Editor’s Note: The best form of a language is when it is spoken and written in the original form. But at times, usage of some words change to suit the colloquialism of a country. our member Ansuya shares some thoughts on the Indianisation of English words. You too can share your thoughts on this here.  

Here are two Indian-English words/expressions that initially confused me:

1) The word “prepone” – when I went to India for the first time, I was mystified at how everyone used this word and I had never heard it before (and up to that point, I had always considered myself to have a fairly good vocabulary!). Then I did some research and found out that in India, this is a common word that everyone uses as the opposite of postpone (so, to bring a date or time forward). It’s remarkable, though, that it is not in common usage anywhere else that I’ve been. Does anyone know where else they say “prepone”? Anyway, a perfect example of how the English language is constantly evolving.

2) I have heard Indians say “freak out” when they mean “to have a really good time, go wild, enjoy yourself”. I am more used to “freak out” meaning “lose your temper, go insane, have a small nervous breakdown, hit the roof, etc. as in “My father freaked out when he heard I had disobeyed him”. Since one meaning is happy, and the other the opposite, there is potential for some confusion here. An Indian friend of mine explained that if you took it to generally mean, “to lose control”, it would fit both contexts, which is one way of looking at it. 

This said, “prepone” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is still a word that originated in India and so even though it is in the dictionary, that is no guarantee that many people outside India would have heard of it (unless they’re reading our thread!). This is what I meant about how language evolves – Indian people may not have invented the English language, but like so many other groups around the world, we are adding to it. 

The give-and-take of inter-cultural interactions is interesting. I am of Indian descent, but I know that India’s laws about sex determination of babies, and more importantly, the social and cultural reasons behind it, are not even widely known among South African Indians. So, you can’t always assume people know about these things even if they are working with you, and even if they have tried to research your context. 

It’s difficult to predict or expect what they should know, what they must know, etc. After all, there’s so much stuff to know, and Westerners haven’t been exposed to our culture as we are constantly bombarded with theirs (on TV, in movies, etc.). Which means that we have a responsibility to discuss these things openly with them, and so educate them in our ways. 

Here’s an interesting side note about South African Indian English – since we have a terrible past marred by legalized racial discrimination, South Africans are particularly sensitive about racial epithets. The derogatory word for South African Indian is “coolie”. Say that to any South African Indian, and you’re likely to get punched in the face – we’re not as calm and peace-loving as the folk in our ancestral home seem to be, since we’ve taken so much flak in the past! Imagine my shock and horror when I went to India for the first time and heard and saw the word bandied about freely at the train stations! 

I did calm down when my husband explained what it meant in India, but it still unsettles me every time I hear or see it, conditioned as I was from childhood to regard it as a terrible slur. But to an Indian person in India, it is just another noun that is perfectly acceptable (I’m assuming). So, we should never underestimate cultural context when we use language, and we should always be aware that no matter how much we think we know, there’s still something out there we might have missed. It all depends on the person to whom you’re talking.