top of page

Indian and British English: A Handbook of Usage and Pronunciation

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

In a previous post (on researcher name coincidences), I mentioned Indian and British English: A Handbook of Usage and Pronunciation by Nihalani, Tongue, and Hosali. I have a used copy of the first edition, published in 1979 by Oxford University Press. I don't remember when I bought it; it had been lying forgotten in a bookcase for years. I found it when I was looking for another book. Browsing through it, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the entries.

The authors have assembled words and phrases peculiar to Indian English, and compared them with the British English equivalents (and sometimes with the American English equivalents). The entries are in alphabetical order, with example sentences. The authors, from what I could discover by Googling (curiously, the book contains no information about them), are linguists. It's a fascinating book, and I've been dipping into it regularly.

Nihalani is listed as the editor of the book, and Tongue and Hosali as the authors. Nihalani is a well-known linguist based in Singapore; he has a LinkedIn page. Priya Hosali was with the Central Institute of English & Foreign Languages in Hyderabad, and passed away in 2018. There isn't much information about her on the Net, though she has written a few books. I liked this tribute to her by a former student:

I could unearth next to nothing about R. K. Tongue: Googling doesn't reveal much about him, but from the little I've seen, he's probably a resident of Indonesia.

The second edition of the book appeared in 2004. It seems to have gone out of print, and has vanished from the face of the earth. That puzzled me: the only existing book of its kind on Indian English, and the updated edition is not available—not even a used copy, and not even in India?! Then, I read that that the updated edition is virtually identical to the 1979 edition! The good news is that I can stop hunting for it. But no updates in a so-called updated edition after 25 years? I don't understand it. But I think I now understand why it sank like a stone.

Here is a review of the book by a linguist:

This is the only review I could find of the book, and it's an excellent one. As stated in the review, the entries in the handbook have been collected by "intuition" and not by referring to corpora of Indian English. The reviewer is criticizing the updated 2004 edition; work on the corpora of Indian English began only in the 1980s, after the publication of the 1979 edition. I was pleasantly surprised that two corpora of Indian English exist; alas, institutional licenses are needed to access them. The US and UK online corpora require just registration.

I'm not sure who supplied the bulk of the entries in the handbook—the roles of the editor (Nilahani) and the coauthors (Tomgue and Hosali) are not described—but I suspect the entries are based on observations spanning decades by the Indian among the authors, Priya Hosali. The handbook covers a lot of ground, and given that no corpus was available when the book was written, that's a remarkable achievement. It's also unfortunate that no similar handbook has been produced since 1979; come on, Indian linguists, this is a gaping hole in the literature that is begging to be filled. What are you waiting for? You have the digital advantages the 1979 authors lacked; it is so much easier to produce such a handbook now than in 1979.

I give a couple of sample entries that are typical of the style of the book. One of them is featured on the book cover: tiffin. It is defined in the book as "a meal other than the main meal of the day." Also, "the word is unknown to speakers of BS who have had no contact with the sub-continent." However, "the word is of British origin." (BS, I hasten to add, stands for British Standard English.) This word is woven into my memories of school. We had a mid-morning tiffin break, when we would reach for the tiffin boxes in our schoolbags and eat our tiffin (a light snack). I have carried lunch to school in a tiffin-carrier, a cylindrical lunch box consisting of stacked metal containers (more on the tiffin-box here: Oxford gives two meanings for tiffin: "1. Indian dated A snack or light meal 2. British A cake or dessert made with crushed biscuits, golden syrup, and chilled in a fridge."

Webster's has an entry for tiffin: "(chiefly British) A light midday meal." Given that the average American would not have heard of the word, I think Sandip Roy's indignation is misplaced.

The following piece digs into the history of tiffin:

I looked for some personal favorites, beginning with the word timings, but it is not in the book. In Indian English, we might say "he is a good doctor, but his clinic's timings are not convenient"; what we mean is "his clinic's hours are not convenient." Cambridge Dictionary has an entry for timings that is flagged as Indian English:

Evening does have an entry. For us Indians, the evening stretches from 4 pm to sunset, after which the night begins. In the West, the evening begins and ends much later.

Newspaper advertisement

Another word I looked for is avail. The entry in the book has this:

'You are invited to avail this golden opportunity.'
'Avail of this opportunity.'
Items like these occur frequently in Indian newspapers and other writing but the verb is never used in this way in BS, where one 'avails oneself of an opportunity'; both the reflexive pronoun and the preposition are mandatory. ('Take advantage of' is also frequent in such contexts in BS.)
US usage seems closer to IVE here, e.g. 'Community centres should be availed of'. [IVE stands for Indian Variant of English, the term the authors use for Indian English.]

It looks as though this omission of the reflexive pronoun (and sometimes even of the preposition) is now well identified as an Indianism; for example, the online Oxford dictionary lists it as an Indianism (their example is "you can avail discounts on food"). In the ad above, it'd be ridiculous to use the formal "Avail yourself of exciting offers ..." instead of "Avail exciting offers ...", but "Grab exciting offers ..." seems to be better suited to the spirit of the message.

A couple of well-known offenders were present: intimate (v) and appreciable. The former is a staple in Indian official letters and has caused consternation in uninitiated Western readers who didn't know what to think when they were confronted with constructions like "It would be my pleasure to intimate you ..." first thing on a Monday morning. The BS example in the entry is "I was asked to intimate to the committee what the consensus was." The word appreciable is often (mis)used like this: "The governor's timely action of releasing the funds is appreciable." What is meant, of course, is "appreciated."

During the course of writing this piece, I came across a Cambridge Dictionary for the verb smoothen, which was described as "mainly Indian English": This immediately rang a bell. I had used "smoothen" in one of the pages on this website. I have now changed it to "smooth," but I prefer "smoothen."


Before concluding, I must mention a book on Indian English that I read many years ago: Entry from Backside Only by the veteran journalist Binoo John. (A new edition is now out.) This is a light-hearted romp through the eccentricities of Indian English. The best part of the book is the letters to the editor by newspaper readers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, for example, is a letter written by Okhil Chandra Sen to the Sahibganj divisional railway office in 1909:

I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah in one hand and dhoti in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on platform. This too much bad, if passengers go to make dung that dam guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to the papers.

Binoo writes that “it is said it was this letter that resulted in the railway authorities introducing toilets in Indian trains.” However, let us not get distracted from the subject at hand. The handbook has this entry for backside:

'He lives backside of the post office'.
'When the front door is closed please enter from the backside'.
With the meaning of 'away from the front, placed behind, to or at the rear' BS would prefer to omit 'side' from this word: 'He lives (at the) back of the post office', 'When the front door is closed please enter from the back'. 'Backside' (not generally used in polite society) refers to a part of a person's anatomy.

Here is Binoo's take on backside:

Backside is a favourite usage in Indian officialdom and in the streets and has even made its way into Hindi. Everywhere, from the remotest corner of Uttar Pradesh to the upscale promenades of New Delhi, ‘Aap backside se jaiye’ is accepted usage.

There aren't many books on Indian English out there for the general reader, or for that matter, for any type of reader. It was thus a pleasant surprise when I read a glowing review of a book on Indian English: Indlish: The Book for Every English‑speaking Indian by Jyoti Sanyal and Sarbjit Sen. It seems to be out of print, but I'm hopeful of getting a copy soon.

There is the question of whether all Indianisms can be considered acceptable in Standard Indian English. Or should some of them be considered mistakes? Where does one draw the line? Is there something called Standard Indian English? This is a question for the scholars, and I wish they would make themselves more visible by producing handbooks and usage guides on Indian English for the general public.

One immediate application of the handbook to my copyediting suggests itself: incorporation of select Indian English words and phrases into my US and UK English PerfectIt stylesheets, so that they will be flagged.


Subscribe to blog posts

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page