After almost a month in Sri Lanka talking exclusively to Singhalese people using English as our means of communication, I’ve developed a strange emphatic way of speaking. I find myself saying “I am here for one week only” rather than the more colloquial “I’m only here for a week.” I’m using “also” in the very correct Asian manner –“My friend likes that also.” “Basically” and “actually”, adverbial fillers much loved by Sri Lankans, are punctuating my stilted conversation at a record rate. I’m starting to add exclamatory tag questions at the end of sentences “no?”, “Isn’t it?” which of course we never do in south London, innit? I’m even doing the head wobble thing when I agree with something instead of nodding.
I haven’t picked up the tendency to invert syntax and convolute sentences as in “What for shouting?” or “Why they are here?” (though I love the ubiquitous “What to do?”, which covers a host of emotional responses). Nor do I mix up “p” and “f” as people do for whom English is a second or third language (as opposed to the well-educated, middle-class bilinguals) but I have got used to being told “not to wander too par” or that something needs “pixing.” This transposition is common all over the sub-continent including rather unfortunately in Nepal which locals often call “Nefal”.
There are essential Sri Lankan English phrases such as “beachside” or “roadside” necessary if you want to book the room with the view. “Backside” tends to be locational rather than anatomical – “He is growing vegetables in the backside.” “Slippers” are rubber flip-flops not fur-lined, tartan cosies. “Paining” covers most medical emergencies from sprains to mozzie bites. “Taking tea”, a frequent activity in the land of Liptons and plantations, is a slightly archaic variation on drinking it. Sri Lankans love the present participle –“I’m doing”, “he saying” – as much as Elmore Leonard.
This isn’t just funny, foreign English, there’s a vitality, economy and inventiveness to sub-continental English, sometimes called Hinlish in India where Hindi and English are seamlessly welded together, which create a new vibrant form of the language surpassing any colonial legacy. Nouns become verbs so a lorry-driver might be “horning loudly” which could be very important in an “accident-prone zone” – a common road sign in Goa. Schoolchildren “by-heart” the poems on their syllabus. “Short-eats” will get you a snack from a fish bun to a lentil vadai (although in Sri Lanka the latter will be pronounced with a “w” as in “wehicle”).
Formal English used in newspapers and broadcasts has quaint quirks: victims “expire”, bystanders start “a hue and cry”, important meetings may be “preponed” or moved forward as opposed to “postponed.” Young people may use archaic, Bertie Wooster slang like “tickety-boo” or ”tip-top” which no one in the UK has used without irony since 1936. Small children will ask you very formally, “What is your good name?” usually followed by an enquiry about your hobbies (mine are of course unsuitable for children).
The exchange of idioms is not, however, one-way traffic; we have acquired “anaconda” from the Tamil word for “having killed an elephant” and “curry” from the Tamil “khari” meaning “sauce”. In the same way, English is peppered with Hindi and Urdu imports, reflecting the leisurely lifestyle of the British Raj – veranda, gymkhana, jodhpurs, pyjamas, bungalow, cummerbund, cushy, toddy, sorbet…Language is a wonderful, ever-changing, ever-evolving, organism, isn’t it?