Posts tagged "tamil"

8 Words From India We Should Add to the English Language

Over the course of the last nine years in India, I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I can barely speak any of the local languages. To anyone that asks, I quickly point out that in Chennai at least, almost everyone speaks English to varying degrees of proficiency. In my office, amongst the marketing, sales and account management teams, the default language is English.


For that, I can thank the agitations of the early 1960s when the central Government of India wanted to impose Hindi as the national language across the country. The political parties in the south vehemently opposed the implementation of Hindi to conduct all official business and so the Dravidian movement was born.

In a big F-You to the central Government, English was selected as a second language taught in schools in the south over Hindi. The result? A population that is at ease talking to foreigners but will have great difficulty communicating to their fellow countrymen from the north of the country.

Indeed, take the company I work for. We have people from across India whose first languages are all different. The link language for the person from Mumbai, the person from Shillong and the person from Kerala is English.

Combined with my laziness, the absence of a pressing need and what my wife (who speaks four languages) has affectionately called my spectacular ineptitude at learning a new language, I’ve basically gotten by with a few keywords.

foreign language problems

Funnily enough, if you are sitting in England right now reading this, you probably don’t realize how much Indian languages have influenced the words that you use every day. Are you perhaps sitting in a bungalow, reading this in your pyjamas before you jump in the shower to shampoo your hair? Perhaps you’ve got a tab open on your browser and reading an article that an economics pundit has written about how the 1% are continuing to loot the economy or how the urban jungle is affecting the health of children. Bungalow, pyjamas, shampoo, pundit, loot, jungle. All Hindi words.

The diamond isn’t the only thing the British took from India.

chicken vindaloo - all the stuff you shouldn't eat

Chicken vindaloo? That originated in Goa and means let’s collect all the shit left over from the chicken that no one wants to eat, make it spicy as hell and then challenge some poor bastard to eat it as a test of his manliness after a night out on the tiles.

So it is that we’ve happily borrowed words and phrases from various Indian languages (there are over 120 of them) over the course of the last few centuries. I’m now tabling a proposal to add more words from various Indian languages to our everyday English vocabulary.

They are either better words for existing words, efficiently sum up something that would take a sentence to explain or add colour and description to our nouns.

1. Challo – literally “let’s go”

challo hindi word for let's go

Why use two words when one will do? Why go through the effort of making our tongue do gymnastics to go from a “ts” sound to a “gh” sound? This Hindi word, Challo, rolls right off the tongue and is a pleasure to say. If you have any problems with it just think of it as a “hello” with a “c”.

Wife: “Hey Pete, stop playing video games, we need to go to shopping for new cushions!”
Me: “Just five more minutes!”
Wife: “You said that 10 minutes ago!”
Me: “OK, challo.”

Me: “We’re going to be late for the Star Wars movie, come on!”
Me: “What? Challo!”
Wife: …

2. Moonji – It’s your face, silly

moonji tamil word for face

A Tamil word and means face. For me to discover the meaning of the word, the conversation went a little something like this with my wife:

Me: “I’m telling you that the British acquired the diamond via legitimate means!”
Wife: “Aragh! Your moonji! I can’t even look at you right now!”
Me: “I’m not a moonji! You’re a moonji!”
Wife: …

Moonji is now perhaps my second favourite word and I will be naming my next cat Moonji.

3. Chuddy Buddy – Your bestest friend ever

a chuddy buddy is your best friend ever

“Chuddies” is Hindi for underwear. “Look at that kid running around the street in his chuddies, he doesn’t care about anything, I wish I could be like that again.”

Your chuddy buddy is the person you used to run around the streets in your chuddies with. You would do everything together, nothing could tear you apart. Together you were going to conquer the world.

Me: “Have you seen M?”
Colleague: “No, he went off with his chuddy buddy for a smoke.”

She: “He doesn’t pay any attention to me any more.”
She’s Friend: “Yeah, but that’s how boys are, it happens in all relationships.”
She: “But all he seems to want to do is roam around on his motorbike with his chuddy buddies.”

4. Pavam – a label applied to someone who is seen as helpless or someone you feel sorry for

pavam is to feel sorry for someone

This is a Tamil word that doesn’t seem to have an English translation. Meek comes close, but doesn’t quite sum it up. Just like you might rate a person’s qualities as aggressive, courageous or sincere, pavam can be used to describe a quality that is either thrust upon the person or something that they are just born with. The only way to define it is to describe it.

Me: “Oh look, puppies! ️”
Wife: “Eeee! So many of them! But they are all trying to feed at once, poor mama dog, she can’t move, she’s so pavam.”

Wife: “How was your day?”
Me: “Terrible, I slipped as I got down from the train.”
Wife: “Oh no, are you ok?”
Me: “Yeah, that was OK, but as I slipped, my jeans got caught on the door and ripped right off. I was sprawled on the platform floor and everyone could see my chuddies :(”
Wife: “Oh you are so pavam.”

So basically someone is said to be pavam if something unfortunate happens to them or they are particularly submissive or they are in a sticky situation that they can’t get out of.

5. Chumma – to do something simply for the sake of it

chumma to hangout or do something

This is another Tamil word doesn’t have any direct single word translation. It can mean anything from passing time (phrased as “time-pass” in India) to doing something without a particular reason for doing it.

Wife: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Reading about the 19th century Klondike gold rush.”
Wife: “Why?”
Me: “Chumma.”

Me: “How come you decided to visit the library today then?”
Wife: “Chumma, was bored sitting at home all day. I wanted to go out somewhere.”

When I first started at Unmetric in 2012, we were such a young company that we didn’t even have official ID cards yet which was a problem because security at the IT park wouldn’t allow us to enter. To get around this, the young Director of Operations designed an ID card on powerpoint for the five employees, printed it out and had it laminated.

CEO: “This is awesome, man, it looks completely professional.”
V: “Thanks, I had no problem using it at the security gate so we don’t have to queue up for security passes now.”
CEO: “Excellent. What does this bar code on the front do?”
V: “Nothing, chumma I just added it because it looks good.”

Sometimes a word in one Indian language can mean something else entirely in another and that can lead to a series of unfortunate events. In this case, chumma in Hindi means something else, as a Tamil speaking female colleague discovered to her horror while having a conversation with a Hindi speaking male colleague who was coming to Chennai.

He: “Is there anything to do in Chennai? Can we do something?”
She: “No, there isn’t much to do here, we can just chumma hangout.”
H: “You want to chumma with me when I come?”
S: “Yeah. There’s not much to do here.”
H: “Erm, I’m married!”
S: “I know.”
H: “Oh, maybe you don’t know what chumma means.”
S: “Why what does it mean in Hindi.”
H: “To kiss, you were asking to kiss me when I came to the office.”

Naturally my colleague was mortified and was, to borrow a phrase I mentioned earlier, totally pavam. Fortunately we have a very understanding HR manager who can speak both Hindi and Tamil and understood the confusion and luckily no harassment cases were filed.

6. Bachha – a young child

bachha young child

This Hindi word means young child. Imagine if you walked into a day care center, it will be full of bachhas. When there is a table tennis tournament going on in my office, some might say that the office sounds like it’s full of bachhas. You can also use the word to affectionately describe a group of people younger than you, but who are not children.

Colleague: “Sorry, Pete, you are so old that we couldn’t fit enough candles on your cake!”
Colleague 2: “Yeah, we asked them to make the cake as soft as possible so you don’t have to chew too much.”
Me: “Listen you little bachhas, I will make you work on the weekend.”

Wife: “Are you going out again to the pub this weekend?”
Me: “Yeah, of course, Man United are playing!”
Wife: “And you’re probably going to drink too much and complain about a hangover the next morning?”
Me: “Maybe.”
Wife: “Bachhas, all of you men!”

7. Kutty – the smallest thing

kutty is something very small

Kutty is the Tamil word for small. Often kutty is also used as an adjective to describe things or people deemed to be your junior. It goes a little something like this:

Wife: “How was your day at work?”
Me: “It was alright.”
Wife: “How are all your kutties?”
Me: “Yeah, they are fine.”

Or perhaps a conversation might go like this:

Colleague: “There is so much work to do, I’m never going to meet all these deadlines!”
Me: “Do you need a kutty to help you out?”
Colleague: “Yes, that would be awesome!”
Me: “OK, go to the colleges and see if you can find yourself an intern.”

8. Theek Hai Ma – Means OK when you are speaking to your Mother

theek hai ma for when you speak to your mother

I don’t know if this phrase should be added to the English language, but it certainly seems to get used an awful lot when my wife speaks to her mother. If you overhear a grown Tamil person speaking to their mother, you might hear the phrase “seri ma” in place of “theek hai ma”. How does it get used? It goes a little something like this…

Mother: “And you need to send a birthday card to your aunt in Bangalore.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “And don’t forget to wish your cousin-sister happy anniversary tomorrow.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “And your father and I will be out of town this weekend, so make sure your brother is ok.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “And you should really speak to him more, he looks up to you.”
Daughter: “Ma! Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “Listen, I want no more of this theek hai ma business!”
Daughter: “…theek hai ma.”
Mother: “Good, now remember that next week I’m coming over with your uncle and Grandparents.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “I’m going to bring roti and subji so you don’t have to cook anything but have some chai ready when we arrive.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “We’ll be there about 1pm.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “And don’t wear your jeans and an old t-shirt, wear that nice green salwar kameez you wore at Diwali.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “And wear some jewellery, you never wear any.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “I’m not asking you to wear everything, just some gold ear rings, necklace and bracelet.”
Daughter: “Theek hai ma.”
Mother: “Are you listening to me?”
Daughter: “Theek hai…yes ma.”

There are plenty of other words and phrases that I’ve borrowed over the years that have become a standard part of my vocabulary. I’m sure many of my old English friends will be utterly confused when I next talk about how a person is “putting scene” or when I start adding “it seems” after every sarcastic comment.

There are also a few words that the English language has borrowed from Indian languages that need to be unborrowed. Consider you are in an Indian restaurant. You’re going through the menu and to go with your curry you ask the waiter for some “naan bread“. Do you know what you’ve just asked for? Bread bread. Naan means bread. How about when you go to Starbucks and order yourself a lovely “chai tea“. Congratulations, you’ve just ordered tea tea! Chai means tea in Hindi. There are a few others, but perhaps I’ll save that for another blog post.

Do you have any favourite words from Indian languages that you think should be added to the English language?

The Name Is Pizza

One of my ongoing sources of torment, and virtually the only thing the sales team in my office can tease me about now that England have confirmed themselves as the number one cricketing nation in the world, is the English pronunciation of various Tamil names and phrases.

The trouble stems from the fact that English, being a sensible language, has just 26 characters in its alphabet and has approximately 42 phonemes (the way things are pronounced). Tamil, by contrast, being the 2,500 year old language that it is, has 247 characters in the alphabet and a mind boggling number of phonemes – for example they have 17 ways just to pronounce the letter ‘L’, 8 ways to pronounce the letter ‘N’ and exactly zero ways to pronounce the letter ‘W’.

All this presents a bit of a problem, particularly when trying to transliterate from a Tamil word or phrase to the English equivalent because there just aren’t enough characters or phonemes to get the pronunciation accurate. One constant source of amusement for everyone who knows me is that my office is in an area of Chennai called Valluvar Kottam. Now being the person I am and refusing to take in to account that it’s just the best spelling match you can get with such a rudimentary language like English, I read this word (as all other English speaking people would) as: val-loo-vaar cot-tam. Which isn’t even close to being right. Infact it couldn’t be more wrong. You go up to anyone in Chennai and ask how to get to val-loo-vaar cot-tam and they will look at you like you’ve just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.

My pronunciation disability can have some bizarre outcomes as with what happened this evening. I got back to my apartment after a hard day at work and the watchman (all apartments have watchmen, but that’s a story for another day) motioned for me to come and speak to him. He wanted the maintenance money which every apartment needs to pay each month, it’s 900 rupees (about 14 pounds) so I fished around in my wallet and handed him a wad of notes and the watchman pulled out a tatty old notebook and a stub of a pencil. The conversation went a little something like this…

Watchman: வாட் இஸ் யுவர் நேம? (Transliterates to: Un peru enna? and translates to: What is your name?)
Me: Peter
Watchman: Picture?
Me: நோ, Peter (Transliteration: illa, Peter. Translation: No, Peter).
Watchman: Pitza?
Me: நோ, Pee-ter (Transliteration: illa, Peter. Translation: No, Peeter).
Watchman: *confused* …Petcha?
Me: Grr, no! It’s P-E-T-E-R, Peter.
Watchman: …Pitza?
Me: *sigh*. Yes, fine, pizza.

And that is why, if you were to look in the watchman’s tatty old notebook, under August 2011 Maintenance you would find an entry that says Mr. Pitza paid 900 rupees for maintenance.

Note: If you just see silly square boxes in the conversation above, it means you have an old computer that doesn’t support the Tamil fonts.

Culture Vulturing In Chennai

One of my friends here in Chennai is a classical Tamil singer. The guy is as American as a Ford pickup truck, but he’s discovered a talent for the ancient and somewhat obscure art of warbling (which I’m reliably informed is actually singing). If you want to hear what it sounds like point your cursor over this link and press the left mouse button.

We are always being invited to hear him sing, and despite having not a single clue on what he’s singing about, people often go along to support him and attempt understand what’s going on. I’ve only been to see him sing once and I was completely confused, however when he invited us to listen to him sing on Saturday evening I decided, since I had bugger all else to do, to go along.

Now, this being India when you get given an address you should always head over to Google maps and try and ascertain exactly where the place is because in Chennai they have the most archaic address system known to man. Take my address for example. I live on 3rd Cross Street and the house number is 20. Except it’s also on 2nd Main Road and the house number is 26. To further complicate matters there are no less than four 3rd Cross Streets in my local area and this causes no end of fun when trying to get a home delivery or explain to a taxi driver where you live so he can pick you up. The zip/postal code system still eludes India. Oh. Wait. Not fun. Trauma.

In this instance we were told that the concert was being performed at a place called Spaces, #1 Elliots Beach Road. A quick lookup on Google Maps identifies the location and we were good to go.

When we arrived we looked up and down the road. There was no place called “Spaces”. We asked in a few shops. There was still no place called “Spaces”. We found a building that claimed to be #4 Elliots Beach Road, but unless our friend was performing in one of the houses next door we decided to discount it as pure conjecture. That coupled with the fact that the building was on a different road to what Google claimed to be Elliots Beach Road.

So after a bit of wandering we ended up walking down a little side street that we would never have gone down. It was packed with tiny little one room houses which doubled up as a shop front, the merchandise spilling out in to the street and selling everything from sea shells to mobile phones.

As we continued down this street we heard the sound of drums being played and suddenly the cramped lane opened out in to a big square overlooked by one of the biggest temples I’ve seen in Chennai.

Up on stage were a group of dancers playing the drums and putting on a bit of a performance. We stayed and watched by the sidelines, not meaning to stay very long when the friend I was with suddenly became mobbed by a load of Indians – she’s well over 6ft tall, female and white and hence is a giant magnet for young inquisitive Indian males 😀

Before we knew it we were chatting away to these university students from Pune (pronounced “pooh-nay” for the ignorant westerners reading my blog). It’s all the usual questions that I’ve mentioned in a previous and somewhat controversial blog post.

The thing that strikes me is just how friendly, inquisitive and innocent people are here. If this had been England, or most other western countries for that matter, and a couple of tourists rocked up to watch a cultural performance they wouldn’t get a second glance, but in India you get mobbed by people asking a million questions and wanting to know all about you, all about England, what you think of India – everything.

So we weren’t planning on sticking around but before we knew it they were making space for us, finding and offering us chairs to sit down, explaining what was going on, explaining about the dancers and singers, telling us about themselves and generally being extremely friendly.

My mum asked if we felt a little bit overwhelmed or out of our depth or concerned out our safety because you can literally be surrounded by dozens of people asking questions, wanting photos, trying to get you to go somewhere, but in Chennai I’ve never considered personal safety to be an issue, even late at night walking down deserted roads I’ve never felt unsafe, so speaking, interacting and joining with a big group of locals is perfectly ok. Even walking down the little sidestreet is fine because people will treat you with curiosity rather than any malice. It might be different in other parts of India, but definitely not in Chennai.

Back to the show…just like in Ooty, we quickly became a bigger attraction than the show itself as more people gathered round.

What was happening was that this show was a kind of internal, inter-state cultural exchange, designed to get people to understand more about other states’ cultures…err, through the medium of dance. They were all young people showcasing singing and dancing from the state they were from.

It actually turned out to be a really good show, and it just typifies India in that we were made to feel very welcome and everyone is so interested in you and were all so keen to tell us what’s going on. It’s just not something you’d ever find in the west.

It also sums up a lot about India that’s very hard to put your finger on, but it’s something along the lines of “things always tend to work out in the end”. We had originalyl gone to see our friend sing, we got stumped by TII (this is India) but ended up landing on our feet by having a great evening and chatting to loads of people. It’s difficult to put in to words just how differently guests are treated

Once the show finished, they even took my friend in to the massive temple that was next door to show her around. They even wanted us to join them for dinner but we were being picked up by another friend so had to say our goodbyes, however, not before all the photos were taken and they even asked us to give them our signature and write a little bit about India! No idea where they got the pen and paper from but once we had finished it was passed around so everyone could read it.

This is what I wrote…

India has a wonderfully diverse culture with some of the most friendly, welcoming and accommodating people in the world. It’s well known for the incredible food and the passion that people have for it. India is like no where else on Earth which is why so many tourists come to experience it. Jai Ho!

Haha, they loved the “Jai Ho” bit!

And now for some photos…

The sun sets over my apartment on 13th February

The sun sets over my apartment on 13th February

These guys were from Uttar Pradesh (I think)

These guys were from Uttar Pradesh (I think)

They were pretty energetic dancing around the stage

They were pretty energetic dancing around the stage

Wonder what the Health & Safety Executive would have to say about this!

Wonder what the Health & Safety Executive would have to say about this!

Massive temple right on the beach

Massive temple right on the beach

My friend was mobbed by people from Pune

My friend was mobbed by people from Pune

Soon more people came over and took photos

Soon more people came over and took photos

Even I couldn't escape as they lined up to have their photo taken with me

Even I couldn't escape as they lined up to have their photo taken with me

These people were from Kerala and the girl had an incredible voice!

These people were from Kerala and the girl had an incredible voice!

...She was also quite pretty :)

...She was also quite pretty 🙂

These guys were from...India. It was basically like Morris dancing with bells and sticks

These guys were from...India. It was basically like Morris dancing with bells and sticks

This girl from Pune did a very sensual dance - lots of wiggling!

This girl from Pune did a very sensual dance - lots of wiggling!

Another guy asks my friend for her "good name"
We were quite the tourist attraction!

We were quite the tourist attraction!

These guys...not too sure what they were doing!

These guys...not too sure what they were doing!

Huge crowds of people were there

Huge crowds of people were there

My new friend from North East India working in a shop here in Chennai

My new friend from North East India working in a shop here in Chennai