How India Influenced the English Language

How India Influenced the English Language


Since the age of colonialism, the English language has traveled to many countries across the globe, adopting countless linguistic and cultural traits along the way. But it’s Britain’s presence in India that gave the English lexicon a surprising boost as colonial travelers witnessed new civilizations and cultural practices that were simply unheard of in Britain at the time.

Britain’s relationship with India goes back as far as the early 17th century when the East India Company (EIC), an English and later British joint-stock company, made its first voyage to India in 1601 to trade in the East Indies. After trading with mainly Qing China, the EIC later seized control of large companies within the Indian subcontinent from 1757 until 1858 where rule was then passed to the Crown until India’s independence in 1947.

With such a prolonged presence in the region, it’s no wonder India adopted English as its official language post-independence, while at the same time, making a direct impact on the English language. India has a vast amount of languages, including 22 official languages, 122 major and around 1599 recorded languages and dialects, according to the 2001 Census of India.

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Language assimilation often occurs when two cultures are exposed to each other over a long period of time – words from one culture are subsequently assimilated into another. This could be in the form of words completely being absorbed into another culture’s language or words being altered to fit the linguistic limitations of the recipient language.

Disrupting English

India’s influence has seen words from Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and Tamil all make their way into the English Language once the EIC arrived in India and traded with local and surrounding territories.

It’s been said that the way India has influenced English is akin to the internet’s impact on languages across the globe. Words such as ’email’, ‘WiFi’ and ‘selfie’ have become universal with its origins in Western, English-speaking countries – you’ll be hard pressed to find any other words for them in another language. As a result, these words have managed to penetrate other languages due to the global use of the internet.

The word ‘shampoo’, derived from the Hindi word chāmpo meaning ‘massage into the head/hair’, dates back to 1762, where Indian natives historically used extracts from a variety of herbs and dried berries to clean their hair. The word can also be traced back to the Sanskrit root chapayati, which means ‘to press, knead, soothe’.

Words synonymous with criminality such as ‘mugger’ and ‘thug’ have its roots firmly in the Indian subcontinent. You wouldn’t associate a street robber with a crocodile, but ‘mugger’, the Hindi word for crocodile, relates to the aquatic reptiles master of ambush.

Similarly, the word ‘thug’ was used by Indian natives to describe organized robbers or assassins who were infamously known for their skill and stealth.

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As the EIC gained a territorial foothold over mainland India, words describing unique clothing and other paraphernalia traveled to England as natives regularly travelled to and from India.

Cashmere is commonly known as a luxurious wool in the West but has its origins from the Kashmir region where the wool is produced by Kashmir goats. It’s also synonymous with the words ‘shawl’, originally from Persian before making its way to India via Urdu and Hindi, and ‘patchouli’ which both enter the English language in the 18th and 19th-century.

embroidered cashmere shawls stacked on a shelf

Lush embroidered cashmere shawls from India became the new ‘must-have’ luxury item for women of the English and French elite by the 18th century.

As employees of the East India Company ventured to and from India and England, embroidered shawls became the new luxury import desired by women back in England as their husbands or brothers would bring them back as gifts. Shawls were often lightly covered with patchouli oil to deter moths which later resulted in the popularity of the heavy scented perfume in England.

Although rivaling trading posts were established by the English, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Denmark-Norway, Britain firmly established its rule over modern-day India by the mid-19th-century which gave way to some peculiar words (and subsequently cultural practices) penetrating the English language.

For example, ‘pajamas’, is derived from the Hindi word paijamap, meaning ‘leg garment’ – the loose cotton or silk trousers worn by Indian men and women. By 1854, visitors to British India advised Europeans to wear pajamas during afternoon naps. It wasn’t until 1870 when pajamas swiftly replaced the traditional nightdress for male sleeping attire in England and Europe.

‘Veranda’ and ‘bungalow’ are both unique to India and its climate. While common in India, especially with British and Portuguese settlers, these structures would never have been practical in Britain’s cold climates. However, these Indian structural concepts were adopted in Britain as London began to expand throughout the 19th century.

Non-direct Indian influences

Although the East India Company first made contact with the Indian subcontinent in the early 17th Century, India was still a huge hub for trade and commerce before Britain made first contact with Indian natives. So much so that the Indo-Greek trade and business relationships between India and Portugal had promoted the use of Indian words in other European languages.

‘Pepper’, ‘indigo’ and ‘ginger’ were first used in Latin and Greek before entering into English vocabulary. Ginger can be traced back to Malayalam where the Greeks imported the plant. From there, it would travel across the Caribbean and to Africa – providing a global presence for the word as early as the 15th century.

Raw Ginger and its powdered form

Ginger, originated in the tropical rainforests of the Indian subcontinent, was imported into Europe where English travelers first discovered the plant.

‘Mango’, commonly known as ‘amm’ in Hindi, also followed the same route. While Malayalam and Tamil languages used the word ‘mangai’, it entered into Portuguese as ‘manga’, where the British later added the word ‘mango’ into English.

The Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary describes the rather peculiar journey of the word ‘chilli’. Defined as a popular “Anglo-Indian name of the pod of red pepper”, authors Yule and Burnell note that “There is little doubt that the name was taken from Chile in South America, whence the plant was carried to the Indian archipelago and thence to India.”

It’s fair to say that India’s influence on British culture and the English language goes far beyond the culinary likes of curry and Indian fast food restaurants. After all, India’s only been free from British rule since 1947 and English is still one of India’s official languages. But what’s really intriguing is how the influence from East to West has now changed direction.

Whether it’s in higher education, in the media or at government level, English is now still a core part of Indian society and is used as a link-language between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages – as well as India’s upper crust elite.

Hinglish, a hybrid of both English and Hindi, is quite common in advertising and its popularity as a general way of speaking demonstrates individuals as modern, yet locally grounded.

Research suggests that while Hinglish won’t necessarily replace Hindi and English in India, more people are fluent in Hinglish than they are in English. Only time will tell how this byproduct of British rule will continue to affect Indian culture in the future.

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