Indian Twitter shows why a “universal translator” wouldn’t work

By Razib Khan 34 Comments

India is one of the top countries on Twitter. And, since many Indians have some command of English, they interact somewhat with the English-speaking Twitter crowd which is mostly based in the USA and UK.

But, the differences in style, idiom, and cultural references, make conversations often very difficult and totally incomprehensible. Despite the fact that two interlocutors may speak the same language, with only minor syntactical and semantic differences. The difference exists between British and Americans as well, but the cultural gap here is much smaller, and some of the confusions I see with conversations with Indian Twitter happen far less.

This is not a function of how much similar British English is to American English. It is a function of the uniqueness of Indian culture and expectations, and particular idioms and frames. The usage of English allows for Americans to be exposed to this, but there is a level of opacity that is novel and surprising.

To me, my engagement with Indian Twitter is more a matter of anthropological curiosity than dialogue. Twitter lacks the nuance and density to puncture the incommensurable aspects easily.


34 Replies to “Indian Twitter shows why a “universal translator” wouldn’t work”

  1. Wait until you see Indian edits on Wikipedia.

    This isn’t Indian English as much as people using bad English far too confidently.

  2. It is well known that when the proportion of Indian users exceeds 40 to 50% or so of any social media website, non Indian users begin fleeing and the quality of content begins to deteriorate precipitously. You only have to look at what happened to Quora, which started out looking like a Reddit competitor, it now mostly consists of long nonsensical posts written by Indians, full of Bollywood gifs and screenshots.

    1. ppl from conservative indian backgrounds have a difficult time internalizing that the religion you are born into in the USA doesn’t correlate perfectly with your affinity and identity as an adult.

      so i get into arguments will people who will assume i’m muslim. i tell them as i’m an atheist. but then they respond “yes, but as an atheist muslim….”

      1. Razib, when Gandhi use to say he was a muslim, christian, jew, etc., how did non Indians understand that?

        For Indians it was completely normal. Many Indians say they authentically belong to many religions at once. If you did a poll of all Indians and asked them if they belonged to all religions, a majority might claim that they do.

        This is why they are responding to you the way they are. They assume you too might belong to many religions. Such as atheism, islam, maybe some others.

        The Indian understanding of Dharma or religion is completely different from the Abrahamic understanding of religion. It is unusual for Indians to belong to only one Sampradaya (religion).

        If you asked me these definitions when I was 7 years old, I probably would have told you that I thought atheism (transcending all theisms) was the same as religion and science. Today I would say that atheism is the goal of religion.

        This difference in understanding of the concept of religion or atheism results in substantial miscommunication.

        Have you read Swami Vivekananda’s definitions of religion?

        1. They assume you too might belong to many religions. Such as atheism, islam, maybe some others.


          no, they are accusing me of being a jihadi. so i don’t think they think i’m a hindu!

          1. In person?

            Then they need urgent medical treatment. Only a total idiot cannot identify an Islamist (unless they are trying very hard to hide themselves) from a normal muslim.

            It requires more effort to differentiate Islamist Jihadist from a non Jihadi Islamist.

            When you told these very low IQ Indians that you were Bangladeshi and not Pakistani, did that make a difference? Would it be fair to assume that said low intelligent Indians were not Bengali?

      2. “ppl from conservative indian backgrounds have a difficult time internalizing that the religion you are born into in the USA doesn’t correlate perfectly with your affinity and identity as an adult.”

        That is not an issue related to the English usage. I thought you were talking about difficulty of understanding Indian English.

        There are some quirks with Indian usage of English (like excessive use of word “actually”, doubling of adjectives for emphasis (“small small things”) etc. I really find them endearing.

        We are like this only. Mind it. 😉

      3. Reminds me of a time I was being admitted in an Indian hospital. The paperwork asked for my religion. I left the field blank but the clerk wasn’t having any of that and insisted I fill in something. Eventually I got tired and filled in “Atheist”. The clerk accepted this happily somewhat to my surprise.
        Later as he was putting the forms away he turned to me smiling and asked “This atheism – Is that a new religion ?”

      4. For some reason, even though some religions are “ethnic religions” — eg. being Jewish or Sikh can be something akin to being an ethnic group, and others are famously confessional and proselytizing like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, it seems like people still treat the confessional religions as “ethnic” ones in some societies.

        Like even in the enlightened west, people will be surprised to meet a “white” Muslim or “black” Buddhist often times (they may not say it out loud but you can see it in their perceived expectation and surprise on occasion), but few would even bat an eye at a Christian of any race saying they were born and raised Christian, or not born and raised but converted to Christianity, either way, in most societies familiar with Christianity.

        And this is in the US, where we’ve already probably in mainstream society grown up with the individualist view that to feel strongly towards a religion is the result of personal choice and confession, not something you inherit passively. It’s not uncommon for people to convert to a different religion than their family practices. If so, the collectivist view that you are what your family practices or your ancestors practice seems even more entrenched in the “old country” but then again I don’t know if that’s changing or not with modernity.

    2. Walter, each region of India has its own english. This is why it is often easier for an American from the Bay Area (which implies a significant familiarity with India) to understand Indians from Bengal than it is for Indians from Bangalore. Similarly it might be easier for a Bay Area American to understand people from Bangalore than Bengali Indians.

      Recently Indian english is starting to become more cosmopolitan and integrated, but it has a long way to go.

      If you visit India, educated people don’t really speak the local language. They speak Tamil/English hybrid. Telegu/English hybrid. Hinglish (Urdu-english), Benglish, etc. Most educated people speak at least broken english from birth. This feeds into various different English dialects all across India. Local media and entertainment changes the local english dialect.

      English is incredibly important in India with respect to the legal system (India is very litigious), academics (english medium exams), credentials, prestige, dating market, marriage market. Saying a few well pronounced english words in a posh accents is a significant component of physical attractiveness. Hindi/Urdu is also growing in value and importance.

    1. “Also, Indians generally don’t get sarcasm.”

      Lol. Every other profile on dating apps here says ‘fluent in sarcasm’.

      Sarcasm might be considered a positive trait in finding a mate, signalling ability to form more sophisticated thought patterns. So everyone pretends to get it but few people actually do.

    2. @Arjun:

      That’s quite possible, though I can’t quite think of examples of sarcasm in the Indian language I’m most fluent in (Hindi.) Do you happen to have any, off the top of your head?

      (I can speak Tamil but I’m barely literate in it. Can’t conjure up examples of sarcasm here either. But then, most of my reading and writing these days is in English.)

    3. @Numinous
      I totally agree that Indians do not get sarcasm. Even English didn’t get it until early 17c when the Greek word sarkasmos > Latin sarcasmus was borrowed into English to describe the new found ability of the angrez to indulge in ironic distance. I wonder what happened in the early decades of 17c?
      I think Alexander’s invasion of Punjabis may have introduced sarkasmos to metaphorically challenged locals, only to be forgotten until the English came and made us aware of this use of language yet again. Later in independent India Jaspal Bhatti took it upon himself to educate an entire generation of Punjab and N India in this art.

      1. @Slapstick


        (Speaking without sarcasm) The English ability to be sarcastic and maintain ironic distance must itself be fairly recent, no? I imagine it was a figure of speech honed by the English upper class communicating within its circles, once the consequences for saying the “wrong thing” stopped being dire (as it must have been during the Tudor and Stuart periods.) And if I had to guess (correct me if I’m wrong) it started out as an English thing that was gradually adopted by Anglo colonists throughout the world.

        1. Lol @ Numinous

          Sarcasm is a well-recognised bhASAlaGkAra or literary device in Skt literature. It is called mRSAvAc (cooked speech, i.e. something that isn’t real but cooked like a meal for consumption, when the real intention is quite the opposite)

  3. ” It is a function of the uniqueness of Indian culture and expectations, and particular idioms and frames. The usage of English allows for Americans to be exposed to this, but there is a level of opacity that is novel and surprising.”

    LOL, this reminds me of this one incident when i was working in India and couple of expats ( an Australian and an Irish guy) landed up at my office. All 3 of us were speaking the same language but it was only me who could understand the other 2 since due to being raised in “Indian English” , i would only need a word or two (in a sentence) to deconstruct what the two guys wanted to say. While the other 2 could hardly understand each other. ????

    1. LoL. If you think Singaporean or Australian accent is difficult, try listening to English in German accent! Consider yourself lucky if you can understand 1 out of 5 sentences.

  4. Razib if you eat beef you’re a muslim if not a Hindu.

    Developed societies have tribal identities broken neutered ones like America don’t.

    You may identify strongly as a brown member of the woke tribe

    1. Just wandering…No need to reply, but, if you are “Jatt Saka”, what do you know about your ancient origins? Thanks.

  5. I wonder if Indian English will become accepted as a “native” English of India, the way Irish or Scottish English is, as well as lots of other English variants, from Aussie English to South African English, to Jamaican English and even African American English and Southern US English.

    Right now, most people who speak with an “Indian” accent in English are non-native speakers of English that transfer their first language features onto the English they speak. But that’s also how something like Irish English happened, where first it was Irish language speakers learning English and transfering Celtic pronounciations onto it, then “Irish English” became its own thing, even by those who don’t speak Irish.

    So, I wonder if Indian English, given India’s clout will manage to come into its own and be seen as a legit type of English like American English or Irish English. Or if Indian English only exists as a transition from speakers of various Indian languages as they move on the way to “assimilating” into talking the way Brits or Americans do in English.

    1. I wonder if Indian English will become accepted as a “native” English of India

      Not in the current atmosphere (populist, Hindu nationalist.) The quest for indigeneity is too high; English is associated with Christian influence and is the marker of a snobbish elite to boot.

      Accents, import words, and grammatical quirks, also vary widely with region. Punjabis speak English very differently than Bengalis who speak English very differently than Tamils. Indians who write in English for global consumption do so in quite a uniform manner though.

    2. but the penetration is pretty low. i used to think that yes, it will spread to be ‘native’ language. but it seems that it remains a second language. and, in the long-term the rise of asian economies might diminish its prestige value. it’s hard to imagine but it was hard to imagine how quickly french would decline in the 18th-century…

  6. Indians may not ‘get’ sarcasm in English because it’s mostly a foreign language to us. Not so in Indian languages. Indian literatures are full of sarcasm and satire.

  7. Sarcasm might be considered a positive trait in finding a mate, signalling ability to form more sophisticated thought patterns.

    LoL. You mean you would actually like to a have a spouse who will throw a sarcastic remark or two at you every day for the rest of your life?!!!

    You are confusing humor with sarcasm. Having a sense of humor in your spouse in a great thing. Life will be challenging with a spouse with a great sense of sarcasm.

  8. We often talk about the diversity of Indian culture. And yet, we are quick to generalize about it from our respective vantage points much like the seven blind men passing judgments on the elephant.
    One can quote many examples of sarcasm/humour/satire from various Indian literary traditions.

  9. And to those who claim that Indians don’t get sarcasm, I can only shake my head in resignation over their ignorance. Even a cursory reading of Indian literature will be enough to shatter this myth. Even a STEM type like myself can quote a handful of examples off the top of my head. Sample these ..

    A king meets a woodcutter sweating under a heavy load on the road. The king sympathetically asks the woodcutter – “Kimte bharam badhati” ? (Does the load hurt?) The key here is that the king used wrong grammar in the usage of word “badhati”. The woodcutter replies deadpan – “bharam na badhati rajan, yatha badhati badhate” (the load does not hurt as much as the use of word “badhati” hurts). The barb here is that a king should have known to use right grammar.

    (This is Kalidasa writing in 4th century AD).

    Mund mundaye hari mile, har koi liye mundaye
    Bar bar ke mundate, Bhed naa bekunth jaaye

    If tonsuring your head can get you God (and his paradise), then any one can do it. After a sheep does not go to paradise just because it gets sheared multiple times in it life.

    (This is Kabir writing in 15th century).

    Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam. (The empire of Shah Alam spreads all the way from Delhi to Palam (a village on the outskirts of Delhi).

    (A street couplet mocking the diminished realm of mughal emperor shah alam, sometime in 1700s.)

    If one can find these examples in literature, it goes without saying Indians have always possessed a sense of humor. Even a review of folk takes, proverbs and idioms of out native languages attest this. Wit, pun, sarcasm, it is all there in Indian literature if you bother to read.

    1. My original comment referred to Indians conversing in English on the Internet, which is what this blog post was about.

      On the presence or absence of sarcasm in Indian languages, I plead ignorance and am willing to learn more from folks here. Note that sarcasm is a particular figure of speech and not synonymous with “wit”, which I would not be foolish enough to say is missing in Indian discourse. Sarcasm is something I have not observed in modern Hindi, the only Indian language I’m fully literate in, but I’m willing to be corrected even on that.

      1. // Sarcasm is something I have not observed in modern Hindi //
        For a chap who was at kgp, this claim is hard to believe. On the eve of mid-term tests:
        [Bihari Maggu] Arrey yaar, aaj kucch paRhai nahiN ho saki. Abhi Chapter 2 key sawal bhi nahiN banayeiN haiN. Is baar pukka F

        [Cynical Wingie] nahiN nahiN, tum kab last Chapter tak pahunchey they jo aaj pahunchogey. is baar bhi fukka lageyga tumheiN jaantey haiN. ham hi haiN jo sarey chapter bana key yahaN maggi kha rahey haiN [[swearing under the breath]]

        No marks for guessing which figure of speech is being employed here 🙂

      2. Sarcasm is something I have not observed in modern Hindi, the only Indian language I’m fully literate in..

        Read “Raag Darbari” by Shrilal Shukla. It will be worth it. But I agree that modern Hindi literature has declined in quality. Anyone who has slightest of writing talent will write in English to reach the “wider audience”. Amish Tripathi, Chetan Bhagat etc are all presumably Hindi speakers, but will only write in English

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