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Nilanjana S Roy: Wanilla flavoured Hinglish


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

The purist sitting next to me in the cinema hall sighed when the Vivek Oberoi Coke ad came on and said, "I wish they would LEARN to pronounce words correctly. It's 'vanilla' "" vun-ill-aah." She meant not "vanilla", van to rhyme with pan.
Thanks to a convent education (the kind usually summarised in the matrimonials as "convented"), I have arrived at adulthood saddled with the accent of an Indian upper class twit. I struggle not to say "hero, Nero and zero" in prescribed form ("HAIR-o, NAIR-o and ZAIR-o") rather than the more widely used "hee-ro, nee-ro and zee-ro". I can say "Really?" two ways: the UK "really" as the word is spelled, the US "reely", as in "Brad Pitt is reely sexy".
And yes, I've always pronounced "vanilla" the way the dictionary suggests: Vun. Ill. Aah. So I should be on the side of the purists in the audience, pleading with Oberoi and his chorus girls to repeat after us, vanilla is not pronounced with a "van" in the first syllable.
But there's also a part of me that's cheering for the Vanilla with a Van group. The guy at the Mother Dairy booth hands out Vanilla with a Van ice cream packs. Closer to Mumbai, the "v" disappears all together, so what you get is Wanilla.
In India, it's vanilla "" to rhyme with van, fan, pan, man "" that we know and use. The way we pronounce words is a bit like the way we came up with Hinglish: it might offend purists, but it's us. Humko yeh maangta, as Binnie's chips (anyone remember them?) pointed out so many years ago.
And somewhere, despite my dark convented past, there's a rogue gene insisting on its right to assert its desi stranglehold on my tongue. Which might explain why I say "shed-yool" in a counterfeit UK accent but revert to a very Bengali "martun-chop" for mutton chop. Call it a form of unconscious patriotism at work.
Or an attempt to blend in with the masses. For eons, we spoke or aspired to speak BBC English, which was wonderful camouflage for people like me, since pretty much everyone who spoke the language sounded like upper class twits. It was also a culturally bizarre choice.
The classic BBC accent rests on the foundations of "received pronunciation" "" this is supposed to be the speech and pronunciation followed in the public schools of England, and one of its attributes is that it should tell you nothing about the region the speaker comes from.
So for decades, this is what Macaulay's children were doing: aspiring to follow an accent that wiped out their national and regional variations in speech, invented in a nation which had massive changes in regional accents and that used RP as a way of smoothing out these internal blips! (The BBC follows a different policy these days: announcers are advised on hard-to-pronounce foreign words, but otherwise left alone. You won't hear too many hardcore Yorkshire or Glaswegian accents on the Beeb, though.)
Now I can walk down the street or switch on the TV and revel in 20 different versions of Inglees spoken desi style. You know the old jokes: Bengalis enjoy the cool brij on the Howrah breeze; Punjabis understand perfectly that a mooli is a radish, sometimes whitish, sometimes raddish; and let's not get into how a speaker thereof would spell "Malayalam".
The cities have their own linguistic dialects, where the slang changes all the time. Fundas, in my days at college, were the fundamental principles you had to know in order to crack a physics exam, analyse Kurosawa films or woo women; fundoos is now a catch-all term for anyone who is rigidly fundamentalist in their views, whether they come from Islam, Christianity or Hinduism.
Much of the slang shifts too rapidly to be pinned down: chill out, which Vinod Mehta complained about in Outlook recently as his least favourite cliche, was on its way out two years ago. We're advised that "chillax!" (chill plus relax) is the new chill out, but if the papers have only just caught up with it, you can be sure that it's already over.
There are interesting shifts as you cross regional and national boundaries. A kudi in Punjab is a pretty girl; when she shifts to the British Asian milieu of Southhall, she becomes a "curie".
More accent on the "kyu", less on the hard "d" (Kudi/curie hasn't yet made it to the Oxford English Dictionary, though it might follow hard on the heels of "yaar" and "jungli", which got there a few weeks ago.)
I still balk at "innit", the word that gets tagged on to every second British-Asian sentence as a combination full stop and question mark thrown into one. I prefer the homegrown version, where you can end a sentence with the one-size-fits-all "na?" or with the ancestor of "innit""""is/ isn't it?"
What we hate is when someone else gets our accents wrong. In Born Confused, a first novel best summarised as what happens when chicklit collides with the world of the ABCD, Tanuja Desai Hidier has a nice exchange between Dimple Lala and her American friend, Gwyn.
(Dimple) "I guess my cousin's here."
(Gwyn) "The geekster one you told me always makes fun of you? In America the girls are talking to the boys in your school, is it?"
'"She said it in the mock Indian accent we put on to imitate my parents sometimes; to tell the truth, they didn't even really speak like that, but using it was sometimes somehow still satisfying to me. It bugged me a little whenever Gwyn did it, but then, I had started the whole thing..."'
How do we speak, then? We have several flavours to choose from. There's Edit Page English, an offshoot of Babu English, where for some reason it still behoves us to abstain from using any phrase less than the length of a millipede, where, make no mistake, whether you like it or not, cliches follow creaky Wodehousian puns like the night the day.
Call Centre English, despite the brouhaha over it, is only part Rapidex style accent lessons; it's a close cousin of Phoren-Returned Angrezi blended with Aspirational ABCD speak.
Hinglish is a dialect in itself, borrowing equally from Pepsi ads and autorickshaw slogans, mutating into Bonglish in the East and Tamlish in the South.
It's at home wherever it goes, because we are like that only. And Indian texting is a totally different ballgame from text messaging in the rest of the world: "c u l8er" is small aloos compared to "hum 7 7 hain". There are many flavours to choose from. Even plain wanilla.

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First Published: Tue, May 11 2004. 00:00 IST