C17: Day 140 – Horn OK Please!

by Suw on May 20, 2017

This started as a Facebook post, but I post it here because it’s 23:21 and I want to go to sleep. 

Horn OK PleaseAn Atlas Obscura post claiming to explore the origins of the phrase “Horn OK Please”, seen frequently on the back and sides of lorries and trucks in India, popped up into my FB feed this morning. Having been to India and witnessed first hand this phrase, and heard the horns in response, I was curious. The article is indeed interesting, but it misses the most obvious and important point: Indian English is not the same as British or American English.

English has split into several regional dialects, and whilst they are mostly mutually intelligible there are many ways in which grammar or vocabulary differs to the point of losing sense to the speaker of another dialect. In India, for example, they use “revert” instead of “reply”, and “commercials” instead of “fees” or “rates”.

They have also developed their own idioms, and “Horn OK Please” is just an idiom that happens to use double positive that’s unusual in British or American English, the “OK” reinforcing and reinforced by the “please”. It’s just saying “I really, really don’t mind it if you honk your horn, and encourage you to do so because [I don’t have wing-mirrors/I don’t pay attention to my wing-mirrors]”.

It doesn’t make sense for British and American English-speaking people to try to analyse Indian English idiomatic phrases any more than it makes sense to try to understand idioms literally in other languages. “By the way” in Welsh is “gyda llaw”, which literally means “with a hand”, which makes no sense whatsoever in English. But it doesn’t need to make literal sense, because it’s an idiom and it’s meaning is understood very clearly by Welsh speakers.

Horn OK Please is an idiom understood perfectly by Indian English speakers, and which can be learnt by everyone else. Trying to guess its origin is as pointless as trying to guess the origin of gyda llaw. In fact, headway could only be made by analysing an historic corpus of literature; it can’t be deconstructed from first principles.

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