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  • Writer's pictureLalitha Murthy

We are like that only

“ Uncle, can we drop my friend on Orchard Road and then go to Marina Bay?, my friend asked.

Can can”, replied the taxi driver.

I was in Singapore and travelling in a taxi. I was amused to hear the taxi driver addressed as “uncle”; Very similar to Indians at home where every neighbour is an uncle or an auntie. In fact, we add the suffix Ji when we speak to someone older. Even strangers call me ‘auntieji’!

My granddaughter, who lives in the USA learnt this very early. She was hardly three years old when she would address her mother’s Indian colleagues as uncle and auntie, while she was on first names with her mother’s American friends!

Again, saying the same word twice for emphasis is very Indian. Just like my Singaporean taxi driver who said “can can”, Indians often repeat the word to indicate emphasis.

Are you coming? Yes, yes.

Did you mean my brother? No, no no. I meant….

Have expressions in Indian English reached out to South Asian countries and influenced them?

Or it is that South Asian cultures are similar?

In Bangalore where I live, the polite greeting often is “ oota ayuitha?( Have you eaten?). I

understand that this is similar to the “Have you eaten rice yet?”(sihk jó faahn meih a?) is a common greeting in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some say that it is popular in Malaysia as well.

Indian children studying in schools are taught letter writing. The first letter they learn to write is a leave letter which begins ‘Respected Sir/ madam’. This carries on till they start working when they learn that ‘Respected ‘ as a salutation is very Indian! They need to write, ‘ Dear’ or even ‘Hi/ hello!'

When interacting with English teachers in schools and colleges, I realised that they found nothing wrong in using respected as a salutation. What they objected to was the use of’ Hi/ Hello”, which according to them was not to be written to elders especially in formal letters.

Indian English is filled with such quaint expressions. The words phrases, and usage can be easily understood by any Indian.

Early in my training career, I understood how such deep-rooted expressions can cause misunderstanding and lead to confusion. The modal verb can and able are often used interchangeably. My engineers did not understand that can’t can also mean unwillingness, not just inability. Very often they would reply with a single word ‘can’t without elaborating.

Can we speak on Monday? may get a terse reply, ‘can’t. What the Indian engineer means was that the he would not be in office on that day as it is a holiday.

This is another feature difficult to get used to. Many Indians like to be brief in their emails. This may often sound rude though that is not the intention.

In this blog series we attempt to throw light on such expressions and usage; We are like that only is a series where different trainers have shared their experiences/ perspective on this variant- Indian English.

The purpose of this series is to highlight such Indianisms – vocabulary, grammatical structures, contexts in which they get used. I hope those who read will not only find it enjoyable but also useful in decoding Indian English!


Lalitha Murthy is a Business Communication consultant with over 20 years’ experience. She provides customised solutions to the communication needs of employees in global organisations. She is the co-founder of BCFAI.

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