Achcha! Indian English in Oxford Dictionaries
English has been present in India for four centuries, and the language has played a number of important roles in Indian society – first as the language of foreign merchants and missionaries; later as the primary language of colonial government; and 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 spoken English in India, not least on its rich, distinctive vocabulary. We’ve got lots of Indian English words in our dictionary and we’re working hard to fill gaps and grow our coverage. To help us with this ongoing work, we’d love to see your suggestions and feedback in the comment section below.
Adapting an adopted language
Indian English demonstrates how speakers can modify an adopted language in order to accommodate the traditions, values, and norms of their local culture. Indian speech etiquette, for example, features a complex system of kinship terms and terms of address; age, gender, status, and family relationships are all marked by a highly specific vocabulary with no direct equivalents in English.
This lexical gap is often filled by adapting existing English words. So, where there’s no particular word for ‘a cousin of one’s own generation’ in English, Indian English speakers bring together ‘cousin’ and ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ to create cousin brother and cousin sister.
Joint family similarly bridges this language gap, specifying not just an extended family, but one ‘typically consisting of three or more generations and their spouses, living together as a single household’.
A fascinating mix of languages
But it’s not just English words that Indian English adopts and adapts. Words from many of India’s most widely spoken languages – Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, and Urdu – are also represented in the lexical mixing pot. Some of the words we’ve recently added to Oxford Dictionaries give us a – delicious! – flavour of the linguistic diversity of this hugely multilingual nation.
Namkeen, for example, is ‘a small savoury snack or dish’ borrowed from Urdu, while mirch masala – ‘a mixture of ground spices including chilli, used in Indian cooking’ – comes to us from two different languages; ‘mirch’ is the Hindi word for pepper or chilli, while ‘masala’ is the Urdu word for ingredients or spices.
And one dish now included in our dictionaries that is not strictly Indian, but defined as ‘Indian-style’, is British take-away favourite tikka masala, ‘a dish of small pieces of meat (typically chicken) in a creamy sauce mildly flavoured with spices’. Thought to have originated in South Asian restaurants in the UK, tikka masala shares the same Urdu borrowing for ingredients or spices as mirch masala, bringing a flavour of Indian English into our British English repertoire.
Taking a step away from food but still within the realm of Urdu loanwords is dadagiri, meaning ‘intimidating, coercive, or bullying behaviour’. It is formed by adding –giri, an Urdu combining form denoting activity, to the Hindi word dada, which in this case is used to refer to a gang leader.
And like namkeen, mirch masala, and many of the Urdu borrowings, dadagiri traces its linguistic lineage back to Persian roots, Persian being India’s lingua franca before English. Others, like sevak and sevika – terms for male and female servants or attendants in religious or community welfare settings – have been absorbed directly into Indian English from Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism and literary language of ancient and medieval India.
Enriching the English word stock
Indian English is innovative and evolving and Indians don’t limit themselves to borrowing from their other languages when creating new English words – they often shorten words, blend them together, add affixes to them, and even change their meanings. It’s not unusual to hear Indian English speakers talking about eating at lunch homes – small restaurants – and getting water from borewells – deep, narrow wells for water drilled into the ground and typically equipped with a pump.
Indeed chakka jam, ‘an instance of blockading a road or deliberately creating a traffic jam as a form of protest’, is a combination of chakka, the Hindi word for ‘wheel’, and the English word jam, as found in ‘traffic jam’, while the rather wonderful updation denotes ‘the process of updating something’; for example, ‘the deletion or updation of data’.
But we’d be remiss not to mention the inclusion of uniquely Indian English innovations too, like the exclamation achcha, which is used either to ‘express agreement or understanding’ or to convey an emotional response like surprise, doubt, or joy: ‘achcha, achcha, this place is so beautiful’.
The shared history between Britain and India has left behind a legacy of loanwords and other lexical innovations that have greatly enriched the English lexicon. Seventy years after India became an independent nation, English remains both an official language and a living, changing variety with its own distinct identity.