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I apologize in advance if I am ignorantly and incorrectly assigning this to Indian English. When I was in medical school, I had a number of professors who were native to India.

Being a school predominantly made up of American English speakers we noticed that the Indian English speakers used the term "isn't it?" with a noticeable frequency. (I hesitated to put a ? at the end because it wasn't phrased as a question per se.)

In fact, for many of them it was practically a punctuation mark to every sentence. And, there did not seem to be any agreement of pluralization or tense. (e.g. "The students went to a party. Isn't it?")

Presumably, they use the phrase "isn't it?" in the same way that speaker of American English would use "you see" or "don't you agree?"

My question that has nagged me for years, why would this construct come to predominate in Indian English? It doesn't strike me as a particularly British English import. Is it a direct translation of a common phrasing in Hindi or one of the many languages of the sub-continent?

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Indian English has made considerable changes from British English in idiomatic syntax and phrase formation. Isn't it? has been frozen into an idiom in India, and it no longer varies the auxiliary verb or the subject of the tag question. In this respect it's the same as French n'est pas? or German nicht wahr?, which have the same meaning and also don't vary. –  John Lawler Feb 14 at 3:34
@JohnLawler That seems fairly consistent with what I experienced. Do you have any idea of the specific origin? It seems an odd phrasing choice. "Is it not" would seem more proper, especially for a language that is largely derived from BE! Although as I say that, I am hearing in my head the cockney "In'it". –  David M Feb 14 at 3:53
It's probly contracted from "isn't it true?" or some such. If a phrase has only one function, there's no information gain from echoing and rearranging complex phenomena like person, number, tense, or auxiliary. It's become a simple yes/no question particle (with several, though not many, syllables). –  John Lawler Feb 14 at 3:57
@DavidM Just like the "ain't" is used in place of "Am not/are not/is not" and even in place of "has not/have not". While i was watching "No country for old men", I heard one of the actors saying "I ain't have no water". This is grammatically incorrect but people use it as they don't need to be accurate in general life. Nobody corrects them and they get used to it. –  Sandeep Dhamija Feb 14 at 9:19
@DavidM My idea is the people you came across were well educated in the fields of engineering or medical sciences or chemistry or something that was not related to English language. You would never hear an English language professor using "isn't" inappropriately. I'm an engineering graduate from India and even I have heard people using "isn't it" in place of "doesn't it"(and they held doctorate degrees in engineering). For most people, who have not studied English grammar after high school, "isn't it" is a generalization of "didn't it", "didn't he/she", "don't they" and so on. –  Sandeep Dhamija Feb 15 at 6:53

2 Answers 2

As John Lawler comments above...

Indian English has made considerable changes from British English in idiomatic syntax and phrase formation. Isn't it? has been frozen into an idiom in India, and it no longer varies the auxiliary verb or the subject of the tag question.

I think OP is mistaken in thinking BrE innit as appended to statements is "Cockney". It's now quite widespread, particularly among younger and less educated speakers. But I'm pretty certain it originally arose within "second-generation Asians" (i.e. - people who were born in the UK of parents who came from Indian or Pakistan). Their parents were already using IE isn't it; they simply Anglicised it to innit.

Obviously those younger people who took the trouble to Anglicise a form like that (or adopt it early when they heard it) would disproportionately include those who were both "proud" of their parents and wished to integrate into mainstream British culture. That being a much-admired characteristic in multicultural Britain, young people from other non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds (esp. Negroes and West Indians) were also quick to adopt it.

5-10 years ago I used to sometimes nag my son (now 25) when he started using innit (I thought it sounded "ignorant", particularly when used in contexts where I'd expect pluralised aren't they). Obviously my son took no notice of me, and now I've just got used to it because it's everywhere.

I know it looks as if I'm banging on about the BrE "import", rather than addressing OP's specific question (how did it arise in IE in the first place?). But I think the underlying reasons for the uptake have much in common. The full-blown "tag question" form, requiring verb number/tense agreement, can be tiresomely "finicky". Probably part of the reason why mainstream speech went from is it not [so]? to isn't it[?] in the first place is that people actively seek informal usages that trample over traditional grammar.

My own feeling is it's slightly "traditionalist" to think of IE isn't it and BrE innit as "tag questions" at all. They're actually more like appending yeah[?] to a statement (or the stereotypical BrE toff's appending of what or what-what a century or two ago). Semantically and grammatically, the "question" element is long gone.

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Revered FF, is it not pertinent that Hindi always puts its "to be" verb hain at the end of sentences - often with the negation there as well? –  d'alar'cop Feb 18 at 15:17
@d'alar'cop: Well, yes. But presumably that's because Hindi supports the concept of "tag questions" just the same as English, French, and German (as do many if not most languages, I would guess). Plus of course the British Raj and subsequent history probably massively influence current Hindi, just as they do IE itself (something of a two-way process though, I assume). –  FumbleFingers Feb 18 at 17:22

As an English speaker growing up in an area with a high number of Hindi speakers & going to school with Hindi & Urdu speakers, I noticed a constant switch between using "hai na" and "innit", the transitional "hainit" they drop H in "ai na" and the transitional drop H in "ai n'it" and the formal "isn't it" depending mostly on audience & accent.

To be honest, with a colloquial English accent, most of these variations blur together when spoken. I personally think that it is this aural similarity combined with the similarity of meaning that has driven this use of language.

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