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Counterpoint: Mind Your Language

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 22:33 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
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Am I glad that I no longer edit a magazine or a newspaper? You bet! It isn’t that I mind the work — I quite enjoy the thrill of putting a publication together. My relief stems from something entirely different. I no longer know what rules to apply when it comes to language. There are so many variations of English floating around that it has become almost impossible to decide what is a mistake and what is acceptable usage; what is jargon and what is gibberish.

All Indian editors start out by watching out for the traditional mistakes that are the trademark of sub-continental English.

Top of the list is the misuse of the word ‘inform’ to mean ‘said’: as in “he informed”. Then there are the Indian words like ‘air-dashed’ (“the minister air-dashed to Delhi”) or ‘youngmen’ which is really two words needlessly fused into one (and on par with “gangs of youths”, another Indian usage). Nobody in India is ever strangled, they are always ‘strangulated’ (we like big words) and there are few criminals, only ‘miscreants.’

The Indian obsession with polite euphemism is best captured by our reluctance to admit that anybody has ever died. They have ‘expired’ (like a passport or a driving license) or ‘passed away’ or, even, “left for heavenly abode”. But the obsession with euphemism often translates into mistakes — few Indian newspapers bother to distinguish between ‘marriage’ or ‘wedding’ (the actual ceremony) so you will always read that “there were 200 marriages in the city yesterday so traffic was jammed”. <b1>

Some of the Indian usages are regional. Gujaratis have colonised the word ‘fine’ to mean ‘good’ to the extent that is part of our language (“bahu fine chhe”) and as far as Bengalis are concerned, all the maa-bahen gaalis mean nothing compared to the biggest insult of them all: “You are a nonsense!”

North Indians and Punjabis contribute their own pronunciations and usages to the glorious traditions of the English language. In my TV job, I have to worry about pronunciation: why are there ‘roits’ in Ghaziabad and why are the ‘loins’ dying in the Gir forest? Why should the DMK pledge its ‘sport’ to the Centre when all that the Congress wanted was ‘support’? Why should India and Pakistan make a “giant declaration” when a joint declaration would have been enough?

(There are some unintentionally funny moments though. A minister in our Foreign Office during the last administration believed that his British counterpart was called Jackie Straw — because of the north Indian tradition of putting an ‘ee’ sound before an ‘s’ as in ‘iskool’, ‘istudio’. And when General Zia-ul-Haq called Imran Khan the Lion of the Punjab, Benazir Bhutto retorted that in the Punjab, they said ‘lion’ when they meant ‘loin’ — which in Imran’s case was entirely appropriate.)

In print terms, however, the biggest problem for anyone editing copy in Delhi these days is that ninety per cent of young journalists do not know where to put the definite article — where ‘a’ or ‘the’ go in a sentence — largely because “they are not writing the English very well.” A second problem is that they have no sense of number. Is police singular or plural? Why must every airline be treated as plural (“The airlines said that its pilots were on strike”) for half the sentence? <b2>

But, in defence of Indian English, there’s a certain practical logic to some of our usages. There may be no such word as ‘prepone’ but if there is ‘postpone’, then doesn’t ‘prepone’ capture the sense of advancing something? And isn’t ‘relook’ crisper than “take another look”?

Then, there are the literal translations from Hindi. We all say, “Isn’t it?” at the end of sentences when we mean the Hindi “hai na?” And the misuse of ‘only’ to mean the Hindi ‘hee’ has been immortalised in the Channel V slogan, “We are like this only”.

But we should recognise that it’s not just Indians who misuse the language. All over the world some mistakes have because so common that we now accept the wrong usage over the correct one. For instance, ‘hopeful’ only means ‘full of hope’ (as in “I am hopeful that we will win”). But it has been twisted to mean “with a bit of luck” as in, “Hopefully, there will not be too much rain tomorrow.” Exotic simply means foreign. In Harold Evans’ stylebook for journos (Newsman’s English), he famously noted “an Italian peasant is as exotic as Gina Lollobrigida”. But we now use the word to mean glamourous and unusual.

Americans routinely misuse English words so often that language teachers have all but given up. In America, ‘momentarily’ does not mean ‘for a moment’ but ‘in a moment’ (“I will be with you momentarily”). This usage doesn’t make it into big city papers but you find it in papers throughout the Midwest and on TV.

Some words are on the verge of losing their original meaning. Many people still use ‘disinterested’ as it should be used — to say that somebody is unbiased or has no stake (as in ‘may I declare an interest?’) in an issue. But mostly, the word is confused with uninterested and I suspect that within a few years, nobody will remember that ‘disinterested’ ever meant something different.

And as bad as the incorrect usages of middle America and middle India are, nothing annoys me as much as the assault on the English language routinely perpetrated by businessmen. Some of these mistakes are peculiarly Indian. Only in India do business journalists use corporate as a noun rather than an adjective. I used to beat my head against the wall telling the business desk that a company cannot be a ‘corporate’. It is a corporation that engages in corporate activities. But because nearly every business journo refuses to make the distinction, I have now given up.

Business people themselves often talk gibberish. Have you ever met a manager who wants to tell you something? He’ll always want to ‘share’ something with you. Do you understand what the expression ‘no issues’ means? I thought at first that it meant that you had no children or that you worked for a periodical that had suspended publication, which is why there were no ‘issues’. But apparently it means, “I don’t have a problem with that.”

Why can’t business people ever say ‘now’? In the early 1970s, Ronald Zeigler, then President Richard Nixon’s Press Secretary was reviled for using “at this point in time” when he simply meant ‘now’. But these days, all businessmen say things like “We are not sure where we are at this point.”

Nor do business people ever agree with you. They are always ‘on the same page’. You explain something to them and you think that they’ll say ‘yes’ or ‘I agree’. But no. Instead, what they’ll say is: “I am glad that we are on the same page on this one”. Same page? This from people who never read books anyway.

(But then all clichés are open to misinterpretation. An apocryphal story has Oscar Wilde assuring his friends that he’ll give up on homosexuality and then being caught in flagrante with a bell boy. “But Oscar!” moaned his friends. “You said you were turning over a new leaf!” “Oh yes,” Wilde replied, “but only after I get to the bottom of this page.”)

The problem with management jargon is not that so much of it is gibberish — some of it can actually be rich in imagery: for instance ‘low-hanging fruit’ conveys the sense of an easily attainable goal.

My two basic objections to it are that, one, it is often used to exclude rather than communicate. You’d have to be a manager to know that when an executive says, “We don’t have the bandwidth to handle it”, he doesn’t mean he can’t get YouTube on his computer but that “we don’t have enough people/managers/competence for the job”. And you really have to keep up with jargon to know that ‘bottom-line’ (“the bottom-line is that this won’t work”) has now been replaced by ‘net-net’.

My other — and more fundamental objection — is that much of this gibberish is spouted by people who couldn’t be bothered to learn correct English in the first place. Something like half the managers I know will be up on the latest jargon but will continue to make basic grammatical mistakes in every sentence. Jargon may have a place (and God knows, perhaps one day we’ll find that place) but it can never be a substitute for speaking a language correctly, for communicating crisply and efficiently.

Oscar Wilde (him, again!) said of America that it was a society that had gone from barbarism to decadence without the intervening stage of civilisation.

Too many managers make a similar jump. They go from illiteracy to jargon, without the intervening stage of literacy.