Thursday, October 14, 2010

Homely girls can be good-looking indeed

During the course of a guest-lecture I gave at Eluru, a neighbouring town, I was led to talk about the different varieties of the English language, including the non-native varieties, and also about how users of English as a foreign language attempt to nativize the language in their own non-English cultures.  The more culture-bound, I said, a non-native user's style is, the more deviant it becomes from the native varieties of English: it acquires a distinctive stylistic characteristic.  One of the examples I gave was "You, spoiler of my salt" (namak haram) from Mulk Raj Anand's novel, Untouchable.

Though I gave examples from non-literary sources also, I was not very satisfied with them.  On a Sunday morning, while glancing through the matrimonial column in an English newspaper, I realized that I had failed to use in my lecture two important resources which our newspapers offer – matrimonial advertisements and obituaries in which the advertisers' non-English identity is so wonderfully captured in the English language.  Incidentally, my interest in matrimonial columns is purely linguistic: I am curious to know how fellow-Indians express their choice of a bride or bridegroom in English.

Look at this gem which I picked up from the paper:

Iyer, Vadama, Srivatsa, 34/154, Bharani, no dosham, BA, DCA, homely, good-looking, medium-complexioned, father holding a senior position in a reputed Chennai company, seeks suitable groom.  Subsect no bar.  Widowers with clean habits and no issues may also send their horoscopes.

This advertisement is so highly contextualized that a person who does not share the native culture cannot understand it.

And a native English speaker who reads it will be confused.  If the entire discourse is a mystery to him, he will be perplexed by a contradiction in the advertisement, namely, that the advertiser is a "homely, good-looking" woman.  What the advertiser actually means is that she is domestically well-trained ("homely") and pretty ("good-looking").  But "homely" actually means "plain" (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary), or "not very attractive to look at" (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary), or "ugly" (Macmillan English Dictionary)!

If the native English speaker is perplexed by the "homely" woman's "good" looks, he will be either amused by her father working for a "reputed" company or struck by her honesty in admitting it.  "Reputed" actually means: "generally supposed but with some doubt" (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English), or "said or believed by many people, but not definitely known to be true" (Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2002).  The two dictionaries give the following examples: "(He is) the reputed father of her baby"; and "(He is) a reputed Mafia boss".  I'm sure what the "homely, good-looking" lady means is that the company her father works for is a reputable (= having a good name) one.

But I wonder if an Indian can take a hard line over "reputed".  After all, the word doesn't seem to exist at all in Indian English; it is not even part of the vocabulary of several good Indian professors of English who swear by Queen's English.  Furthermore, a new English dictionary that has just come onto the market has enhanced the reputation of the word "reputed": it doesn't list "reputable" at all; it has only "reputed". This dictionary, which is an Indian attempt at lexicography, gives the following example: "Sanath Jayasuriya is a reputed batsman."  If Sanath Jayasuriya is a reputed batsman, the company the "homely, good-looking" woman's father works for must be reputed indeed!

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