The Empire Talks Back: How English Dominated but was also Dominated by its Imperial Globalisms

The Empire Talks Back: How English Dominated but was also
Dominated by its Imperial Globalisms

By Andrew Harding

People often say that these days English is a global language. This is probably true in that it has become a second language, spoken in a broad range of colourful accents, for many all across the world. ‘Singlish’ and ‘Manglish’ are good examples.
What is not so often noticed, however, that in its career across the world, English has acquired a richness of vocabulary that is in no way due to its European and North Atlantic origins. (I say North Atlantic because I am constantly surprised when my dictionary of etymology indicates words having Old Icelandic or similar Nordic origins.)
It is fascinating to explore this rich etymology, and you can browse through it very easily online at But my most valued book, purchased one grey afternoon in a Greenwich bookshop for one pound, is my Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary. In 1021 pages its authors Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell set out magnificently and comprehensively all the words that English had acquired from its imperial, or at least global, experience by 1886 when the book was first published. Yule refers to the book as a ‘portly double-columned edifice’. This is not by any means an exaggeration.
What is really of interest is the fact that although the subtitle suggests it deals with Anglo-Indian vocabulary, in fact the words listed are taken from many languages, including ones whose speakers were never under British rule. In these cases clearly commerce was the main driver of linguistic enrichment. Many words indicate the likelihood of a commercial explanation, for example ‘calico’ (from Calicut), ‘chintz’ (from Sanskrit but related to our modern word ‘sheet’), and ‘gingham’ (probably also Indian), which must have been acquired from the ubiquitous trade in textiles, and long before British imperialism arrived on the subcontinent. While these are clearly related to Indian trade, many words in the book are not. Examples are ‘koban’ (a Japanese gold coin), ‘nankeen’ (another textile, from Nanjing in China), and ‘rook’ (the chess piece, taken from Persian via Spanish). The explanation of each word provides you with a wonderful slice of history, not just linguistic history. The term ‘pigeon English’ (and much of its vocabulary), for example, is apparently derived from the word ‘business’ as mangled by Chinese traders in their dealings with the British. It was described by one military man as ‘grotesque gibberish’. The more perceptive author of The Golden Chersonese, the Malayan traveller Isabella Bird, marvelled ‘how the whole English-speaking community, without distinction of rank, has come to communicate with the Chinese in this baby talk’. ‘Pigeon’ was of course later, in line with pigeon itself, called ‘pidgin’.
Let me illustrate how this all worked by explaining the title Hobson-Jobson itself, which takes up two and half columns of the book. The Indian Muslims celebrated the Moharram procession with cries of ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!’, referring to two famous Imams. British soldiers hearing this, as they did with many words, transliterated it into a pattern more familiar to their ears. Hence ‘Ya Hasan, Ya Hosain’ became, via such mutilations as Hoseen Gossen and Jakson Baksom, … Hobson-Jobson. ‘Juggernaut’ follows a slightly similar pattern. ‘Jagganatha’ (Lord of the Universe) is a name of Krishna, and the British saw how the idol of the God was transported on a gigantic cart at festival time. ‘Juggernaut’ it became in English transliteration, and now it means anything that is larger than it should be, and also somewhat unwieldy or uncontrollable. Another example is our modern word ‘shampoo’. You have probably never considered where this comes from, and the answer is surprising. In Hindi ‘champo’ was the imperative of a word for kneading or massaging the body, especially the arms and shoulders. It was normally carried out by Chinese. The relationship between cutting and washing the hair, and then kneading the shoulders, will be familiar, I expect, to those who have had a haircut anywhere east of Tel-Aviv. Actually ‘kneading’ is usually an understatement. By one of those odd processes of linguistic infection ‘shampoo’ now means the soap that is used in the related exercise of washing the hair.
Some words have a fairly obvious meaning and derivation, for example ‘pariah’ (low caste Indian), ‘kowtow’ (Chinese) and ‘gong’ (Malay) have found their way into modern English. Similarly the Spanish ‘cucaracha’ gives us by transliteration the ‘cockroach’, the Hindi ‘khichri’ ‘kedgeree’, and the Italian ‘balcone’ ‘balcony’. Others words are much less clear. When you say someone is ‘running amuck’ you are using a Malay word, ‘amok’, used of a man who goes crazy and lashes out, killing or wounding all around him before committing suicide. This was supposedly a cultural trait of much-enraged Malays, although I do not recall any instance in recent decades.
Of course some words moved and were adapted in the opposite direction. The English ‘compass’ becomes ‘kumpass’ in India, describing any instrument such as a theodolite, used for measuring or observing. Even now in Singapore one is asked sometimes, when offering a note, for ‘any shilling?’, or in other words convenient small change. ‘Rasid’ in Hindi means a receipt.
The interplay of languages in commercial and administrative settings produces some extraordinary cultural products. Words entered English often in corrupted forms, and many still survive: ‘pukka’, from Hindi, meaning authentic or approved; ‘dinghy’ from the Bengali ‘dengi’. Some are quite funny when transliterated. For example in Hindi usage ‘petersilly’ was parsley (actually from the Dutch ‘petersilie’); and ‘pootly nautch’, a wooden puppet dance, in English was from the Hindi ‘putli nach’.
The English clearly had a tendency to transliterate in a way that reflected the ease with which they could remember the word rather than accuracy of its pronunciation. Indeed they may well have deliberately mispronounced the original word in order to lower the status of the language in question or their obligation to attend to its detail. Thus ‘mulligatawny’ is ‘milagu tannir’ in Tamil; in South India a ‘snow’ rupee is ‘tsanauvu’ (official currency) in Telegu – very odd as snow occurs only in the North. ‘Pattani’ or ‘patni’ in Hindi/ Bengali became ‘putney’ in English, meaning settled or agreed goods now under contract. Place names were also good candidates: ‘Rishihr’ became ‘Reshire’ (almost ‘Cheshire’); Lahori Bandar became ‘Larry Bunder’. Very clearly here the English were unlikely to forget a word the same as that of a London borough or similar to an English county or personal name. Similarly a ‘rum-johnny’ was a ‘ramjani’ or wharf-worker; ‘sastra’, religious writing in Hinduism, became ‘shaster’; a Turkish ‘padishah’ was a ‘padshaw’; and even the Rajah came out in tommy-speak as ‘the Roger’. I wonder if when we played ‘conkers’ with hardened horse chestnuts as English kids, we were actually perpetuating the life of a Hindi word for a small nugget of stone (‘kunkur’ – the point was to harden your chestnut in the fire without burning it), not trying to ‘conquer’ our opponent? Paul Scott captured this well in his The Jewel in the Crown trilogy: his unfortunate hero Hari Kumar, caught between two cultures and wrongly accused of rape, attended an English public school, where his bullying classmates mangled his name into ‘Harry Coomer’.
There are of courses cases where the English term was actually a translation of the original; for example the hibiscus was called the ‘shoe-flower’, translated from the Tamil ‘shapattupu’ - its petals were indeed used to clean shoes. ‘Squeeze’ in pidgin English meant to extort money; this is probably a literal translation from the Chinese equivalent.
What one notices here is how many words that entered English relate to trade, and services supplied to the English, such as food, means of travel, minor military and household tasks, and so on. Words relating to boats are often from Malay because the Malays were more seagoing and lent their words – ‘prow/ prahu’, and ‘sampan’, for example – to the subcontinent. Food and drink would often have no English equivalent, as with mulligatawny, and so we find ‘ketchup/ kecap’ (Malay), ‘tiffin’ (meaning lunch, but its origin is disputed – possibly from Chinese ‘ch’ih fan’, meaning to take rice) and ‘soy’ (Chinese). ‘Teapoy’, probably from Hindi, is a word I often use myself for a small tea table (originally a tripod table); but let’s not get into the enormous number of words relating to ‘tea’, a particular preoccupation of the English, the word itself having various possible routes of absorption, accompanied by many related ones such as ‘char-wallah’, and ‘tea-caddy’. Interestingly, the word ‘sugar’ seems to be virtually identical in an enormous range of languages, including Arabic, Sanskrit, Russian, Latin, and all European languages - even Hungarian, which is not in origin a European language.
Of course many of these words were peculiar to the time and circumstances of the Raj and have not survived that society long since gone (I did encounter in India hotel toilets labelled ‘Milord’ and ‘Milady’, but I think that was a design statement). But many also did survive and have taken on new life in modern English, often in secondary or ironical meanings. ‘Tycoon’, for example, was used to describe a Japanese shogun in honorific terms (‘taikun’); the same trend of thought can be seen in the use of ‘mogul’ (Mughal), ‘mandarin’ (Chinese), ‘satrap’ (Persian), ‘pasha’ (Turkish), and ‘czar’ (Russian), which have largely replaced ‘baron’ (now restricted it seems to press barons) to describe over-powerful executives or officials. Lord Paddy Ashdown was referred to as ‘the Tunku’ (Malay prince), having fought in Borneo in the 1960s. Not all denote high status. ‘Peon’ was Mexican for a lowly agricultural worker; ‘cooly’ is Hindi for a hired labourer; ‘walla’ in Hindi was simply a servant; all are in modern usage, in fact a ‘walla’ is just a ‘dude’ these days. ‘Mandarin’ has been securely appropriated, the irony almost evanescent, to describe Whitehall’s powerful civil servants such as permanent secretaries (oddly, it is not used of their American equivalents), whereas ‘tycoon’ is only, but regularly, applied to the corporate sector. ‘Pundit’ (Hindi) now refers to a media-anointed expert rather than the original law-officer.
At the same time many words have simply been folded into English by a natural process. Do we these days ever reflect that ‘satsuma’ is Japanese, ‘kiosk’ is Turkish, ‘tariff’ is Arabic, ‘punch’ (the drink) is Hindi, and ‘caravan’ is Persian? But what about the words that could have usefully been kept but were not? Is it not economical to refer to ‘five lacks’ (Hindi) rather than ‘five-hundred-thousand’ or ‘half-a-million’? What about ‘the Hoppo’ (Chinese) instead ‘Her Majesty’s Collector of Customs and Excise’? Or ‘lalla’ (child’s male nurse, or bearer, in Persian) (how metropolitan could that be in the era of third parentage?) It is not too late to preserve these words.
Meanings obviously change too as words get transferred. ‘Monsoon’ is derived from ‘mausim’ in Arabic, a word denoting simply a season, not a season of rain, derived from and caused by the wind in a particular direction at a certain time of year. A ‘linguist’ was an interpreter.
We think of language as defining our ethnicity, our status, or our education. In fact languages are not sealed linguistic compartments but highly absorbent organisms. English is a signal example of how language reflects deeply history, human experience, and cultural interaction. Long may it continue to develop along these lines, even it does not remain ‘pukka’ as spoken by the ‘memsahib’. Anyway - au revoir, ciao ciao, sayonara, or auf wiedersehn, as the case may be!


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