How to understand, and speak, Indian ENGLISH

Here is a compendium of salient features of Indian English to take other English speakers through the thicket of the variety of Indian English we speak and write
S. Nihal Singh

Spoken Indian English is recognisable the world over by the wrong accenting of words such as industry (together with most Indians, the superstar Amitabh Bachchan invariably mispronounces the word in his otherwise fluent prose in promotion adverts) and mechanism. Nine out of 10 English-speaking Indians do not know how to pronounce ‘naïve’. Then there is diction. There is no reason why Indians should speak like Englishmen; even native speakers in the United Kingdom speak with varying diction. But Indian English acquires the attributes of specific Indian languages, sometimes to make it incomprehensible to one unfamiliar with Indian English speakers.

Illustration Sandeep Joshi
Illustrations: Sandeep Joshi

V.K. Krishna Menon, one-time defence minister and Jawaharlal Nehru’s confidant, was a famous example of a fluent orator in English whose oratory was lost on others’ incomprehension of his spoken English in the halls of the United Nations and the chancelleries of the world. I shall never forget listening to an address by the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, reading an English text with the varying cadence of his native Hindi bringing his speech to a crescendo at the end of each sentence. In fact, most leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are demonstrably uncomfortable in English, given their deep grounding in their native tongues and their traditional hostility to foreign influences. Unsurprisingly, the BJP decided to field a person from southern India as its face on English chat show television programmes. This handicap is not restricted to the BJP leaders. Men from the Hindi heartland, for instance the new young chief minister of the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, invariably lapses into Hindi in answer to questions posed to him in English on English language television programmes.

After the first flush of Independence, Hindi speakers in particular protested loudly against everyday use of English in national affairs and their emphasis was on promoting Hindi and regional languages at all levels in schools and in conducting government business. For years a staple during Question Hour in Parliament was a question enquiring what steps the Government was taking to promote the national language. Animosity towards Hindi in southern India and, to a more limited extent West Bengal, forced the Government to co-opt English as a recognised language. Ironically, the popularity of Bollywood films across the country has done more to popularise Hindustani, Hindi laced with many Urdu words, the variant most commonly spoken in large parts of northern India, than official fiats. Hindustani, rather than the Sanskritised Hindi, is the language Mahatma Gandhi had embraced in order to spread the use of the native tongue.

Not standard English

Illustration: Sandeep Joshi

Apart from differently accented and mispronounced words – there seems to be a national conspiracy to mispronounce ‘development,’ by ignoring the fact that English is not a phonetic language. The hallmark of Indian English is the construction of sentences, the coining of words that do not exist in standard English, a literal translation of words from native tongues and simply the expression of a different way of thinking from a native English speaker or a Westerner.

There is no reason why Indian English should replicate British English – American English has been conspicuously more successful in converting Indians to their accents and diction, perhaps because it is more akin to how we speak many Indian languages. But legibility is an essential attribute of speaking a language and we are in danger of becoming incomprehensible to a large number of English speakers around the world.

There are other reasons why spoken English in North India can be incomprehensible to other Indians. Colloquial English as spoken in normal conversation is so heavily spiced with Hindi expressions with constant switching between Hindi and English sentences that it has become the patois of a growing number of people. Listening to an English radio commentary on a cricket match is a chastising experience because the patois and diction can best be described as Chutney English.

Aspirational value

The irony is that some 60 years after Independence, English has seen a revival inasmuch as it has become the language beckoning youth in small towns and villages because it is the language of aspiration that will fetch jobs and money. Every small town and semi-urban villages across the vast expanse of India boasts of posters or writings on walls exhorting boys and girls to learn English and enrol themselves in coaching classes to make it to the envied institutes of technology or the administrative services.

Illustration: Sandeep Joshi

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Indian English is expanding its lexicon and developing a genre. Teaching English to a vast number in small towns and semi-urban centres by those not entirely familiar with their subject while giving cadences more akin to their native tongues cannot produce eloquent English speakers. More surprising is the nonchalance with which well-heeled English language television channels tolerate their news anchors’ murder of common words. How often has one heard prominent anchors confuse ‘sever’ with ‘severe’ or wrongly accent ‘mechanism’ or news reporters blissfully unaware of the distinction between ‘a rebel’ and ‘to rebel’. If these channels had cared about maintaining a minimum standard of spoken English, they would have opened in-house schools to teach their staff correct English. A major English language television channel seems happy to continue fielding a senior woman anchor whose Indian English is often incomprehensible to a visiting English speaker who has often to ask her to repeat her questions. Call centres are savvy in putting the staff through rigorous courses to teach them to acquire the required accent. News anchors cannot emulate call centre staff nor should they acquire a certain accent but they should be taught to be intelligible.

There is, of course, another fact to reckon with. Essentially, a language is an expression of the soul of a people. Indians are different from Englishmen in their attitude to life and their cultural attributes. They are often less direct in speech because they are (believe it or not) more polite in making requests. They also tend to be more emotional and inquisitive. It has always struck me, for instance, that an Indian speaker or writer in English will avoid using ‘because’ like the plague, substituting it with ‘as’ because he prefers to be less direct.

"What is your good name?" might sound like a parody but it would be a literal translation from Hindi. Even more surprising could be the next question such a questioner would spring. A stranger travelling in the same compartment in a railway train as my Dutch wife asked her, "What is your husband’s salary?" Even the Dutch, who are far more forthright in speech than the English, would not ask strangers their spouses’ salary.

Showing off

Although the desire to show off or pretend to occupy a higher station in life and have more riches than they possess are universal attributes, Indians seem to share in a greater measure the temptation of exaggerating their material well-being. It starts with exhibiting the bride’s dowry – jewellery and other goodies offered by her parents. Some borrowed items are often on display to make it look more extravagant. This trait runs through a whole range of vocabulary and activities. A flat in a modern high-rise building becomes a penthouse suite. Every academic becomes an academician. A lecturer is commonly referred to as a professor. A shack serving the Indian equivalent of fast food advertises itself as a hotel. A bus driver calls himself a pilot, emblazoned outside his door.

We must also wrestle with the distinction between bad English and Indian English. As a rule of thumb, the former refers to obvious mistakes in grammar or expressions, while mistakes or turns of phrase that are almost universal in usage must be given the credo of Indian English.

It occurred to me to put together a compendium of salient features of Indian English to take other English speakers through the thicket of the variety of Indian English we speak and write. If we live in a shrinking world, we need to understand each other’s language. This article, therefore, is meant to serve a practical purpose. It is not a treatise on Indian English.

As per

Legal phraseology that often finds its way into ordinary speech and writing, perhaps because we are a famously litigious people.


Every academic is an academician.

Ad hocism

A staple of Indian English for ad hoc.


Does duty for because. The invariable Indian tendency is to shy away from making a direct cause and effect statement in line with the general inhibition in saying ‘no’ to a person’s face.

Accused of, charged with

Prepositions in these expressions are often interchanged signifying inadequate schooling. The teacher of the school I went to gave me sage advice. The secret of writing good English, he had said, was to master prepositions.


In literal translation from sentence construction in Indian languages, ‘also’ is placed at the end of a sentence. Thus "he came with her also".

Bursting crackers

The impermissible use of an intransitive verb for ‘firing’ stems from the Indian feeling that firing a gun is one thing, but firing a cracker is much too drastic a step. Similarly, bursting tear gas shells.

Broad daylight

Daylight is always bright in Indian English, a clich`E9 that has found a permanent place in the Indian lexicon.


A common usage for the rear side, not the derriere it would literally imply.

Cousin brother/ cousin sister

We have an obsession with clarifying the sex of a cousin, not counting kissing cousins.

A cabin

Does duty for an office. It probably sprang from lawyers’ accommodation on court premises called cabins, particularly in West Bengal. Thus the use of cabin for any office room.

Different different/ small small

A literate translation from Indian languages to denote what is obvious. Interestingly, in Malay languages, a plural is formed by repeating a word. Here repeating the word is to emphasise a subject.

Dr (Mrs)

Again, the Indian obsession is to make the sex of a medical practioner clear in deference to social norms and because of women patients’ inhibition in being examined by a male doctor.

Dastardly attack

How often have we seen reports of dastardly attacks? Like broad daylight, dastardly attacks are inseparable twins.

Differently abled

We suddenly became aware of respecting the handicapped many long years ago. So there are no blind or lame people in India. This delicacy to avoid giving offence to the handicapped has become an indispensable rule in Indian English long after the world has learned to be more direct. It is in sharp contrast to the callousness we see in Indian social life every day.


A favourite word of the former Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, Generally, Indians’ fondness for this word can only be marvelled at –the epicentre of terrorism, the epicentre of evil constantly fill news pages and air waves.


There is an Indian fascination for ‘flay’. We flay all and sundry, whether they are political opponents or humbler folk.


Literal translations from Hindi, it stems from the inclination to define the degree to which an egg should be boiled. Soft-boiled does not signify it unless specified in minutes. Similarly, full-boiled does duty for hard-boiled.


Even a small street eatery is a hotel in Indian parlance.

Isn’t it?

Used in a sentence such as: ‘He went home, isn’t it?’ Instead of ‘He went home, didn’t he?’ Perhaps it can be attributed to a desire to simplify the language.


Used in the sense of an offspring in a sentence such as, he has no issue, to imply that he has no children.


Every woman is a lady. To call a woman a woman is considered inappropriate.

Lying there

Apparently, Indians prefer lying to standing. While a position is lying vacant, instead of simply being vacant, a chair lies there, rather than standing in a particular place.


Although less so today, miasma is used so often that it occupies a special place in the Indian English dictionary. Perhaps we are taken in by its mellifluous sound.

Neutering of gender

Long after the American and Western practice of neutering the gender of a person as a nod to equality for women died a natural death because it became superfluous, Indian newspapers and television news channels continue to plod on in the cause. Thus a spokeswoman becomes a spokesperson and a cameraman is always a camera person.

Open mind

The obsession of politicians to declare from housetops that they have an open mind to imply that they are not biased has become a standard clich`E9 in the lexicon.


Indians’ fascination with ‘opine’ for expressing or holding an opinion is simply because it sounds more officious.


Using presidentship for presidency must be ascribed to transfer the use of the legitimate expression prime ministership to the office
of president.


A penthouse suite is any flat in a high-rise building.


Every lecturer in India is promoted to the rank of professor in everyday parlance.


How a bus driver would like to describe himself.


The frequency with which the word ‘rush’ is employed in the police or an ambulance rushing or sometimes dashing to the scene of a crime or accident is to signify, correctly or falsely, the urgency with which the task is undertaken. For politicians, it is to denote that they are conscientious in performing their duties.

Red tapism

Indians tend to emphasise a point the standard word red tape fails to denote.


An expression used to denote that a song number in a film has been edited or fused with another number.

Real brother

Indians use the term brother loosely in their native tongues. Thus the term brother in standard English has to be qualified with the adjective ‘real’.

Strictly prohibited

In admonishing citizens not to indulge in certain activities, the authorities in India feel that the simple word prohibited is not strong enough or people are too unruly to require the adjective strictly.


A common use of the word for reporters or journalists, an American colloquialism, enthusiastically adopted in Indian English to become an icon of Indian English.

Speaking on the occasion

This redundant phrase has become such a staple in Indian newspapers that no report of speeches seems complete without the insertion of ‘speaking on the occasion’.

Time bound

The use of this expression for time-barred is so common that it does not raise eyebrows. Perhaps it stems from the feeling that time-barred does not do justice to its intended meaning. Indians love to bind time even as they often fail to meet deadlines.

Turn up

This colloquialism is so commonly used that it must be dignified as an attribute of Indian English.


In India, you cannot have a telephone conversation. It has to be telephonic.

This coming Monday

Instead of saying that an event will take place on Monday or Monday week, English language newspapers in southern India must specify it is the very next Monday.