Butler English

A few days ago I was on the phone with my friend discussing some TV stuff. We were talking about an episode of 'Fresh Prince of Bell Air' in which Geoffrey reveals his "marathon history." Geoffrey, like most butlers in American television (no, not the Mexican ones), is quite sarcastic and pompous yet quite polished in his language. I asked him then, how come 'Butler English' in India has a 'not so good' repuation - one that connotes imperfection? A quick Google search took me to this article.

A Babu tries to impress his British master with his command of the English language and to him, how he conveys his message is more important than what he says. The emphasis is on verbosity rather than the content, the characteristic feature of Babu English being its stylistic ornamentation. Here is an example: "The extreme stimulus of professional and friendly solicitations has led me to the journey of accomplished advantages to proceed elucidatory and critical comments: wherein no brisking has been thrown apart to introduce prima facie and useful matters to facilitate literary pursuits . If the aimed point be embraced favourably by the public, all in all grateful acknowledgement will ride on the jumping border from the very bottom of my heart"
The example also reminded me of this article. I think a lot of Indian bloggers, escpecially the "senior" ones are no less than a Babu. They simply can't get out of the 'I memorized all the word lists in Barron's' mode. There's also a lot of double standards because some are actually good at hiding their pomposity (being consistently bombastic is a virtue). They are so good that they'll even mock other Babus for being a Babu. There's also a tacit agreement (ok, unspoken) among the 'good Babus' to not pull one other. It's amazing how the 'colonial culture' reinvents itself in various forms for various reasons by various people (Sonia Gandhi and her minions not being the least of them). Anyway, the article got me bursting out with laugther again,

The British masters were amused by Butler English as it had its own charm. They were sometimes annoyed when a Butler's English was faultless. For example, Ellis in George Orwell's "Burmese Days" is in conversation with his butler.

Ellis: "How much ice you got left?"

Butler: "Bout twenty pounds, master. Will only last today, I think. I find it very difficult to keep ice cool now."

Ellis: "Don't talk like that, damin you — I find it very difficult! Have you swallowed a dictionary?' Please, master can't keep ice cool! That's how you ought to talk, we shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well.

PS. Crib means 'to whine/complain' only in India (ref 1, ref 2). This is probably the only entry that saves the face of millions of Indians who "crib" about things everyday (and mind you, it's bloody archaic).


Anonymous said...

hey thanks for linking the GRE article. I remember reading it once but lost the page

Badri said...

Wow! I never would have suspected that "crib" does not mean "complain" in common usage. What prompted you to look it up? Thanks anyway.

Suresh said...

Indians back home use it all the time (especially the northies in Bangalore). You know how long I used to watch TV everyday. And I had never come across anyone using the word in BBC, CNN, Star World, Z-English, all the movies, so I had to check it up. When I tried to check I realized there was practically no entry that made sense in the context of 'complaining'. If you notice even that m-w entry doesn't exist anymore. It's from google's cache. :p

The Individualist said...

What if someone said that since the primary purpose of language is to communicate, as long as the other person understands 'crib' to mean 'bemoan/lament', nobody should have a problem with its dictionary meaning. And what if, for all we know, the word gets included in the dictionary owing to its popular usage? Like well, "blogs" and similar words - ?
What if someone argued from that standpoint?

Suresh said...

Sure, some actually have. As you might have guessed, I have confronted (if I can call it that) a lot of people in my work places. To my help I know they wouldn't be able to find any entry (unless they tried really hard) in the internet or modern dictionaries (yeah, contrary to what you say the word was included in most 'old' dictionaries). So they had to surrender.
But coming to your question (about the nature of using uncommon words), I didn't say ‘crib(v)’ is wrong. I've just tried to make it embarrassing for those who use it profusely. Especially outside India and expect the 'white folk' to understand what they are saying. And if they use the "language is to communicate argument", there cannot be a discussion on this topic anymore. Then bad grammar, bad punctuation, bad spelling, bad usage, everything has to be accepted. ‘Crib’ may not be the best example here because it’s a word that had a genuine history.
The word might be included in a dictionary, but dictionary's purpose is not only to legitimize a word's usage (as popularly thought) but to provide meaning for words in public discourse. It’s the usual “do the crime so well that it has to be legalized” theory in criminology (with prostitution, marijuana etc). Of course, I’m not expressing my personal views on either of the issues.
Nigger, Fuck, Faggot and lot of such words are now present in almost all modern dictionaries. But they don't legitimize the word's usage, do they? Needless to say, people do understand what you mean when you use these words (apart from the loaded offence). These words enjoy extreme freedom in idiolect. Nonetheless, there's also a perceived limitation within which the words are used. If you remember the exchange I and Arunima had in the other thread, it's not necessarily about "right" or "wrong" because these are largely built on fluid structures (or rules, if I may). But you try to establish a consensus that furthers the development of desirable forms of expression. ‘Crib’ as a verb, especially when it has a stronger and different meaning, used by most Indians is inconsistent with the rest of the world. I think the users should at least know that much. Beyond that, it's up to them to decide if they want to stop it or not.

The Individualist said...

*is disappointed at the topic having to end when the 'language is to communicate' argument is presented.
But yeah, fair enough. What is irritating is that people use that argument only in some cases while in most, they'd vouch for the contradictory.
Of course, it is difficult to prove such hypocrisy and to make some sense out of it.
*is also surprised that dictionaries can alter/remove the meaning of a word and wonders about its implications if many words follow suit as per the publisher's whims.

Suresh said...


haha the argument doesn't have to be ended there. You can obviously extend it further. I thought you remembered what I had said about this earlier in a different discussion we had,
There's no experience without meaning, there's no meaning without language (however primitive it is). So language is not just language, language is the source for your thought process that comprehends what you experience. The commonality of language is what let's that comprehension be transferred.
Needless to say, poems, slogans, witticisms are all expressions of language that evoke several emotions beyond "communicating" a message. 'That' crowd can be humbled easily.

About dictionaries: It's a huge business. If there were no new additions every other dictionary would be reprinting the same stuff and no ones going to buy new ones. Of course, they are extremely careful about what they add. Dictionaries stand a high risk of getting sued if they publish erroneous definitions. So, all new entries are reviewed by several English scholars in various universities before they go on print.

The Individualist said...

"There's no experience without meaning, there's no meaning without language-"
I had wanted to ask you this earlier.
What exactly do you mean by meaning? Are you referring to 'a lesson' that the experience teaches you? Are you referring to the cause of that experience as the meaning of it?
And are those conclusions applicable only to humans?

Suresh said...

No Sudhir, I'm not referring to a "lesson" when I say meaning, but comprehension of what you experience. I think in retrospect the claim should have been made with some qualifications. Because a lot our experiences don't necessitate language - what we call instincts (shock, fear, sexual urge etc).
But most others - amazement, disgust, awe etc - and in fact even some of what are called instincts is developed by language. I think a lot of these experiences go both ways according to specific contexts.
As for animals, I don't think a broad classification can be made. Because, differenct species have developed different levels of cognition in terms of communication. Dolphins and elephants are some of the very few animals that have a sense of the self. Nonetheless, it's hard to measure if they experience what humans experience because of conscious understanding of a situation. I think I'll do some reading before I talk about this further. :p
What can be said clearly though, is that basic instincts don't require a language or conscious understanding of anything. And this applies to all animals (humance included).

The Individualist said...

Bingo @ basic instincts not requiring a language.
Hence, we could probably conclude that most experiences have meaning and most meanings need language.
That, I think, is a decent enough line to employ when in a discussion with someone who employs "Er isn't communication the purpose of language?"
As for you having to do more reading on animals and how they comprehend experiences, sure. :p I'll do my bit too.
And er, I couldn't not refer to it. You aren't extremely sleepy, are you? 'Humance' doesn't look like a typo. It looks like you were either thinking about something else or were about to fall asleep. :p

Suresh said...

haha I know, but "humance" is far less embarrassing that some of the other typos that I have made in the past. It happens mostly because I'm thinking about something else or typing it as I'm watching TV.

The Individualist said...

Quite admirable that you can engage yourself in discussions with your attention paid to the tv or some other topic. I know that sounded contemptuous. Nothing intended.
Off the topic, thanks again for American History X.
I am still not able to stop mulling over the 'dining table discusion' in the movie.
Must have watched that scene some thirty times and can't tire. If you're wondering why I spoke about it now, the thirty first time happened now. :p

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