“Annoying” variations from standard English: Cute examples from Nepal

This is a response to Richa Bhattarai’s post about “annoying” language variations in Nepali English on her blog.

Richa, the examples of Nepalese English variations in your post are typical and funny. What really resonated with me is your framing of the write up in the introduction, because I feel the same way about the often silly language variations we hear/read from our fellow Nepali users of English. My position on the subject is that the standard of any language must be maintained, even enforced, where shared norms of spelling, words, and meaning have value and purpose (for example, you can’t land an airplane in an emergency if the manual is written with these kinds of language variations); however, I also think that language is used in millions of different contexts many of which don’t demand the same standard. So, let me share a more boring but perhaps necessary other perspective: there are sociopolitical, cultural,  and other important issues about the “annoying” variations which are also worth thinking about.

I find words like “proudy” irritable as well, but it is one thing for me to say that I personally can’t stand when people make up such variations and quite another to only say that I am not interested in sociolinguistic theorizing in order to get away with, for instance, generalizing those who use such variations as stupid or lazy. If “proudy” is an emerging word among millions of speakers in South Asia, then the fact that this is the product of mistake, mis-teaching, poor choice… or whatever… will NOT justify that this word is simply “wrong” for all contexts and purposes. If millions of people use it and use it consistently, then there is no reason why words from particular regions of the world, sociocultural groups, etc shouldn’t be given legitimacy; hundreds of other words and variations enter the English lexicon every year, including many from the domains of popular culture, politics, etc all around the world. In fact, English is historically characterized by borrowing, coinage, extension, invention… you name it–or watch the video below! So, to say that error, hypercorrection, translation, semantic and phonetic/graphemic approximation are illegitimate sources for coinage of new words would be a failure to appreciate the funny but fundamental nature of how languages evolve…….

Okay, I could go deep down that rather theoretical path, but you got the point: language variations can be funny, and they can be annoying at one level, but while we can share a laugh about them, we cannot stop there. So, let me share a different perspective and highlight that the examples you give are great evidences of the beautiful/fascinating way in which a language develops, how it gets adapted and appropriated by local users around the world… the examples you give also constitute teaching and learning moments as well as potential topics for discussing how it is through language that we respect sociopolitical, cultural, and other kinds of differences and try to understand what lies behind those language variations. Of course, many errors will be primarily just that–errors, which the user is yet to fix, and of course errors are undesirable and can impede communication as well annoy others. But all language variations have a lot more to say other than/besides indicating the lack of effort, seriousness, etc on the part of their users.

  1. Proudy: This is a misapplication of a standard rule, as you indicate in this and other entries. Words do evolve from such misapplication, whether it is done for convenience or out of ignorance. If millions of people continue to use the new word/variant in that sense, it will soon become a new word (or it has become one). Don’t be surprised if “proudy” proudily walks down the red carpet of Oxford dictionary before we die (and proudy lives happily ever after). While that happens, I’m already willing to say that “proudy” does sound more accurate for a person who is “proud”—besides allowing me to call myself “proud” in the positive sense, as with “I’m proud of you, honey!”
  2. Talent: Cause-wise, this could be due to translation. Because colloquial/jharra Nepali terms like “batho” or “sipalu” are not constructed in verb-like forms (the more Sanskrit relatives like “pratibhashali” are), people could be confusing the word “talent” as an adjective. So what? You can cross it out with a red pen if you are hired as a grammar teacher at a school, but if you are at a tea shop in Bagbazar and your friend uses it, don’t burn yourself and people around by jumping off. Language variation is a matter of context variation, so while you are right to be annoyed in the former context, maybe not so much in the latter.
  3.   Fooding: This one looks like an extension of “lodging” as it normally appears on sign boards that say “lodging and fooding available here,” so it’s a very rational construction if you think about it; and it’s been used so extensively that even a once-upon-a-time grammar nazi like me have learned to accept it as normal. I saw it all over in Nepal, India, and even Myanmar as I grew up. In fact, this word reminds me of the irrationality of English grammar instead. Take, for instance, the sentence “He is a boy.” What the hell–you got singular, masculine, human semantic ingredients in “he” then you repeat the singular in “is” then you repeat the singular in “a” and then you repeat the singular, masculine, and human in the “boy” again! Every grammar nazi who touts the rationality or systematic nature of his grammar must first start saying “eee boi.” Then we’ll discuss other “wrong” constructions.
  4. Anyways: This is totally standard English in the US. Relax. Yes, it’s a colloquial variation, but I am in no mood of sounding like a grumpy old man yet, not yet. In informal contexts, I’m not going to tell anyone to say “It’s I” instead of “It’s me.” Oh, really, which one is the correct one? Younger people tell me 🙂
  5. Heighthy: Same as “proudy.” Actually, even better. If someone is tall, I’m impressed. If someone is “heighty,” I would also consider them as maintaining good health and putting on a smile wherever they go, you know. Like if I describe such a character in a novel that I’ve always planned to write with the word “heighty,” the word could take on a life of its own, who knows.
  6. Movement: Yes, it’s annoying to imagine what someone’s “worst movement in my life” was (it conjures up the image of a nightmare that low-pressure patients tend to have, or the sight of your ex- boyfriend dancing), but that’s a spelling error, and thus a great opportunity for teaching—that is, if you are paid to do so and you are not in the wrong place like at a party where your ex- boyfriend is still dancing!
  7.  Touchy: I am wondering if this is a psycholinguistic response to the awkwardness of a “moving movie”—but I will say that it’s fine with me. I got the point. If people keep using it, then “touchy” will have one extra meaning, like many words keep adding meanings to them all the time. For instance, the word “word” used to not have the denotation of a “word processor” until Bill Gates created the application with that name. Now you look up the dictionary and it’s in there. Yes, if I am correcting a student paper, I do point it out.
  8. Antique: Antiques are usually unique. Such metaphorical replacements actually add a connotation that the literal counterpart can’t convey—as with “proudy” above and many others here.
  9. –ness: Extension galore! Love it. When I was in college (back in the twentieth century), we used to make up words like “khatarnakification” and “chwakism” and you know nothing in the world can give you that kind of pleasure in the world. It is subversive, it is creative, and it is generative of new meanings in powerful ways. And it is one of the beautiful ways in which languages develop.
  10. Chilly: There seem to be more than one reason why “chilli” becomes “chilly” in Nepal. One, there are not many words that end in “i” and there are many that end with “y”—so these people think that we are the ones who are wrong! Two, Nepalese people don’t have to use “chilly” that much because it is only “cold” in Nepal (if you want to know where it’s really chilly, ask someone in Chicago or Siberia). Finally, there’s no pleasure in saying “chilli” because it doesn’t give you the full experience of the two l’s which is one of the ways which Nepali phonetics enriches the dullness of single consonants in English. Like we say “balla maja ayo” with two l’s partaking in two separate and sexy syllables. You ask a native English speaker to say that, and you get something like a dead fish swimming: they’ll say “bala maaja ayo.” Take the double-ness of the consonants from the way Nepali English is spoken and you get far less pleasure.

Want to see the silliest words that dictionaries have recently added? Here are some. Look at them and think about it: why the heck can’t Nepalese speakers of English help add some cool ones. I bet all the above will enrich “the” English language. So, even though feeling-wise, I tend to be on the same page with you about careless spellings and lazy misuse of words—because, rhetorically, coinage of new terms works much better when people know what they are doing—I no longer think that I can judge people’s usage of language by saying that I am not interested in linguistic intricacies. Simply, variations created while adapting sounds, structures or meaning to different cultures or contexts (which may at first look like outright errors made by lazy thinkers/ writers) cannot be considered as jokes. They are also food for thought and learning–particularly to scholars who one way or another deal with language but also generally–for anyone who needs to be open and sensitive to linguistic and cultural differences in a deeply connected world.

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2 Comments

  1. shyam, u make a convincing case, I specially like the “movement” description. But at the same time, I wish people would get creative as in really creative, like the list of words that you gave a link to (I love gaydar). Proudy and talent? No, not really creative… It really annoys me when when young English educated people use these.

  2. Sewa, I too really prefer the clever, creative, intentional ones because they exert the rhetorical force exactly where it matters. And I also really agree with Richa on all scores, except that I wanted to add a different perspective instead of only saying “Wow, what a great piece, I really enjoyed reading it,” because I really did. But to respond to your point, as I said, the fact that words like “proudy” are by origin the products of mistake, mis-teaching, poor choice error, and even sheer laziness or stupidity doesn’t stop the mechanism that generates new words, and more importantly, it doesn’t set us free to ONLY say we are annoyed by the people who produce such words—-out of whatever reasons. Behind the mistakes, there almost always are human, often politically and culturally sensitive reasons as well. Moreover, while, as you say, the mistake-based category of new words is much less likable than the intentionally modified types, there is usually more than one judge-worthy reason along with more than one positive thing to learn about and appreciate with every case of lexical derivation. For example, I didn’t make more than a tongue in cheek joke about “movement,” but here are some of the possible reasons why people confuse “moment” with “movement,” to which I am sensitive (besides being annoyed on the surface): 1. the two words sound similar to Nepalese speakers of English because we don’t have the “ou” dipthong, and not everyone in Nepal is as privileged as we were, so while some people in whose writing we saw this mistake could have tried and learned the difference by the time we saw the mistake, I know of others whose struggle with so many new words in a language which they got very little chance to learn until the previous year or so was still just literally overwhelming, 2. with no disrespect intended to teachers in remote areas, many who teach out there are the least qualified in the nation, and they have mis-taught our friends who spelled such words wrongly, 3. because “mo-ment” is snobbishly pronounced with too much “o” in it by many boarding-bred people among us in the city, these folks are just trying to beat us with some hypercorrection (and Nepal is such an about face culture). Of course, some boarding-bred friends also make the same silly mistake, but I think not many do this as often as our gaunle sathis.
    So, no doubt, “movement” instead of “moment” is clearly an error, but errors too often become the source of new words, even if this one is very unlikely to. But more importantly that just describing the phenomenon, I wanted to highlight that these are good evidences that there is a continuum of real versus fake language (not just right and wrong things), with silly errors on the one end and rhetorically savvy new words on the other, as Richa’s original post and your comment also suggest. What I am emphasizing further here is that errors also say things about people’s backgrounds, opportunities, struggles, etc, etc. And they say a lot about interlingual dynamics: how the difference between the systems of sound and meaning in host and guest languages give rise to appropriations, misunderstandings, teaching moments, and issues that need to be considered culturally and socioeconomically sensitive—-while, yes, at one level, we want to slap our friends who don’t stop saying “weighty” instead of “heavy”—-oh, wait, don’t slap ME yet—-give me a second and I’ll look up the dictionary, because although I have spoken English almost all my life, got the opportunity to study in a fantastic “mission” school in India, taught English for 17 years, and, hell, spend my life doing English, I keep confusing myself as to whether this is a real word. While I do that, enjoy some other funny words on this page.

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