Britain’s first Indian empire happened a long time ago. In the 16th century, the British East India Company set up trading posts in India to sell spices and other goods from that region. But when the Dutch and the Portuguese lost their footholds there, Britain grabbed its chance to create an Indian empire that lasted until 1947. That period has left traces on the English language – even if you aren’t aware of it.
Some words we use every day are from Indian languages. Here is just a sample of examples: dungaree (from Hindi), bungalow (from Bengali), khaki (from Urdu or Persian), as well as bazaar and checkmate (from Persian). And some phrases we use all the time also have their origin in that era.
During its rule over India, Britain systematically tried to replace local languages with English. That was important in order to govern the country more efficiently, but also helped reduce the threat of an Indian uprising. People in India had been using the local languages, but the British tried to impose their own language. They put an emphasis on English education, and collected and translated books and newspapers for Indians to read in English. The East India Company and the British government tried to boost the use of English in India in several ways. They built new schools, imported English-language books, and also offered rewards to people who translated English books into Indian languages.
Hindi and Urdu are the most important Indian languages in terms of their impact on the English language. Both have contributed many words to the English vocabulary. Hindi was a language of the masses, while Urdu was the language of the elite. Both languages were used in India as well as Britain, and Urdu was influential in South Asian English literature. One of the most common words from Hindi and Urdu is: Bungalow: A type of single-story house common in India, especially in the countryside. In English it dates from the mid-19th century, when it was borrowed from the Bengali word bandogal or the Urdu word bangla (meaning “house”). It’s said that the word bungalow is derived from the Tamil words “ban” and “galam”, which mean roof and house respectively. Thus, a bungalow is a house with a roof.
The Persian and Arabic languages had a huge cultural impact on India during the Mughal period. Some of the words that have been borrowed from those languages have become part of the standard English vocabulary: Khaki: A color, especially a yellowish brown (derived from Urdu khaki, via Hindi khaki). The word dates from the Indian Rebellion of 1857, when the British Army was fighting in the Indian province of Bengal. The British troops wore uniforms of a drab, sandy color. The name was first heard in 1878 and was taken from the Urdu word for “soil”; it was the name of a small town near the British camp where the sand was of that color.
Sanskrit is the language of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It was the language of the Vedas, one of the most important ancient texts of the Hindu religion. Sanskrit literature and culture also had a big influence on the Indian subcontinent’s neighbors, such as China and Japan. If you ever took a Sanskrit class, you may remember that the subjunctive mood is called the “subjunctive” because the word “sub” means “under”. That word is a translation of the Sanskrit word “adhi”, so the “adhi” mood is the “sub” mood. The subjunctive is a verb mood that expresses something that is not a fact, but a desire or a possibility. Many languages, including English, have a subjunctive mood, but in English it is not very common. One way to form the subjunctive mood in English is to use a phrase like “were he” or “were she”. For example, “Were he honest, he’d tell the truth.”
While most borrowings from Indian languages date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, a few are very old indeed. They come from Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. The Sanskrit word arya, meaning “noble,” was adopted into English in 1779 as a name for the Indo-European peoples. Another Sanskrit word, pundit, meaning “expert,” came into English in 1727. The word guru, meaning “teacher,” followed in 1815. The word yogi, meaning “one who practices yoga,” came into English in 1818.
Checkmate: A word that comes from the Persian shah mat, which means “the king is dead,” and is used to mean that there is no way for a player to win. Chess originated in India, so the Persian word was taken into the English language, and became a common term in the English language. Bazaar: A marketplace or shop, often in a Middle Eastern or South Asian city. Bazaar comes from the Persian word Baz, which means “to shout.” The word bazaar is still used in other languages, but it also entered the English language as a result of British rule in India.
These are just a few examples of how Britain’s Indian empire has influenced the English language. The impact of India on the language of Britain is huge and can be discerned in even the most common everyday expressions. The linguistic influence of Britain’s Indian empire is so great that scholars sometimes call it “the Indianization of English.” But the influence of India on British culture doesn’t stop there. Indian food has become very popular in Britain in recent years, and Indian fashion and music have also made their mark. Perhaps most notably of all, Indian people have now made up the majority of immigrants to Britain for over a decade.