Like other countries that have several official languages, Sri Lankan English borrows phrases from the milieu of Sri Lankan languages, to interesting effects
Since my move to Delhi, I’ve noticed that there are certain words in my vocabulary which puzzle my Indian friends. I once sent a text message to a friend, who promptly called me upon receiving it, telling me she didn’t understand what I meant. I went through the message and realised that the inclusion of ‘men’ tagged at the end of a sentence had left her confused. Tagging ‘men’ in-between sentences is a colloquial method of address common among most Sri Lankans. It was something I had grown up hearing and had imbibed it into my vocabulary without a second thought. Since my move to India, I’ve had to take two steps back and recognise elements of my vocabulary and certain figures of speech unique to Sri Lankans.
In light of this, I picked up the Dictionary of Sri Lankan English recently and it’s proving to be an entertaining read so far. While reading, I recognised phrases that would recur in conversation back at home and which I use myself like ‘damn sin’ and ‘hi-bye’ friend and it was interesting to note certain terms and abbreviations which I’d taken for granted as a part of British English. For a small country, Sri Lankan English consists of a wonderful pickle of sub-varieties. SLE is interspersed with derivatives from Sinhala, Tamil, Hindi, Arabic and Dutch; the aftertaste of a colonial hangover, cheerful disregard for tenses and numerous cross-references. The recent surge in Sri Lankan YouTube videos like ‘This and This’, take advantage of the quirks of the language and usually feature caricatured elements of SLE. For the uninitiated, here are a few words and phrases reproduced from the Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, with permission from the author:
Ambarenafy (coll.) to squirm with embarrassment (Derived from the Sinhala verb ‘ambarenava’)
Bugger (coll.) chap, bloke, guy (Dated and more negative in British Standard English)
Come or go, Chicago! (coll.) come what may, whatever the consequence
Damn wild (coll.) really angry
Geetic (coll.) flashy, gaudy, tasteless
Giddify (coll.) flirt
Glass maker’s daughter: a person who stands in front of you and blocks your view
Last minute case: a person who leaves everything till the last minute
A rasthiyadu case (coll.) a useless person, a waster
Sin! (often used as an exclamation) What a pity! What a shame!
Who and who? (coll.) who? (Plural)
Cracked (adj) (coll.) crazy, eccentric
Admittedly, I groan every time I hear someone say something like “Oh, it’s in the backside” but I’ve always found the doubling of words, for example ‘small small’, ‘dot dot’, ‘big big’ and signboards advertising ‘body parts’ (spare parts for vehicles) amusing. There are also words which have been dropped along the way but which you’re likely to hear the older generation use. My grandmother, for instance, refers to stoles as ‘mufflers’ and watches as ‘wristlets’ – something you’re not likely to hear too often these days. I now know the difference between ‘machaan’, meaning male cousin or brother-in-law and ‘machang’ (a term of address between close male friends) and was delighted that ‘Love cake’ had earned an entry in the dictionary. On a completely unrelated note, I think Love cake – a rich cake made with cashew nuts, semolina and pumpkin preserve – is one of Sri Lanka’s best kept secrets. I’m currently on a one-woman mission to force feed Love cake to everyone who hasn’t had it. Please join me in this worthy cause. The world needs more Love cake.
Coming across words I hadn’t encountered before was a gentle reminder of the many layers within Sri Lankan English. I wasn’t aware that ‘The Boys’ referred to members of the LTTE or that the ragging ritual which students at university were subjected to is called ‘bucketing’ –the pouring of a bucket of water mixed with garbage and other unsavoury substances (which I leave to your imagination) over a person’s head. Words such as ‘box along’ (carry on); ‘cockered’ (drunk); ‘cowcatcher’ (protruding teeth); ‘double orphan’ (a child who has lost both parents); ‘forward Peter’ (a cheeky person); ‘hot drinks’ (alcoholic); ‘kadavule’ (an exclamation of ‘My God!’ in Tamil); kuppi class (extra classes in university given by students for their peers) and ‘funk-stick’ (such a fantastic word. Really must revive its usage) were also unfamiliar.
Indian English is replete with its own variations. I’ve heard ‘healthy’ being used as a rather deceiving synonym for ‘fat’. A ‘bath’ refers to what Sri Lankans would call a ‘body wash’ and ‘trishaw’ is ‘auto rickshaw’. In daily conversation, sentences are sometimes prefixed with a ‘Tell me one thing’ or ‘Do one thing’ and the phrases ‘what all’n and ‘who all’ are the Indian answers to the Sri Lankan doubling of ‘what and what’ and ‘who and who.’ There’s an overuse of words like ‘actually’, ‘only’, ‘also’ and ‘obviously’ in spoken English and I first heard words such as ‘prepone’ and ‘time pass’ after I moved here. It doesn’t strictly fall into the label of Indian English but I do love the Indian exclamation ‘Uff’ – it stops short of being a swear word and it’s nicer than the Lankan ‘Aiyo’.
Of course, the boundaries between Sri Lankan English and Sinhala and Tamil words are a bit blurred – a point which the author has addressed in the introduction of the Dictionary of SLE. Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims speak different varieties of Sri Lankan English while socio-economic factors, the age divide and popular influences contribute to more cleavages in the language. To dive into the politics of language practices, linguistic diversity and cultural identity in a larger context would be an exhausting exercise. The English language itself borrows liberally from multiple languages during different periods – loanwords in the English language include ‘juggernaut’, ‘nymph’, ‘caravan’, ‘ketchup’, ‘piano’ and ‘sequin’. While acknowledging the debates surrounding the need for a World Standard English, to neatly compartmentalise binaries of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ English would be to deny the complexity and heavily nuanced nature of language. The very fact that dictionaries now acknowledge internet vocabulary – Oxford Dictionaries Online now consists of words such as ‘lulz’, ‘hat tip’, ‘douche’ and ‘ridic’ – and the gradual recognition of established varieties of English is a reminder that language never remains stagnant.
Featured image from: The Leisure Times as used by indi.ca
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.