English words – right, wrong and ‘Inglish’

I’ve lived my formative years and most of my adult life in a country where English is one of the 2 official language of the country, even when there are 22 other national language in the country! My ‘first’ language – the primary language of imparting knowledge and the basic mode of communication between teachers and students – in school, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, was English. Since India was a British colony till mid of last century, the influence of English, more specifically British English, has been profound. Wikipedia says that after the US, India has the most number of English speakers, followed by Nigeria (?) and then the UK.

Though published work of literature – books, magazine, newspapers – still remain faithful to the language practiced by Her Majesty, over the course of the latter half of last century and a decade of the new one, English and certain words, as it is spoken and understood, in India, had gone through a churning process which has resulted in a variant version. This mutant version is more or less uniform across India and often confusing to native English speakers.

When I came to the US, to my consternation, I found that Americans had done a similar thing to the language they call English! Though I am in no way a linguist, I would like to believe that I have a good sense observation and I lookup the correct variation of a word whenever I hear more than one way of it being said. In this post, I’ll point to certain words which have different pronunciations and connotations in the 3 different countries – Britain, America and India.

A good place to check out these words is at Merriam-Webster, which gives the American, as well as British, pronunciation, and an audio clip for all words.

Pronunciation differences

plumber
Almost all Indians say this with the b, that is plum-ber. And they are wrong.
American and British, and the correct pronunciation, is plum-mer

corps
Again, most Indians say this as it is spelled. With the p. Wrong again.
Correct: kor

solder
Indian and British – sal-der or sol-der
American – saw-der

chassis
Indians say it the way it is spelt cha-sis. Wrong
British – sha-sy
American – cha-sy

lieutenant
Indian and British – leftenent
American – lieu·ten·ant

zenith
Indian and British – ze-nith
American – zE-nith

bath
Indian and British – bath
American – bäth

schedule
Indian and British – she-dule
American – ske-dule

spelt/spelled
Spelt in UK and India
Spelled in US

math/maths

See this video.

The last letter of the alphabet, how did it change from being a zed to a zee?

Difference in meaning or connotations

An Indian torch becomes a flashlight in America.

The hood of a Ford becomes a bonnet of an Aston Martin and the trunk of a Chevy becomes a boot (or worse still), a dickie, of a Jaguar.

Matrimonial ads in Indian newspaper would refer to a girl who is family oriented as a homely person, oblivious to the fact that inadvertently they are calling her out as plain looking. (Which wouldn’t matter in this case, as there is no disconnect between the publisher of the ad and the reader)

An American crosswalk becomes a zebra crossing in India, while the sidewalk becomes the pavement. You wouldn’t ever pump gas in your car in England; you’d fill it up with petrol.

In Mumbai, you’d overtake another car on the road from the right, but in New York passing another vehicle should be from the left.

The variance in usage of words and phrase to denote different things between American and British English, has been dealt with in depth in other blogs and articles. The ones I’ve mentioned here are just a small sub-set, which I have faced personally.

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Categories: Demystify, Language | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “English words – right, wrong and ‘Inglish’

  1. Neha Arya

    This article made me nostalgic. I know that would seem an odd thing to write but I was taken back to the same conversation we had in San Diego at Extended Stay Inn. I remember you asking us the correct (read American)pronunciation of the words you put in the blog. I was fresh off the boat(to use the phrase in the lose sense) from India with a master’s in English Literature and had answered them correctly. I confess I did not know what chassis meant then.
    Other words that came up on that unforgettable road trip were dentist and faculty.
    I have an explanation for the difference of pronunciation which is not Wikipedia certified . The reason why American English has a unique style of pronunciation is because Mr.Webster was compiling the dictionary in 1789 after the heydays of English colonial rule had come to an end and what to distinguish the American Dictionary from the Oxford one. To have a uniform spelling for words and to discern some of the words from their English counterparts he added few modification to the pronunciation.
    1) Regularization of spelling which lead to the elimination of the extra vowels in some words
    2) Stress on the consonants of the words.
    This variation in pronunciation could be attributed to a kind of literary independence from Her Majesty’s language( to quote the blogger)

    • The difference in pronunciation and spelling (I just touched on the spelling bit with ‘spelt/spelled’) can very well be attributed in snubbing the ‘real’ English and declaring an independence from Britain. That seems to be the logical assumption. But to assume that Mr. Webster took it upon himself to standardize what the entire country would come to approve and take forward, I think, is presumptuous. When a dictionary is being compiled for the first time wouldn’t the compiler use the current usage of words to form the baseline? The etymology would play a big part too. The reason I like Merriam-Webster is because it gives both pronunciations, whenever applicable, and the etymology.

  2. Aditya and I still have arguments about the “correct” pronunciation of words. We’ve pretty much settled on an American vocabulary, though, since he needs to be understood by Americans. When I’m only around Indians or in India, though, I try to switch to talking about Celsius and “flyovers” and the like.

    • Hah, ‘flyover‘ – we broached this (again) a few days ago!
      (This is why I like Merriam-Webster so much. They give the British and American variants.)
      I have given in to the adage, ‘when in rome ….’ but still spell colour with the u!

  3. Interesting post.
    Not just using fork and spoon differs between UK and US. 🙂
    Some more words
    Path – the way it is pronounced, and check/cheque usuage.
    Reminds me of 1 episode from IT crowd.
    There is a guy named “Peter File” and in britain his name is pronounced “peteoofile ” unlike american “pedophile” – pronunciation.

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