What’s with the English?

When you try to introduce someone to Bollywood, one of their first questions will be “Why do they keep speaking English?” My first answer is “because they want to!” (additionally, one might point to a little thing called the British Raj, which may have some significance in the question at hand)

But regardless of the why, English is undeniably part of Hindi films. Like it or not, the film hero is going to say things like, “Hello, sexy!” to his grandmother, or other older women; it hardly seems worth wondering about. But truthfully it’s really very nice for the non-Hindi speaking among us to at least be able to pick up on a little of what’s going on without the subtitles. This occasionally has amusing results, when you realize that the subtitles are often only loosely related to what’s actually being said (“Mmm! brownies” becomes “Mmm! Yummy!” etc.) Of course, the subtitler’s job is never easy, Memsaab Story has a few examples of things that don’t translate well.

Aal Izz Well from 3 Idiots is a good example of of Hinglish, beginning with “Jab life ho out of control. . .” Hopefully you recognize some of those words. (The Bollywood Fan has a really good translation, if you want to find out what’s actually being said.

As well as Hinglish, where English and Hindi are mixed, the other thing to be aware of is even when they’re speaking in English it may not always be easy to understand because it is Indian English, which is a legitimate and distinct dialect of the English language.

I ran across a really interesting article on the subject of Indian English. Here are some basic points:

Indian English speakers often use reduplication as a way of emphasizing an action — I have been told before to “Come come! Sit sit!” Reduplication can also replace very for intensifying or extending something, as in hot, hot water and long, long hair. Such usage is common in spoken Hindi.

You’ll hear this kind of repetition in movies a lot, either in Hindi or in English “choti choti” (“small small” I belive) and “abhi abhi” (“now now”), to name just a couple common ones.

Something which Indian English has that is not found in other varieties of English is the use of only and itself to emphasize time and place. It comes from the Hindi word hi and produces sentences like “I was in Toledo only” and “Can we meet tomorrow itself?”

Subtitles often contain this sort of thing, and it no longer bothers me. If that’s the best way to translate the meaning, so be it.

And quickly, a list of Hindi words that get carried over into English conversations:

achchaa = good
arrai = hey
bahut = a lot
bus = that’s it
ek = one (as a number)
ghotu = one who reads a lot
hajar (hazar) = a ton (more than a lot)
ho gaya = done; finished
koi bat nahi = no problem
kya hall hai = how are you
lakh(s) = one-hundred thousand
lekhin = but
masala = risqué; spicy; hot (like a film)
muthlab = meaning
paka = pure
teek hai = okay (lit: it is right)
yaar = buddy; pal

I’ll leaved you with a video. I don’t know what movie it’s from, but since it says it’s South Indian, it probably isn’t actually Bollywood, but since it’s funny, I’ll let it pass.



  1. Kristen said,

    February 21, 2010 at 10:46 am

    AAL IZZ WELLL! We watched that last night. XD

  2. Han said,

    February 26, 2010 at 7:33 am

    I really want to see that… but I’m not sure I want a bootleg copy with bad subs! Hard choice.

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