Posts Tagged linguistic profiling

How do you say “Please” in ‘Indian’?

One of my pet theories (and there are many, though this one is teacher’s pet!) is that there is really nothing truly pan-Indian. Paradoxically, when speaking of India or Indians you often need to make pan-Indian generalizations, take recourse to stereotypes. Because it’s easier to speak of stereotypes than of vast, individual differences, isn’t it?  Allow me to elaborate.

One of my favourite urban legends,  among the many in circulation at the Department where I teach,  is this one:  A colleague teaching a text by an Indian English writer was trying to explain to her class that one of the characters in the text was based on the mythological figure Sita. One of her students, a young woman from one of India’s North-Eastern states, stood up and asked, “Excuse me Ma’am, but who is Sita?”

Point made? No? Then stop reading!

Stereotype – this word can be a terrible stone to cast if your target is someone’s view, or idea, or a character or an image in a book or a film.  The etymology of the word, interestingly, is in  printing technology – a duplicate impression of an original typographical  element, used for printing instead of the original. (Courtesy – OED.) No wonder stereotypes have negative connotations as something unreal – an impression or imitation.

All right, there’s  a point to this rant and I shall make it forthwith.

Idly googling the other day,  I came across an interesting observation on a blog by the CEO of a travel  website and forum. Speaking of prevailing stereotypes about the Indian tourist, he says:

 Many foreigners have pointed out to me that Indians never say ‘please’ and are therefore impolite. Now, here is my question to you. What is the word for ‘please’ in an Indian language? Yup, that is right By and large, there is no word for ‘please’ in most Indian languages. But as we all know, that hasn’t stopped (sic) from being polite. We use intonation, body language and a hundred other markers to ensure that others know that we are being polite. The problem is, most foreigners cannot get all of those markers. They look out for the marker they are familiar with, which is the word ‘please’ and its equivalents. And when that is absent, wrongly assume we are rude. I suspect there are many other instances of this, leading to our stereotype.

(The original context here.)

He seems to be saying two things:

  • Indians do not know/use the word “please”.
  • Indian languages do not have the word “please”.

With the implication that the first is because of the second. 

Let me dispense with the second contention first. Perhaps the blogger has never paid attention to the mechanical, recorded voice one hears in lifts, railway stations, and traffic signals, which belts out instructions/information in the local language.  The instruction usually begins with the request “please pay attention.” And that word “please” is Kripaya in Hindi,  dayachesi in my own tongue, Telugu, dayawayi in Malayalam, doya kore in Bengali … Here’s a site that tells you how to say “please” in a hundred different languages of the world, including many Indian languages.

Of course the word exists in all our Indian languages. And of course we use it whenever we want to! “Please”, when used to make a request, is an interjection in English whereas in Indian languages, and indeed in many languages of the world,  it is usually a verb in inflected form or a phrase consisting of a noun and an inflected verb. But this is knowledge only a linguist or a grammar nerd would have, or be interested in! For speakers, it is a word that means “please.”

So how valid is the assertion that “please” does not exist in Indian languages? Just because it is a verb or a phrase in these languages, but an interjection in English? The French say “S’il vous plait”. Does it then follow that the French do not have a word for “please”? C’est absurde!!

And now to the other assertion.  I seriously doubt that the reason for Indian tourists’ perceived rudeness is the lack of the word “please” in their  collective lexicon.

Politeness is a cultural marker. It is perceived and expressed differently in different cultures. And linguistic expression is just one of the means by which politeness is conveyed. (The blogger also rightly points out that there are many other markers of politeness that Indians use.)

The point is that these other markers could denote rudeness even if you sprinkled your speech liberally with “please”. For instance, a Japanese speaker might use “please” appropriately, but American listeners could still perceive them as rude because of the pitch of the voice. In Japan, it is considered rude and unfriendly to speak in a low pitch. Quite the reverse is true in the Anglo-American world. (I owe this insight to the Language Log folks.) In English itself, “Please come here!” when said with gritted teeth  and in a low, menacing tone (specially by a teacher!) could very well be a threat rather than a request.

Therefore the connection between the use of “please” and the perception of rudeness is tenuous at best and laughable at worst. But there’s a bigger problem with this claim. It’s just the kind of pan-Indian, stereotypical generalization referred to earlier in this post.  Who is this tourist the blogger is speaking about? Is there one, homogeneous class of English-speaking Indians you can describe as not using “please”?  

Although we count as an English-speaking nation, English is spoken very differently across the country, across classes and across linguistic communities. The English-educated (and Westernized) classes speak it quite differently from those educated in the vernacular medium (for whom English is just a “subject” in school or college).  Or from those who never formally learn English, but pick it up, at least essential words and phrases, out of sheer necessity. And to add to this medley, the teaching of English in India is a very formal, bookish process, steeped in literary, written language, largely British, rather than current, spoken usage. 

How would someone untutored formally in English, or tutored only in the formal, written variety, know enough of the nuances  of spoken English to be able to say “May I please look at your menu /price-list?”  Learning a language in the constricted environment of the classroom is no guarantee that you can use it appropriately in speech.

 In fact,  in school Wren and Martin taught us that “please” is used with requests, in very formal situations – formal, official letters, formal written prose, formal public speech, or when speaking to higher-ups. Tourists would definitely view themselves as being in an informal, ‘fun’ setting. 

The point is, (not) using “please” is a consequence of the kind of exposure to English one has had, and the way English is used and taught in India. Not politeness, or translation breakdowns between English and Indian languages, or the lack of that word in Indian languages. (Thanks to Prasanth, of the daily pheesh, for the brief chat on this.) 

The quintessential Indian tourist who doesn’t use “please” is a cultural and linguistic stereotype that may be convenient but has no basis in fact. 

And to hammer it in, here’s Dilbert making my point more effectively and succinctly. (HT: Language Log)

(This is an unusually long post, I know. Well, it was written on the longest day of the year, 21 June!)

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