In correct, corseted English, the word ‘prepone’ does not exist. It is a word coined by Indians who are in such a rush to “move to an earlier time than was originally planned” that they cannot waste words. But as of this week, you can go ahead and officially prepone that meeting/vacation/wedding and be correct.
The eighth edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) is here and India power has pushed into the English lexicon a number of desi usages that your English teacher would have run a red pen through.
“Indian English is a big influence on the evolution of the language. Of the 2 billion words that form the Oxford English corpus, 2 per cent is contributed by Indian usage. That is a large number if you consider that a whole lot of nations from South Africa to New Zealand affect the usage of English,” says Alison Waters, publishing manager, ELT Dictionaries Department of Oxford University Press, UK.
The OALD is a dictionary aimed at people for whom English is a second language or who are not strong with the language. The words listed here and in the main Oxford dictionary are more or less the same. What differs is how the word is explained to the dictionary user.
When the sun had not set on the Raj, Indian English speakers had no choice but to toe the line set by the classicists. Queen’s English, points out Waters, was an ‘aspirational’ thing. The fact was that 60 per cent of English speakers do not use it.
Imperialism is way behind us now, the Indian diaspora is too huge to be sidelined, and it is perfectly okay to claim unabashedly in bad English, ‘We are like that only’. It was only a matter of time before the linguistic establishment reacted to the change.
Sociolinguist Anvita Abbi points out that Indians play jugaad with language as they do in every other sphere of life. What starts off as a matter of convenience becomes so popular that it has to find its way into the official lexicon. “Well, now we are making our own rules in English. We all understand that that ‘pone’ means nothing and that the prefix post has a definite meaning. So we coin a new word that is coined in the same pattern of the existing morphology. There is no violation of rules here really,” she explains.
‘Encounters’, for instance, are hardly ever as deadly in other English-speaking nations as they are in India. Here they clearly mean a shootout orchestrated by the police and has easily become such an integral part of the English lexicon that it is beyond the reach of a purist’s disapproval. OALD has included this interesting variant usage of the word in the new edition.
The common Indian use of the verb ‘revert’ too has the OALD stamp now. Indians use it mostly to refer to response to a communication rather than its conventional meaning (‘go back to a previous state’). The dictionary also points out that in India a ‘mishap’ could mean a really serious accident and not just a trivial one as in the western usage of the word.
The seventh edition of the OALD ratified a revolutionary number of Indianisms as official English. The eighth edition further expands the pool. Digital technology, politics, economics have all contributed to foreign words and uses creeping into the language.
But there is so far and no further even OALD would go. “This is a big debate but the dictionary still has to reflect what the ideal pattern should be. English does not have an Academie Francaise to set rules but we can set out some norms and then point out that these are common mistakes users make,” says Waters.
It takes more than just a chance encounter with a word for a lexicographer to start taking it seriously enough. If it has to get into the dictionary it has to be reflected widely enough in the society. OALD, for instance, looks for at least 100 citations before it welcomes a non-English word in. This means keeping a sharp lookout for words that appear too frequently to be dismissed.
Lexicographers go beyond just newspapers and books to find this affirmation: menu cards, courtroom minutes, council meeting reports, business communications, and now blogs and websites too are sources of information.
But words and their uses, like political circumstances, are ephemeral, says Waters. Words such as ‘telegram’, ‘cold war’, ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ which were widely used in their times are no longer current and get edged out of dictionaries after a period of struggle. Ironically, ‘fakir’ are back in the dictionary, even if they are a dwindling community.
It is, of course, a sign of the times we live in that ‘niqab’, ‘sawm’ and ‘kirpan’ have found their way into the OALD.