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A Spicy Mixture of English and Hindi

I've heard people use the word "hodgepodge" to describe the crazy blend of Hindi and English heard on the streets of New Delhi and Bombay, in Bollywood movies, and around Indian dinner tables. It's been called a jumble, a mess, a corruption of English or Hindi or both. Linguists have a technical term: code switching. But my favorite word for it is "khichari," a term that usually refers to an Indian dish of rice mixed with lentils. "Khichari," unlike "code switching," captures the disorganized spice of Indian English.

For the past three weeks, I've been collecting examples of English/Hindi khichari, listening to snippets of conversation on streetcorners, taking notes from Indian television advertisements, collecting newspaper headlines.

An advertisement for flooring says it's beautifully mazboot (beautifully durable). 

A girl asks one of my students, "Aap kaunsi university ki hai?" (What university are you from?).

In the middle of a string of Hindi that I can't follow on the evening news, emerges the intriguing English phrase "Women Help Desk."

Small shop and business signs are my favorite things to photograph in India. Few places I've been in the world have as wonderful a collection of them, or as interesting a linguistic variety. There are signs in English. There are signs in Hindi. There are signs in English with Hindi words inserted and vice versa. Some have Hindi words written in English script; others have English words written in Hindi script. And I'm not even getting into signs in other Indian languages. (For some pictures, see my blog at writingasasacredpath.blogspot.com).

Indian English literary writing is full of Hindi. In The Immortals, Amit Chaudhuri writes of a woman chasing a rat from a house with a jhadu, of bamboo chiks keeping out the light, of "talk about ragas and ustads and shrutis." Aravind Aidiga laces his novel White Tiger with talk of charpoys (string cots) sadhus (itinerant holy men) and pucca (proper) servants. "Amazing mix, the English we speak," says Agastya Sen, the protagonist of the novel English, August. "I'm sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease." 

That ease is evident everywhere: As I listened to the vice president of Delhi University address a large international crowd recently, he suddenly flowed into Hindi, a language a minority of the audience understood, before returning to English a few moments later. My guess is, he didn't even realize he was doing it.  

Of course, Indians aren't the only ones who blend languages. It's done all over the world--always has been, always will. Go to North Africa to hear Arabic mixed with French. Visit Singapore to hear English with Malaysian and Mandarin. Walk down the streets of many U. S. cities, and you are likely to hear Spanglish--that charming jumble of Spanish and English that Pablo Neruda labeled "an abomination." Perhaps someone said the same thing when French flooded English with vocabulary in the 11th century, helping to create the language I'm writing in at this moment.

Unlike Neruda, I love khichari. I enjoy the 24-hour English-language news broadcasts full of words like goonda and lakh, dacoit and haveli. I laughed out loud at the headline about a well-known movie director in the English-language Jaipur Times: "Direction is a tedhi ghodi pe chadnes wala sawaal" (the Hindi phrase is one I can't even begin to translate). And then there is one of my all-time favorite examples: a long, printed bulletin for an erectile dysfunction clinic written entirely in Hindi with a single word printed in English all-caps: SEX.

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I remember my parents and teachers

telling me that it's okay to mix languages at the sentential level, that is, as long as I finish a sentence using only one language but, it was so much more expressive to mix the words freely when speaking with other multilinguals. Code switching phenomenon is referred to as champon, in Japanese. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champon

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Thanks for teaching me a new

Thanks for teaching me a new Japanese word, Kim!