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The English language is not a fancy dress party

Our love of flowery language is second to none. This tendency to go overboard is a special feature of Indian English. It’s a hangover of the Raj

Shashi Tharoor would never string together polysyllabic words without meaning.
Shashi Tharoor would never string together polysyllabic words without meaning. (Getty Images)

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Every few weeks, like clockwork, someone will send a Shashi Tharoor meme on some WhatsApp group I am on.

How would the MP Shashi Tharoor wish someone a happy Diwali, for instance. The real-life Tharoor tweets “Warmest Deepavali greetings to all—may light dispel darkness, truth supplant ignorance, joy overcome gloom & hope rise above despair”.

But in the meme world it goes something like this: “May your festive season be punctuated with revachism whose magnoliquence can only be theatropistically analysed by the use of reminiscent exacerbation.” And so on and so forth. This is not Tharoor-speak because it’s just polysyllabic words strung together without any regard to meaning, something the real Tharoor never does. Even worse, it manages to spell some of them wrong, which too would never happen in a Tharoor tweet.

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Tharoor clearly enjoys his reputation as the prestidigitator (see, I can do it too) of the English language and can show it off like a party trick with some elan. But all around us we still see people feeling compelled to treat the English language as some kind of fancy dress party.

Clearly, we are not the only sufferers. New Zealand is proposing The Plain Language Bill that demands bureaucrats use simple, comprehensible language to communicate with the public, according to The Guardian. New Zealand even has an annual plain language award for the “best sentence transformation” from government gobbledygook to vanilla English.

For example, this gem from their transport authority. “Where it has been identified and is possible to update this it has been undertaken ensuring future band allocation is correct.” That simply means, “Where possible, we’ve identified and updated affected sub-models to make sure they’re assigned the correct levy band going forward.” I am not sure what a levy band is but I get where the sentence is going. The other one just made my head spin.

Of course, a Plain Language Bill could also result in a new kind of language police, plainclothes police, so to speak.

But the effort is laudable and we could do with some of it as well. India’s love of flowery language is second to none and it goes well beyond New Zealand’s problem of government communication.

Corporate reports, public relations press releases, court rulings are often utterly incomprehensible, lost in verbal fireworks. I just came across a signboard advertising “the crescendo of furnishing ambience”.

During the Arushi Talwar murder case, a trial court ruled, “The cynosure of judicial determination is the fluctuating fortunes of the dentist couple who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress Ms Aarushi and hapless domestic aide Hemraj who had migrated to India from neighbouring Nepal to eke out living and attended routinely to the chores of domestic drudgery at the house of their masters.” That’s just page 1 of a 210-page verdict. What’s striking, though, is that while the language is flowery, the grammar remains a little shaky.

Perhaps some of this is about thwarted literary aspirations. Perhaps many judges wanted to be writers, given their propensity to quote from scriptures, classics, myths, even films. But mostly it’s just our innate love for pontification. It’s gotten so bad, writes Bhavya Dore on the website Popula, that the Supreme Court has sent a case back to a lower court saying, “We will have to set it aside because one cannot understand this.” The Vidhi Centre for Law and Policy has produced a manual for plain language drafting practices, saying “complex legal drafting goes against the grain of a democratic and participatory society as it reduces accessibility of the law to the common man”.

Language thus becomes a tool for obfuscation, not clarification. It can also leave the uncommon man/woman with a splitting headache.

When Subhash Vijayran filed a petition in the Supreme Court against bombastic language, he said: “The writing of most lawyers is 1) wordy, 2) unclear, 3) pompous and 4) dull. We use eight words to say what can be said in two. We use arcane phrases to express commonplace ideas.” He got a sympathetic hearing from the bench but the sad truth is everyone thinks everyone except themselves writes flowery, incomprehensible English. They never think of their own output.

The Supreme Court itself produced a 268-page verdict in a case involving the politician Subramanian Swamy which said a batch of writ petitions “exposits cavil in its quintessential conceptuality and percipient discord between venerated and exalted right of freedom of speech and expression of an individual”, etc, etc.

No wonder Vijayran wanted “Legal Writing in Plain English” to be made a mandatory subject in LLB courses.

It probably needs to be a mandatory subject for MBA courses too because business reports and corporate brochures are just as maddeningly dense. Even CVs, which should be crisp and to-the-point, cannot resist a stroll in the flower garden. Diplomatic circles have a special love for this kind of language.

After the WikiLeaks expose, The Guardian couldn’t resist quipping that among other things the leaks showed “India’s bureaucracy has a well-deserved reputation for obtuse language and an ability to resist reform”. In Yes Minister, the suave bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby knew how to do that. But his flourishes had wit and flair. Sadly, we are just left with the uncle-jee version—bombast and hot air.

Many Indian languages can be flowery, especially in a literary setting. Persian or Sanskrit poetry in translation lose their musicality and can feel overburdened with words. Even Rabindranath Tagore in English translation can often feel too saccharine and wordy. Mahatma Gandhi was so enamoured of the sound of Tagore’s Bengali poetry he tried to study the language to read Tagore in the original.

But this tendency to go overboard is a special feature of Indian English. It’s a hangover of the Raj. It was a way for the colonised to try and curry favour with the sahibs and a way to make themselves feel better about their colonised selves. It was obsequious and flowery at the same time.

The British sneered at it, calling it Babu English. It was bombastic, clunky and heavy-footed in its use of idiom. The babu wanted to show off his education but he only revealed the thinness of its veneer. It was meant to show off but it often served as a disguise for a feeling of inadequacy.

Babu English had cousins like Butler English, Boxwallah English. But it wasn’t just the poor babu who was to blame. Even some early Indo-Anglian poets found it hard to resist the urge to be flowery. Govin Chunder Dutt, of the same family as the poets Aru and Toru Dutt, writes a Farewell To Romance with

“Wherein thine image might be dimly spied,

While the winds dallied with thy bosom bare,

And raised thy robes, and oft in wantonness

Rippled thy mirror, to destroy thy dream?”

We obviously come from good flowery seed. And most of us carry it within us. It’s something we have to unlearn.

At my English-medium school, I too liked my flowery English. In class VII, I remember, we had to write about our Puja vacations. We had been to Kashmir and I wrote what I thought was a thrilling story involving the chair cars of Gulmarg. The setting being Kashmir inspired me to be at my flowery best. Our class teacher was a Jesuit priest, Camille Bouché. Father Bouché returned everyone’s scripts. I waited smugly, convinced I was being singled out for some great honour. Perhaps he would read it out to the class. Instead, he returned my exercise book with a big red gash through my masterpiece. “Write simply,” he told me. “Don’t show off. Big words are not necessarily the right words.”

At that time I bristled with indignation. But it might be one of the only lessons from school I still carry close to my heart.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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