I should be arriving in about an hour.’
‘Can you spell that for me, please? I didn’t quite catch that. Just the first five letters should do it,’ replied the chap at the reception.
‘Right, here goes. S U B R A…’
‘Got it. Pretty long name, huh?’
‘Sub-rah-man-yan. Just four syllables. No longer or more unpronounceable than Zbigniew Brzezinski.’
‘Never mind. The name, for the last time, is Subrahmanyan, Suresh.’ I was beginning to get just a little peeved.
‘Check. Copy that.’
‘How do you mean check, and copy what? Anyhow, you can copy it wherever you like. Just wanted to be sure of my booking. And by the way, Zbigniew Brzezinski was a former National Security Advisor of your great country. Just so you know.’
‘Whatever,’ he responded, laconically. I also suspect he was chewing gum.
I was to learn later that copy that means ‘noted and understood.’ We hear that often enough now in American movies. Back home in India, we were entertaining an NRI family from New Jersey. The husband and wife were to land up at our place for high tea along with their teenage son, who was finishing his schooling in the US. The couple arrived bang on time, the youngster was coming from elsewhere. While we were chit-chatting, the time flew by and their darling boy was yet to put in an appearance. The mother became quite agitated and called the tardy scion on the mobile and spoke in an exaggerated Yank accent. ‘Where are you, Raja? You were supposed to join us an hour ago, da. Will you drop whatever you are doing and come here already?’
Come here already? Never heard the word ‘already’ used that way before. Sounded like a contradiction in terms. In more recent times, particularly on streaming video, this phrase has become increasingly commonplace, and Indian kids, be they from the US or from India’s urban elite, are quick to latch on. To complete that high tea story, when the errant boy did arrive, he examined the generous fare on the dining table and exclaimed, ‘Goody, goody gumdrops! Am I going to pig out.’ Ah well, each to his own, I suppose. Speaking for myself, immense hunger would have driven me to venture, metaphorically, that ‘I could eat a horse.’ As for G.G. Gumdrops, the Americans and the British have been squabbling for long over who owns the copyright. Let me quickly add here that phrases like I don’t care in place of ‘I don’t mind’ and my bad in place of ‘I am sorry’ have already become passé, a cringe-worthy part and parcel of our daily lexicon, such that I shan’t elaborate on them. Suffice it to say that, so far, so bad.
Let’s move along to behind the eight ball. The phrase, drawn from the game of billiards or pool, is meant to indicate that you are falling behind the competition in whichever subject is under discussion. ‘My friend, let me caution you that in the matter of winning the confidence of your boss, you are clearly behind the eight ball as compared to that greaseball, Jack. You had better buck up.’ I actually like this phrase, but if used indiscriminately, you will just come across as a boor and a show off.
I first came across the word period, when I joined school; 9 am to 10 am was Geography period, 10 am to 11 am was History period and so on. To say nothing of the British Period, the Mughal Period, the Chola Period, et al. We now know that this word has very many different meanings and shades, and I shan’t go through all of them here. (If she is having her period, show some understanding.) It is a common enough word. Period can also mean ‘full stop,’ and in the bygone days when we dictated letters, we would use the word frequently. ‘Dear Sir, Thank you for your kind enquiry about our tyres for animal-drawn vehicles period.’ Your smart secretary would automatically translate that to full stop. In the more trendy, conversational style of the present day, one is apt to say something like, ‘I do not wish to dwell on this subject anymore. Period.’ This, to indicate firmly, that the topic is irrevocably closed.
Here’s one that has not quite gained currency in India, but it will only be a matter of time. ‘Hey look, I have no time for late night parties. I am working the graveyard shift.’ Those swotting away in India’s IT and services sector speaking to clients all over the world, who start work at around 11pm and slog all night till the sun comes up, work the graveyard shift. It won’t be long before some of your friends start mouthing this phrase, if they aren’t already at it. I was also struck by yet another unheard-of beauty. ‘Wow! Where did you get your hair done? It’s absolutely on fleek!’ I have it on good authority that the expression denotes appreciation for a job perfectly done.
I end this far from comprehensive rumination on spoken or written expressions one comes across from ‘the land of the free and home of the brave,’ spreading like a rash to other parts of the world. If you have come this far with this piece, lolling back and going out of your way to find nasty things to say about it, you are nothing more than a mean, old Monday morning quarter-back. The phrase is obviously derived from American football, which is not football at all. At least, not as we know it. Why this hyper-critical quarter-back chooses Monday mornings to vent his spleen on his colleagues is an even greater mystery. I will now need to scour Wisden’s cricket almanac to find a suitable local riposte. At that I may not even get to first base. I think I’ll just take a raincheck, ride shotgun with my friend in his Audi and shoot the breeze.
American English. Some may say it sucks. Will my English masters in school have approved? Not on your nelly (that’s British), and they are unlikely to have said, no can do. My 21-year-old grand nephew just called me from Chennai. As we were ending our brief chat, he said, ‘I’ll ring off now. Peaceful.’ This, for a change, may be a recent Indian coinage but puzzling, all the same.
Tell me about it.