Temporal modifiers in Delhi

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-03-06

I've noticed a strange quirk of Delhi English—people say "until" when they really mean "while", and are oblivious to the inverted meaning of the resulting sentence. It sounds so wrong that I find it hard to think of an example:

We can't go out until it is raining.

There's a related (and perhaps slightly more common) but even more bizarre-sounding variant that has an extra negative:

We can't go out until it doesn't stop raining.

(In neither case does the speaker want to go out into the rain.)

I guess the root of this confusion lies in the translation of the Hindi phrase "जब तक" to "until" when it is often used to mean "so long as" (especially in conjunction with an extra negative; see below). Substituting the latter translation usually fixes problematic sentences. We can't go out so long as it doesn't stop raining sounds tortured, but the logic is sound.

Unfortunately, my grasp of Hindi grammar is not nearly subtle enough to judge which of the translations is more correct, and when. Taken in isolation, it seems to make perfect sense to translate "जब तक" as "until", but that's not how the phrase seems to be used. If I want to say We can't go out until it stops raining in Hindi, I have to add a negative and say “… जब तक बारिश नही रुकती ” ("… जब तक it doesn't stop raining"), which implies that "so long as" is the better translation. If I leave out that negative and say “… जब तक बारिश रुकती है ” ("… जब तक it stops raining"), my sentence feels incomplete and the "जब तक" seems to mean "by the time" more than anything else.

Is it ever correct to translate "जब तक" as "until"? I don't know whom to ask.

Oh well, so long as next time!

Update (2010-04-10): I asked a number of people who speak better Hindi than I do, and none of them were able to think of an example where "until" is the appropriate translation.