Release notes: Indian English

By Danica Salazar, OED World English Editor

In the four centuries that English has been present in India, the language has played a number of important roles in Indian society—first arriving as a foreign tongue used by merchants and missionaries, later becoming the primary language of colonial administration, then finally attaining official status in an independent India, continuing to function as a lingua franca in one of the world’s most linguistically diverse nations.

These four hundred years of history have left an indelible mark on English as it is spoken in India, not least on its rich, distinctive vocabulary. Seventy words originating from and chiefly used in Indian English have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in this latest update, to sit alongside the 900 or so items already covered by OED and identified as distinctive to Indian English.

From qila to jugaad

The OED’s new Indian additions cover a wide chronological span. The oldest words in this batch—qila (1761), chaudhuri (1772), haat (1779), bada din (1781), and Devi (1799)—were adopted into English just when the British were consolidating political and economic control over the Indian subcontinent, and English was beginning to rise in importance as a language of bureaucracy. The earliest evidence for these words is taken from documents written by British historians and administrators of this period, including letters, administrative papers, and published historical accounts. Unsurprisingly, these early words are the ones that show the most variation, having been borrowed into English from Indian languages during a time before firm orthographic rules for such loanwords had been set. For the word chaudhuri alone, OED research has uncovered nineteen different spellings.

However, the majority of the Indian English words in this update entered the language in the 18th and early 19th centuries, mostly during the era of British colonization known as the Raj. During this time, English ceased to be a language used solely by foreigners in India, and became the dominant form of communication in Indian education, government, commerce, literature, and print media. Sources for OED quotations from this period consequently widened to include locally published books, newspapers, magazines, scientific journals, and other forms of writing not just by British authors, but also by Indian writers.

The expansion of the Indian English lexicon did not stop with the end of the Raj in 1947. English continues to be present in various domains of Indian life, and its Indian users keep on adding new borrowings and coinages to its localized word store. Several of the Indian words in this batch were first used in English in the decades after independence, with the newest term, jugaad, being coined little more than twenty years ago. Contemporary evidence for the OED’s Indian English entries now comes from print and digital sources ranging from novels and cookbooks to political news magazines and websites devoted to the Bollywood film industry.

Adapting an adopted language

Lexical innovations in Indian English demonstrate how its Indian speakers modify an adopted language in order to accommodate the traditions, values, and norms of their local culture. For instance, Indian speech etiquette features a complex system of kinship terms and terms of address, in which age, gender, status, and family relationships are marked by a highly specific vocabulary with no direct equivalents in English. This lexical gap is filled by borrowing such words from Indian languages (abba, Anna, bapu, chacha, didi, -ji, mata), or adapting existing English words (cousin brother, cousin sister).

Indian food culture is also well represented in this batch (dum, gosht, gulab jamun, keema, mirch, mirch masala, namkeen, vada), and so is vocabulary related to Indian geography and infrastructure (bhavan, colony, gully, haat, kund, nagar, nivas). However, Indian English words do not only serve to name people, places, and things—they can also be used to describe and to interject. As can be seen from the illustrative quotations in this update, Indian speakers can talk of a bada (big) wedding bash, describe something as being ekdum (totally) invaluable, speak of themselves as feeling maha (very) angry, maha upset, or maha excited, and express their emotions through uniquely Indian exclamations like achcha (okay, all right), bas (stop, enough), chhi-chhi (expressing disapproval or disdain), chup (be quiet, shut up), and Jai (expressing praise or support).

A fascinating mix of languages

India is a vastly multilingual nation, and the many Indian loanwords in this OED update give a flavour of this linguistic diversity, as they originate from some of India’s most widely spoken languages: Hindi (bapu, chup), Marathi (vada), Bengali (didi), Panjabi (jhuggi, tappa), Tamil (Anna), and Urdu (abba, gosht). Some expressions even come from two different languages, like mirch masala, which is a combination of mirch, the Hindi word for pepper or chilli, and masala, the Urdu word for ingredients or spices. The word dadagiri, which pertains to the use of one’s power and authority to intimidate others, is formed by adding –giri, an Urdu combining form denoting activity, to the Hindi word dada, which means an older brother but is also used to refer to a gang leader.

Two languages with important historical ties to India also had an impact on the development of Indian English vocabulary: Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism and literary language of ancient and medieval India; and Persian, the Indian subcontinent’s administrative language and lingua franca before it was replaced by English. Urdu borrowings in this update such as bachcha, dum, and namkeen can be traced back to Persian roots, while Hindi loanwords such as bhindi, nai, and sangha have their origins in Sanskrit. Several other words like desh, natak, sevak, sevika, and udyog have been absorbed directly into Indian English from Sanskrit.

Another language that easily combines with Indian languages is English itself, resulting in such hybrid constructions as chakka jam and gully cricket. A chakka jam is the blocking of a road as a form of civilian protest, and is a combination of chakka, the Hindi word for ‘wheel’, and the English word jam, while gully cricket is an informal variety of cricket played on the street, gully being the Anglicized form of the Hindi word galli, meaning ‘lane, alley, or mountain pass’.

Some Indian loanwords that initially referred to concrete objects subsequently evolved a more metaphorical meaning. The Urdu word chamcha was first borrowed into English in 1832 to indicate a large spoon with a long handle and cup-shaped bowl that is used in cooking or serving food. More than a hundred years later, this concrete sense developed a figurative meaning referring to an obsequious subordinate, especially one who seeks to gain favour or advancement. Yet this type of sense development does not always take such a long time to occur. The Hindi word jugaad, for example, was first used in English in 1995 to mean a makeshift automobile constructed from inexpensive materials, but in only seven years this same word had already begun to be used figuratively to signify a distinctly Indian way of flexible, innovative problem-solving.

The words in this update also show that contact between English and Indian languages does not only occur within India. Words such as bada din, chacha, chhi-chhi, gulab jamun, and keema also have widespread currency in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other English-speaking nations in the Indian subcontinent, and have therefore been labelled in their OED entries as South Asian.

Enriching the English word stock

Indians do not limit themselves to borrowing from their other languages when creating new English words—they feel free to shorten words, blend them together, add affixes to them, and even change their meanings. And so it is not unusual to hear Indians talking about eating at lunch homes, getting water from bore wells, using hydel power, welcoming back foreign-returned relatives, and cheering on their favourite shuttlers. In India, a colony is a housing estate or residential community, while a hotel is not just a place that offers lodging, but any establishment that sells prepared food, including roadside stalls.

It is clear that the shared history between Britain and India has left behind a legacy of loanwords and other lexical innovations that have greatly enriched the English word stock. Seventy years after India became an independent nation, English remains both an official language and a living, changing variety with its own distinct identity. The seventy words newly added to the OED reflect not only the history of the country, but also the many and diverse cultural and linguistic influences which have shaped and changed the English language in India.