Indian English

This is not a discourse on the English spoken by those from the subcontinent. Rather, it’s just a short and simple observation. Perhaps, someday I’ll post something on the phonetics that makes Indians sound like Indians instead of native western English speakers, but not today.

I’ve recently taken a new job and all of my more junior team members are what’s known as off-shore. The two more senior team members are Indian by birth but live in the United States. We have daily ‘stand-up’ calls where no one really stands up, but each team member summarises how their day went and what they plan to do tomorrow. They are at the end of their day as commence mine. If there is anything impeding them from their plan, we have time to remove the impediment.

I’ve worked with Indians for years. In fact, as an Economics student in the 1980s, many of my classmates were Indian. But until now, I didn’t notice a certain phraseology that makes them sound unnatural to my ear. I am not claiming that my way is right or their way is wrong. I’m just noting the difference.

These team members routinely mention the name of the person to whom they are speaking.

  • Yes, I will do that, name.
  • I understand, name.
  • No, name, that’s not what I meant.

And other such constructions. A native speaker will not generally insert the name.

Full disclosure, this could rather be cultural deference as these people are junior and speaking to someone in a manager role, so perhaps it’s less their English speaking but rather a cultural injection. I haven’t heard them cross-talk with each other enough to gather if this name-ness is dropped with peers.

It could well be that their English is overly formal like the French I studied in school but that no one actually speaks. It is overly formal and stilted. Natives can always tell that you’re school-taught and haven’t been exposed to French in the wild. As I mentioned already, it may be cultural etiquette or simply perceived etiquette. If someone knows or has an opinion, I’d like to hear it—especially if you are a native Indian speaker of English.

Extraneous Orientation

The English language employs a lot of otherwise unnecessary filler words. Particularly words relating to orientation.

“I fell down.”

“I’m driving up to New York.”

In the case of ‘fall down’, there are some cases where as a phrasal verb it might add clarity. One might use ‘He fell down‘ versus ‘She fell over‘. There is some nuance of meaning to be rendered here. But if one says, ‘She fell down the stairs’, few people are will interpret that as ‘She fell over the stairs’, so the inclusion is superfluous. One might also qualify that, ‘The monkey fell off the bicycle’.

Another clarification might involve the object relationship. For example, ‘I fell the tree’ is different to ‘I fell over the tree’ or ‘I fell off the tree’, which might be taken as analogous to ‘I fell down the tree’ or ‘I fell out of the tree’. ‘I fell the tree’ communicates that you chopped the tree down; ‘I fell over the tree’, might communicate that you tripped over the tree. I’m not sure many would say ‘I fell off the tree’. ‘I fell off the branch’ might be more apt. I feel that it would be more common for a native adult English speaker to say, ‘I fell out of the tree’ over ‘I fell down the tree’, which might be something a child would say. Of course, if the object of the tree were known, as in the following dialogue, the orientation might be foregone.

Having dropped from a tree, Abdul asks Paco what happened.

‘I fell.’

Of course, the falling may also be obvious and the question revolves around the cause. Perhaps, it’s just a step into the so-called ‘five whys‘.

Why did you fall? Because I lost my grip.

Why did you lose your grip? Because I was distracted.

Why were you distracted?

And so on. But this is a horse of a different colour.

So what about New York? Why do we tend to add orientation to these types of directions? If I live south of New York, it feels that I am adding something, but is there another New York I could drive down to? If not, what is the up conveying? Also, I’ve heard people refer to up in a reference that would not correspond to up in a map, say, to be travelling to New York from Toronto. Again, just saying, ‘I’m going to New York’ would suffice.

Another odd construct is to wake up, which is to say to awaken. ‘When did you wake?’ or ‘When did you awaken?’ ask the same question as ‘When did you wake up?’ I could even ask ‘Did I wake you?’ or ‘Did I wake you up?’ What is the purpose of up? One can’t actually awaken in another orientation. You can’t wake down or wake over or even wake off, so what’s with the up inclusion?

This works for stand, too, but at least there is a distinct meaning between ‘stand up‘, ‘stand down‘, and ‘stand off‘, though contextually it would be unlikely to confuse the three. If one said, ‘stand’, the meaning should be interpreted the same as ‘stand up‘. ‘Stand down‘ means to relax or withdraw, and ‘stand off‘ is a deadlock, but this is idiomatic language.

I had more examples in mind, but between the original idea and the time I got to the keyboard some hours had elapsed. If you speak a language other than English, does that language have similar filler words?

In French, if I say ‘j’ai tombé‘, it means ‘I fell’, but if I say ‘je suis tombé‘, it is akin to saying ‘I fell down‘ or ‘I fell off‘ without the explicit orientation.

I’m out of here.

English Weak Forms

I have been so utterly distracted by YouTube this weekend. In this case, it’s a video by Dr Geoff Lindsey explaining weak forms of the English language.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Much of my work life involves speaking either with non-native English speakers or speakers of English who may be quite well versed in English and yet have a certain rigidity in their execution. Along with local accents, this makes the language feel unnatural to a native speaker.

A common challenge is the adoption of weak forms. Following the principle of least effort, language speakers are lazy. In fact, one may extrapolate this morphology to predict where language may drift next. One example that comes to mind is the American habit of uttering flap Ts over ‘real’ Ts that require slightly more effort to produce.

In English, one says the words, butter, water, doctor, and sister as /ˈbʌtə/,/ˈwɔtəɹ/, /ˈdɒktə/, /ˈsɪstə(ɹ)/ whilst in American English, using the flap T sound, one says (respelt in parentheses) /ˈbʌdəɹ/ (buhd-er), / ˈwɔdəɹ/ (wahd-er), /ˈdɔkdɚ/ (dok-der), /ˈsɪsdər/ (sis-der). Whether the pronunciation of the R is rhotic or non-rhotic is another issue altogether.

But this is about something a bit different. It’s about weak forms, particularly vowels that can be weakened from the strong vowel sound to the shwa (/ə/) sound. It turns out that we do this a lot. In fact, more often than not. Rather than a rehash from the video, I’ve cued it to where Tom Hiddleston recites Lord Byron’s So We’ll Go No More a Roving.

So, we'll go no more a roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
   And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
   And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
   By the light of the moon.

As it happens, much of the difference between native English and English as spoken by non-natives is the hyper-diction heard by choosing the strong rather than the weak form of certain words.

A World Without Whom

To whom it might concern…

Ever get in one of those moods?

You ever get in one of those moods?

Do you ever get in one of those moods?

I do. I am tired of the object pronoun, whom.

I started a petition to eliminate whom from the English language.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have fond memories of the word—a couple anyway.

For Whom the Bell Tolls — Hemingway or Metallica

Even if we retain it in a written form, perhaps we can agree to relinquish the M to silence. We’ve already seeded the ground. When M precedes N at the start of a word, it’s silent, so that gives me hope. Although to be fair, most of these words are silent in general. Save for mnemonic, I can’t say I’ve used any—and how often have I written mnemonic save for now? just to show off. Nobody ever seems to notice the silent M in pterodactyl.

Whom Protesters

But verbally, aurally, in speech, perhaps we can all agree to drop to M—a sort of silent protest. Sure, there are other solutions. Take ‘With whom am I speaking?’ as an example. When is the last time you said or heard this?

I mean, Who am I speaking to? only shifts the problem to be defended by other language guardians. And it’s really a grammar challenge of two fronts, as—misplaced, split infinitive aside—it should rather read Whom am I speaking to? That limits the battle to a single front. But if we drop the M-sound—making it silent—, we can slide this one by. And who would have the occasion to write ‘Whom am I speaking to?‘ This is something that is a spontaneous speech act.

Of course, we could simplify it further to SMS-speak: who dis? or who dat? This might create as many problems as it solves. Some people seem especially interested in the SMS-driven decline of the English language.

If you are tired of pretentious, dusty old words, help me to usher this one into retirement.

Ye Olde Wordes

Hear ye! Hear ye! Should I rather have titled this Every Rose Has its Thorn?

Am I alone in this? Are there others who also cringe when they hear period-piece reenacters pronounce the word ye as ‘yee’, or is it just me? Be honest now.

Those as pedantic as I, know that ye was a solution to a technological limitation of early European printing. Prior to the printing press, Old English had a þ character pronounced thorn. Phonetically, it sounded like the modern English voiced dental fricative expression of the th digraph— IPA: /ð/.

Given this, ye would have been spelt þe and should be pronounced the (IPA: /ði/—not necessarily /ðə/) and not yee (IPA: /ji/). I am not sure if a hand-printed (or painted) sign of the day would have conformed to the pre-press spelling or the post-press variant. I wonder how long it took for thorn to pass by the wayside.

I am aware that language is a human construct and even that language is like a living organism. But in this case—as with Latin—, thorn is dead. It seems we should not revise the pronunciation of a fossil of a word. It seems to me it should be frozen in the amber of time.

Bonus Round 1

Back in the day, not only was the abbreviated as ye in printing, but this was abbreviated as ys and that was shortened to yt, as in the Mayflower Compact. Don’t ask why someone felt that it was important to abridge 3- and 4-letter words to 2 characters.

Herbert Manuscripts (excerpt)

Bonus Round 2

It’s may be important to note that the ye of Ye Olde Shoppe fame, which is simply a shortened form of the, is not the same ye of biblical fame, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged‘, which was the plural form of thou, which is now rendered as you—the plural form.

And now you know…

As for the pronunciation of the ye of hear ye (hear ye), I am not sure which concept is being captured. If you know, then let me know.