Harold Ross of New Yorker once asked James Thurber if he knew English. Thurber thought that Ross meant French or a foreign language. Ross repeated: ‘Do you know English?’ When Thurber said he did, Ross replied: ‘Goddamn it, nobody knows English.’
The Hungarian-born George Mikes also thought he knew English fairly well before he went to England. Amazingly he found that Budapest English with which he could get along in Budapest was quite different from London English. English, unlike Chinese, Swahili or Bhojpuri, is a language you can learn almost anywhere—Lucknow, Lagos or Los Angeles. It is just that you may have to unlearn it if you go to London or want to write for the New Statesman. If you do it well you may even become a noted writer. Mikes unlearned his English so well that he could take the mikey out of Englishmen.
Incidentally, the English expression ‘taking the mikey out of’ is supposed to derive from careless English pronunciation of ‘Mikes’, which is pronounced ‘mikesh’ in Hungarian. The English language seems to thrive on poor pronunciation notably by Englishmen.
If we were to mis-pronounce a word or use it not in the ordained manner it would be considered non-English by Englishmen. We prefer to call it ‘Indian English’. Like Budapest English, it is a form of English with which one can get along fairly well in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Southall but not anywhere else, including Budapest.
If an Englishman wants to get along in India by speaking English as Indians do, he might find the handbook, Indian and British English of some use. This handbook of usage and pronunciation is a compilation of words and phrases used in both forms of English. The difference is in their usage. ‘If the usage of certain words in “Indian English” is patently wrong or grammatically incorrect the authors would not want to be held guilty of saying so. They merely list both forms of usage of a certain word or phrase and leave it to the reader to sort it out for himself. In this respect they are as polite as an Englishman, who would never say “You have done it the wrong way” but say “I wouldn’t do it this way if I were you.”’
The authors modestly admit that their work is by no means a comprehensive compilation but is a selection of 1,000 words and phrases which are used in a distinctive manner by a large section of the English-speaking population in India. The effort is so modest that the handbook is unlikely to be acquired (who would, at Rs. 40 a copy?) even by those whose job requires a working knowledge of English. For most part the handbook lists examples of the obviously incorrect form of the usage of words and phrases. Who wants to consult a relatively slim and expensive handbook for specimen of shoddy English if one can find them in newspapers and book review pieces by yours truly?
However I would not say that the handbook is not informative. I did not know till I read it (on page 70) that drumstick to an Englishman means the lower joint of a fowl’s leg (cooked, of course). After having gone through the handbook I would not ask for a matchbox from an Englishman. If he is a stickler for usage he would remove the sticks and pass on the box. If you want a matchbox with sticks in it you should ask for ‘a box of matches’.
G.V. Krishnan is a journalist.