Learning Indian English

“Where’s the restroom?” I inquired with the restaurant waiter.

The blank stare that I received made me reconsider my wording, so I corrected myself.

“Sorry, where is the washroom?”

That question drew the desired response — directions to the bathroom.

As I waited in line for the bathroom, I pondered, “Why the hell do we call it a restroom anyway.” It’s not really a place to rest. Washroom is a much more pragmatic approach to the word in India because Indians always wash with water after using the toilet. 1 point for Indian English, -1 point for US English.

Despite having visited 25+ countries, I’ve actually spent very little time in countries that share my native tongue, English. I’ve spent small stints in countries like Antigua, Dominica, and Fiji, all of which have English as an official language. But the 10+ weeks that I have spent in India is the most that I have continuously lived among a different dialect of English, and it’s been fun, entertaining, and, at times, frustrating, adapting to a new dialect.

While estimates say that just 10% of Indians consider themselves fluent in English, that still makes India the second-largest English-speaking nation in the world. For the other 90% who are not fluent as per that estimate, most know English to some degree, whether at a conversational level or just a few key words.

In 2014 when I studied abroad in Chile my Mexican-learned Spanish quickly morphed into Chilean slang. I would chuckle at the other native Spanish speakers at my school, whether from Mexico or Spain, who adopted the new Chilean lingo into their speech. But now that I have been immersed in another English dialect, I get it. It’s necessary.

I have been absorbing Indian English words, both consciously to increase my comprehension, and subconsciously by immersion and association. I jotted down a list of 15 of my favorite words/phrases that I have learned during my time in India.

1. Hills

Given the gargantuan mountains that Indians have at their northern border, the bar for what is a “mountain” is pretty high. When I was in the Himalayas at an elevation of 7,000 feet with views of 20,000-foot mountains at my doorstep, Indians would say that we were in the “hills.” Where I come from those are definitely mountains, not hills.

2. Reach

Indians often use the word “reach” in situations when I would say “arrive” or “get there.” For example, if on a car trip, you might hear, “When will we reach?” There’s nothing grammatically wrong about it, but it doesn’t sound natural in US English to use reach without the object.

“We will reach the destination soon” sounds much more natural to me.

“Excuse me rickshaw driver, how long till we reach?”

3. Stay

If an Indian asks you “Where do you stay?”, what they really mean is “Where do you live?”

This can get confusing.

4. Hill station

A “hill station” is simply a mountain town or village.

Just going for a casual stroll in the “hills”.

5. Washroom 

Back to the original point. Washroom is the most common word for restroom.

6. Where from?

Indians love to ask the question “Where are you from?” without verbs or pronouns. If you aren’t paying attention you might miss the question.

7. Scooty

The Indian slang for scooter, moped, or Vespa.

Be careful cruising around Goa on your scooty because the police will try to charge you 5,000 rupees for not having an international driver’s license.

8. Two-wheeler 

Indians often refer to their scooters or motorcycles as “two-wheelers.”

9. Gravy

A classic Indian dish is some type of thick, spiced mixture accompanied by bread or rice. They refer to any type of these mixtures as “gravy,” which in the US is almost strictly used for the fatty, floury, turkey sauce eaten on Thanksgiving.

Roti with gravy. I think this was a cauliflower/potato mix if I am not mistaken.

10. Bus stand 

“Bus stand” refers both to what I would call a “bus stop” and a “bus station.”

11. Lakh and crore 

Indians refer to amounts of rupees (the local currency) as lakhs or crores. A lakh is one hundred thousand and a crore is 100 lakh, or ten million.

To make it more confusing they space their commas in numbers differently, as such: 1 crore = 1,00,00,000 rupees. I have to strain my eyes and focus to read large numbers.

12. Biscuit vs cookie 

As an American, I would refer to salty snacks as crackers or biscuits and sweet snacks as cookies (to generalize it). I would also call a dog snack a biscuit, regardless of its flavor.

But according to the Times of India, “a cookie requires soft dough and a biscuit requires hard dough.”

As I was eating coconut cookies one morning, some Indians asked to try my biscuits, thus initiating a great conversation about what each of us classified as a cookie or biscuit. It got messy.

13. Geyser

In India, a geyser is a water heater often found in the washroom. It’s pronounced “geezer.”

14. Volvo

A long-distance bus with AC and larger, reclining seats is called a “Volvo,” whether the bus make is from Volvo or not. This is because Volvo was the first brand to enter the market with such a bus in India, making the brand name synonymous with the style of bus.

Avoid riding the Volvos in India if you cannot go 8 hours without a bathroom break. The Indian bus drivers will scold you for making them stop (speaking from personal experience).

15. To call

Indian use “to call” the way that I would use “to invite.”

e.g. We are going to call them over for dinner this weekend.

My fascination with language in India

These are just a few of the many words that distinguish Indian English. Also, presumably due to India’s longer-lasting colonial ties to England when compared to the US, there is a lot of overlap with British English. I tried to omit any such words in this list.

Language in India is fascinating to me. It’s entertaining to observe Indians from different parts of the country establish their first communication. The non-verbal thought process goes something like this: Do they speak English? Do they speak Hindi? Do we share a common Indian tongue?

A few times I have seen northern Indians start blabbing to another Indian at a hostel in Hindi, where they then looked at them just as I would and explained that they don’t speak Hindi, they speak English and Tamil, for example. There are over 100 language dialects in India and 22 that are officially named in the constitution. There isn’t always overlap between Indians.

I have picked up some words in the southern Tulu language, as well as Hindi, now that I have spent some time in the north where it is predominantly spoken. And I am sure even when I return home, the remnants of Indian English will take some time to brush off

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