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The English we speak

Do you know what makes the English we speak so different to that spoken by the British? It?s not simply our accent and pronunciation, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Mar 26, 2006 04:52 IST

Do you know what makes the English we speak so different to that spoken by the British? It’s not simply our accent and pronunciation, nor our vocabulary, or even our grammar, including the absence of it. No doubt those are some of the distinctions but they don’t get to the heart of the matter. The ‘core’ difference lies elsewhere.

It’s the way we express ourselves. The British use the language idiomatically. We speak far more literally. We describe what we have to say, we search out specific adjectives that convey our meaning and perhaps this is why in the process we use too many and usually all of the superlative sort. The British, on the other hand, prefer to express themselves with metaphor and aphorism. Consequently their language is rich with idiom. Ours is almost devoid of them.

Here’s an example of some British idioms that we may be aware of but rarely, if ever, use ourselves. Their charm lies in the colourful — if at times bizarre — images they evoke. They add to the fun of the spoken language but also occasionally to its melody and beauty.

First, an idiom from an earlier generation: “Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs”. Quite simply, it’s a way of stopping someone from teaching you what you already know. But it also conveys a certain ‘superiority’ of age or, at least, of rank. The person being addressed is placed in the grandchild category. He or she is admonished for presumptuousness. The magic, however, lies in the picture the phrase paints — an elderly white haired lady, perhaps her hair in a bonnet, devouring a collection of eggs by labial extraction.

Equally powerful is the image evoked by the more modern idiom “Don’t get your knickers in a twist”. This phrase was a favourite in the ‘70s and ‘80s, particularly with young women. It’s a way of telling someone not to work themselves into an uncalled for rage. But it also goes further. It mocks the wrath, rather than treat it seriously or sensitively. Just as the picture of a person wringing his or her undies in anger would be ludicrous so, too, is the display of misplaced if not misbegotten emotion this idiom targets.

In fact, colloquial British English has several similar idioms. “Don’t get into a stew”, “Stop frothing” and “He’s all knotted up” may have slightly or significantly different meanings but they convey the same image of a person who has allowed himself to get entangled, a prisoner of his or her own anger and frustration.

One of my favourite idioms is the expression “You look like death warmed up”. This phrase speaks at two levels. The obvious is that it’s a way of saying the person addressed looks extremely unwell. Less apparent is that it’s a way of expressing concern without slobbering all over the individual. It’s expressive without being intrusive, it reaches out yet retains a certain distance. And, for all these reasons, it’s quintessentially British. They use it all the time.

Perhaps from these examples it’s obvious, but in each case the use of idiom alludes to, rather than specifically spells out, the thought you wish to convey. And, more often than not it does so with goodwill and charm rather than a blunt outspoken statement of fact. Consequently, when your speech is flavoured with idiom you can be both discreet and understated yet also rich and powerful in what you say.

The interesting thing is when we speak in Hindi — or, for that matter, in any of our other Indian languages — we use idioms all the time. So why is our English different? The answer, I suspect, is that English remains a foreign language. No doubt we have indianised it with our disregard for conventional schoolbook grammar and our liberal cross-fertilisation with desi vocabulary. But even so it remains pidgin, although in this case, of course, our own.

What we haven’t as yet learnt to do — or found the confidence for — is to play with the language. Even our most proficient English speakers break into Hindi, or Bengali or whatever Indian language they know, when they wish to colour or reinforce what they have said by recourse to idiom. It’s the point at which they become bilingual. Unconsciously or deliberately they are then escaping from their own limitations in English. It shows that whilst we may be fluent in the language we don’t as yet feel comfortable with it.

First Published: Mar 26, 2006 01:25 IST