Conversations with colleagues occasionally drift to the subject of India’s language diversity and I find some aspects of it a bit hard to explain. Unlike in Europe where most languages bend the English alphabet to suit them, languages in India typically come with their own script (the ten rupee note I keep in wallet, often helps me illustrate my point) and people are right in wondering how we get by. I sometimes ask myself if India would have been better off without the diversity? It’d definitely be a lot duller but would we be, say, economically better off? I usually (perhaps wrongly) come to the conclusion that we won’t be. Language is just one of the dimensions we love to slice and dice by. In absence of languages, caste and religion would’ve kept us busy (as they do in presence of them).

I remember reading in one of our school texts:

कोस कोस पर बदले पानी, दस कोस पर वाणी

(the water changes every one mile, the language every ten)

I found this recent Economist infographic bring home the point.

We grew up in India using metric system. Our weights were done in kilos, distances in meters and kilometers, volumes in millilitres and liters, temperatures in degree celcius and so on. Europe is metric too. They sometimes chose a different scale” to represent volumes - I’ve seen 3 cl, 30 dl or 0.25 l on cans and bottles of fizzy drinks but rarely ml - but that’s about the only difference I’ve run into.

A few days ago the wife had come down with fever and had to be taken to the doctor. The doctor asked us if we had taken the temperature at home. We had, and we promptly reported 100. The doctor looked at us blankly and wondered what we meant. It then occurred to me that while in India the dominant system is metric, we grew up with a lot of little inconsistencies. While the weather forecasts give temperature in ºC, we always measured body temperature in ºF! I had no idea from top of my head what 100ºF in ºC was. The doctor took the temperature and reported 38ºC. While I knew that 38ºC in a city will be sweltering hot, I didn’t have a sense of what the temperature implied when used in context of the human body. I was quite surprised that all these years I had been measuring the same thing in different units depending on the context, with no intuition to help me correlate the two.

As I dwelled on this more, other similar inconsistencies kept popping in my head. We deviate from the metric system in our choice of units for measuring area (the area of a house is somehow always given in square feet) and height (I know my height in feet not in meter). I wonder what other inconsistencies I would run into one day.

P.S. In a lot of countries here, the decimal and comma are interchanged e.g. 1,000.50 becomes 1.000,50 but that’s a different matter altogether.

Outside, India is usually dealt with in clichés. It used to annoy me once, but now it merely amuses. Take this recent Calvé ad for instance:

Calvé ClichéCalvé Cliché

The TV spot is even more over the top - too bad I cannot find it on Youtube.

June 24, 2012