FYI: Indians love their alphabet soup of acronyms
Los Angeles Times
March 4, 2008


NEW DELHI - Learning your ABCs can be a tough proposition in India.

Not the alphabet; even Indians who can't speak English fluently in this former British colony know their letters. But pity the poor soul who strays unprepared into the world of newspapers, magazines, official documents, street signs, billboards - in short, anywhere there's text - only to find that minding your Ps and Qs, literally, can be a headache.

That's because this land sometimes seems to have as many initials, acronyms and abbreviations in usage as it does people. Staying abreast of current events and navigating society often means wading into a thick pool of alphabet soup.

Take this typical headline from the daily Indian Express: "Go to HC, SC tells NICE" (translation: "Go to High Court, Supreme Court tells Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises"). Or another impressive example that recently graced the newspaper's front page: "Around new IITs, IIMs, will come SDZs: SEZs with a (D)ifference." (Don't ask.)

The profusion of abbreviations can be mystifying to outsiders, for whom scanning headlines is often like staring at an eye chart. Even some Indians confess to being bewildered at times by the truncated titles that litter the lexicon.

But their ubiquity is a testament to how this country has taken English and shaped it for its own ends, and how a once-alien tongue continues to be a unifier of sorts in a culturally diverse population.

India boasts more than a dozen official languages, from Hindi and Bengali in the north and east to Tamil and Kannada in the south, each with millions of speakers. Yet it is only English, the language of the colonizers, that enjoys a truly national profile.

Consequently, it is the de facto language of the federal government, whose bureaucrats appear to relish nothing more than cooking up acronyms and abbreviations for government posts, policies, schemes, designations, agencies and institutions.

That's why you have the RBI urging the IBA to follow KYC and AML standards (Reserve Bank of India, Indian Banks' Association, Know Your Customer and Anti-Money Laundering). Or calls on the "CBI to question ICCR ex-DG" in a human-trafficking case involving the former director-general of a cultural diplomacy agency.

An affirmative-action education program for Indians classified as "scheduled castes" - former untouchables under the caste system - was reported in a front-page headline as a "quota for SCs/STs in MBBS, BDS." And to run a public toilet-cleaning program, the "MMRDA trusts women's NGOs," according to a Mumbai newspaper named DNA.

Alas, for the uninitiated, there is no dictionary to help decipher these terms. And it is not uncommon for newspapers to neglect to spell them out in their copy, on the assumption that no explanation is necessary for most readers.

That assumption appears true to a surprising extent. Even illiterate residents and those who speak no English often recognize acronyms and initials in conversation, which by their very nature are easier to remember than the full words and phrases, says Madhumita Chakraborty, a lecturer in English at DU (Delhi University).

"They may not know what RTI stands for, but they can tell you what RTI does," she said, referring to India's new Right to Information Act, which promotes transparency in government. "If you ask someone in a village, they may not be able to tell you that NREGS stands for National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme - they may not speak any English at all - but they can say that it's a scheme that guarantees me so many days of work a year."

English acronyms and abbreviations have thus proved to be effective tools for getting the word out on government programs to far-flung corners.

"There are so many languages that people are speaking. It's so difficult to find one common parlance that people can understand, north to south to east to west," Chakraborty said. "These acronyms become much easier to use."

The rough-and-tumble world of Indian politics also relies on acronyms. Most political parties are known by their initials, with the major exception of the ruling Congress Party, which does, however, often show up in headlines as Cong.

But don't confuse the CPI with the CPI(M): Both may be Communist Parties of India, but they split ideologically years ago. Dissenters within the DMK, a regional party in the south, formed their own party, the AIADMK, which, admittedly, is much easier to rattle off than All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Perhaps the biggest boon to the Indian love of short forms has been the explosion in cell-phone ownership and the popularity of text-messaging. This is not restricted to youth; business professionals, nonprofit workers and government spokesmen all have practiced thumbs ready to tap out and fire off a missive in seconds.

With only 160 characters available per message, brevity and shorthand are rewarded.

"Mobile" is reduced to "mbl," "you" to "u," and, following Indian accents, "we" is shrunk to "v."

A word of advice: Few here use the term "text message." If you're in India, you would be better off doing as the Indians do, which - natch - is to call it an "SMS."

Just FYI.