Friday, August 06, 2010

To Honourable Sir, from Obedient Servant.

“The gentleman who wrote the journal from which the following pages are chiefly drawn, went out to India in the beginning of 1805, and returned in 1819. …The impressions made upon his mind by the scenes which he beheld in India, are now, with deference, offered to the public.”

The book provides fascinating insights into various aspects of life in India in those times. Many parts of the book will not be palatable to our ‘patriots’ (of the chest-thumping variety) but it certainly is an honest account -  even if presented from the viewpoint of an Englishman.

Here is an extract ( page 161-3) where the author writes about the propensity of native Indians to use flowery or even bombastic language. While several anecdotes exist on the subject (remember the one where a passenger left behind on the platform by a departing train sends off a rant to the station master?), this must rank as one of the oldest recorded.

It is wonderful how accurately a Hindoo can copy English, without knowing a word of what he is writing. We find how difficult it is to transcribe Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French, without being able to read those languages; but many crannies will write in our character, which is as different from their own as Hebrew is from English, and copy proceedings in council, correspondence of government, and papers containing intricate researches in science, without knowing the meaning of one word in the whole, or how to spell a syllable. Some of their attempts at fine English, when they advance so far as to become conceited, are truly ludicrous. A volume of malaprop letters might be produced; but one specimen, from Captain Williamson's East India Vade Mecum, may suffice.

The cranny who composed it was left by his master in charge of his bungalow for a few days : during that time a high wind arose, and blew down one of the window shutters. He determined upon apprizing him of this, and inwardly rejoiced at the opportunity afforded him of showing his proficiency in English. Let the reader conceive an office-desk with a cranny seated at it; a dictionary placed before him, with a slate and pencil, and self-exultation in his countenance. He turns over the leaves with a finger and thumb, and an earnestness of countenance that would have done honour to Dr. Sangrado, upon the occasion of feeling the canon's pulse. He shakes his head—rubs the globe of memory, erases the word he had written as fit for his purpose, and chooses another of more learned and fulminating sound. Then he takes his pen and paper, and dispatches to his master what he thinks will truly surprise him:—

"Honourable Sir, "

Yesterday vesper arrive great hurricane, valve of little apperture not fasten; first make great trepidation and palpitation, then precipitate into precinct. God grant master more long life and more great post.

" I remain, honourable Sir,

" In all token of respect,

" Master's writer,


" P. S. No tranquillity in house since valve adjourn ; I send for carpenter to make re-unite."

Yet some of the sircars make a very considerable advance towards an accurate knowledge of the grammatical construction of English, and learn to speak and write it well enough for business. The following is an actual letter from a native house of agency, and a specimen of middling composition :—

" Sir,

"We have pleasure acknowledge yours, 18th instant. Have sent goods cording you order, and hope you find all first quality. We madam supply with money whenever she send us. Your remittance last month received in course, and placed your account. Have looked all place here for white cloth, such you want — none can find — soon as we get shall send next supplies with, " Remain, Sir,

" With prayers for health,

" Your obedient humble Servants,

" Huhrumbo, Dass, Sons, & Co."

But some of the letters received from natives are written in perfectly grammatical language; yet the above is about the standard of general correspondence with Europeans in every part of India where the Hindoos, Mahomedans, and Parsees conduct their business in our language

A fine example of Indian style Business English -  that emerged 200 years back.

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