Heat taken out of language curry

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The Independent Online
A British Council lecturer is trying single-handedly to overhaul the ornate and bureaucratic language which has bedevilled the subcontinent since the days of the East India Company.

In his language workshopsheld in Indian business centres, Martin Cutts gives "anti- obfuscation advice." He insists that Indians must shed the colonial phrases left over from the British Raj, forget the Empress's English and re-learn plain speaking.

Mr Cutts, 42, is back by popular demand on his fourth tour of India. "The British civil service left a legacy to India. Unfortunately, impenetrable language is part of it," he said.

Over the next three weeks his seminars in New Delhi, Allahabad and Madras will attempt to redress the language problem. One personal goal is to banish the standard 191-word sentence which appears at the start of every Indian life insurance form.

His Plain Language Commission, first launched in Britain in 1989, helped cut the gobbledygook from Inland Revenue forms and from turgid insurance documents. His challenge is to decipher the distinctive masala mix used by India's 90 million English speakers - a rather stilted Edwardian English spiced with the grammar structure of 15 principal Indian languages and some 3,000 dialects - without sacrificing its special flavour.

While the hoardings and headlines in India's big cities carry a sparky blend of Hindi and MTV slang, businessmen still tend to use archaic language which hinders communication with the uninitiated. An executive might instruct his travel agent to "kindly do the needful and prepone the departure to facilitate my journey out of station and avoid a nighthalt", when he merely wants the time of his trip moved forward.

Long, servile phrases also annoy Mr Cutts. He objects to letter writers who insist on "begging the favour of your esteemed perusal," when they could just type "see below".

Not everyone was convinced though. One bureaucrat protested: "But I have spent an entire lifetime learning these long and unusual words and now you tell me to get rid of them."