The BBC & Butler English

"A young man with his Indian servant holding a portfolio" (Image: John Hamilton Mortimer/ Public Domain)
In colonial India, household servants spoke a form of pidgin English as a common language. This survives as Butler English.

The BBC’s latest offering, a pidgin digital service, has brought back an often unappreciated and creative turn of the English language. Pidgin may seem like nothing more than ‘broken’ English, but for centuries it was a vital communication tool between colonizers and the colonized.

In places like Hawaii, Pidgin became a common tongue for indentured labourers from China, Portugal, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and many other nations. It’s spoken by millions across the world, with most regions having their own local variant.

In India, it’s developed into what is called “Butler English”. An example of it is below, taken from a conversation between a maid and her mistress (published by the Central Institute of Indian Language):

I can tell. Cut nicely brinjal, little little piece.  Ginger, garlic, chilly, red chilly, mustard and jeera all wanted.  Grind it in the vinegar.  No water.  After put the oil. Then put it all the masala little little, slowly slowly, fry it nice nice. Smells coming, then you can put the brinjal – not less oil.  Then after it cooking in the oil make it cold. Put it in the bottle.

Also known as Bearer English or Kitchen English, this emerged primarily from the many servants, maids and ‘ayahs’ of the British sahibs and memsahibs in India. Butler English was primarily the type spoken in the Madras Presidency, with Bombay having “Pidgin English”, North India with “Boxwallah English”, Cheechee English for the Eurasians and Babu English for peons of government servants.

The term ‘Butler’ or ‘Babu’ is often used disparagingly. The latter encompassed a type of Engish that was at once elaborate (using highly formal words) as well as plaintive. The British Library has a letter showing the ‘Babu’ English being employed in a ‘begging letter’ published in 1891.

Honoured and much respected Sir, With due respect and humble submission, I beg to bring to your kind notice that for a long days, I have not the fortune to pay pay you a respect, or not to have your mental or daily welfare, therefore my request that you will be kind enough to show me some mercy and thankfulness, by pending some few lines to your wretched son and thereby highly oblige.

Butler English stands out with its use of tense. Adding ‘-ing’ to a word is done to imply future tense, and prefixing it with ‘done’ makes it the past tense. One example is below:

One master call for come India … eh England. I say not coming. That master very liking me. I not come. That is like for India — that hot and cold. That England for very cold.

Pronunciation is also different in Butler English. Priya Hosali, author of “Butler English: Form and Function”, points out, cap becomes kyāp, holiday becomes ālīdē, office becomes hāfis or āfīs, oil becomes hoil, bag becomes byāg and ever becomes yever.

Since it served as a simple means of communication, the British would often reply in kind to their servants. Notably, butlers per se would not speak pidgin – themselves having more in common with P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves than with the servants of the Madras Presidency. Butler English is a contentious term and one that was spoken primarily by those in the serving classes.

It survived into independent India through the many bilinguals, who found a way of utilizing it across occupations. Thus, it remains popular with tour guides in areas with English speaking tourists, market women selling their wares to English-speaking travellers, the domestic staff of hotels, clubs and racially mixed households.

It’s debated whether Butler English is truly Pidgin, with Verma calling it ‘semi-pidgin’, Peter Mühlhaüsler calling it ‘minimal pidgin’ and Priya Hosali combining definitions to consider this ‘pure’ Pidgin.

Whichever way you look at it, Pidgin served a purpose – and continues to do so. India today has the second largest number of English speakers in the world, second only to the United States and far more than present in the United Kingdom. As a post-colonial state, India has claimed ‘Indian English’ as its own, with many variants of the ‘original’ language.

That pidgin persists in India could tell of the dialects survivability. John R. Rickford and John McWhorter write:

…most pidgins which do not experience expansion eventually undergo language death when the sociological motivations for their existence cease to exist.

The language death of Indian Pidgin is far from the present. For it continues to serve as a useful bridge between communities, in a country of 1.3 billion with 22 official languages. Those who speak pidgin or broken English are often looked down upon – an act that has casteist connotations as well. Author Perumal Murugan had pointed out how Tamil films showed the heroes speaking ‘chaste’ English and the comic-reliefs speaking the colloquial variant. Comedians like Kalyan Biswa have made well-received bits – that while eliciting laughter for its lopsided English pronunciation – tell us about how speakers of ‘different’ English are ill-treated in India.

If the BBC can relay its news broadcasts in Pidgin, is it not time that we stop treating the ‘Queens’ English as the only English worth having?


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