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In the past, I have used the phrase "the subcontinent" in conversations but it has not always been clear if people know what I'm talking about. I find it a useful term as it covers (amongst others) India and Sri Lanka; the IT industry has a lot of people from those countries thus it covers a lot of the people I work/play with.

It would appear that English consider those countries Asian. I have also heard Americans referring to Indians as Asians, though not as commonly. This is not common in Australia.

So, is this a term I can use safely?

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As an American with no particular ties or working relationship with India or Indians, "the subcontinent" sounds like a quaint, old-timey way I imagine British people might refer to India. It sounds like you're about to grab a machete and go on an expedition. Your mileage may vary. –  Preston Fitzgerald Jun 2 '14 at 5:18
As another American, and despite having some co-workers in India, the first thing that leapt to mind when the phrase "the subcontinent" was used was southern Africa. Without context, that's what I had sort of assumed you meant, although once I saw you were talking about India and Sri Lanka the term didn't seem incorrect. But without context, I don't think you can be sure what your listeners will interpret it to mean. –  Mark Thompson Dec 30 '14 at 8:19

5 Answers 5

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This may vary depending on where you are and whom you’re talking to. In most of the communities I’ve lived in (England, northeastern US, eastern Canada), it was certainly used and understood; I think it’s fairly widely known.

However, if you’re finding some people are puzzled by it, you could instead say the Indian subcontinent — this is an almost-as-common version of the phrase, and should hopefully be clear to anyone.

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+1. Of course context helps - if it's already clear which part of the world you're talking about it's more likely you can omit the Indian without confusion: These traits are not unique to India and Sri Lanka but are found throughout the subcontinent. –  psmears May 28 '11 at 22:47
Yes, in context it's perfectly clear. –  Preston Fitzgerald Jun 2 '14 at 5:19

As someone living in NZ I'd give a different answer to Teylyn - that is, I judge that in New Zealand the word 'Asian' used of a person or attribute without further qualification would in the first instance be though to refer to someone of Chinese/East Asian background and only secondarily to someone from the Subcontinent.

Certainly what I understand to be the British usage (as per Marcin), where 'Asian' refers in the first instance to people from the Subcontinent, is not so commonly heard in New Zealand.

As for 'subcontinent' itself, I use it often and it is usually understood to mean the Indian subcontinent; I wouldn't hesitate to add 'Indian' if need be . . but if talking to a Pakistani or Bangladeshi or in a context where reference to those countries is implied, would more likely use South Asia.

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This isn't really a question about the English language: it's a question about how (some) people view the world. The Indian subcontinent is, factually, part of Asia: as such, you can use the term without being subject to penalty of law. That said, the British Isles are factually part of the European continent, but I know plenty of people who would object to calling England (or even Britain) an European country. So you need to consider your audience; if they consider "the subcontinent" a descriptive, non-derogatory term, then using it is helpful. If not, you should not use it, whatever your personal views.

This seems to me to be a perfect example of a problem with stackexchange's obsession with objective answers, namely that the correct answer depends on the intended audience. The 'correct' answer to a question somebody asks you in a bar would not be the same answer you'd give in a witness box, even if the question was identical. Linguists refer to this as 'different registers'; there doesn't seem to be a solution (or even a description) in ordinary life.

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The "correct answer" would give a summary of all of the most common/important uses of the term, along with where they're appropriate / likely to be found (and a warning of any potential pitfalls such as possibilities for causing offence!). But that's a discussion for the meta site :-). –  psmears May 28 '11 at 22:44
I kind of agree, to a point. The English language has a multitude of words but unless there is a common understanding, they are not of much use. The question was trying to elicit personal experiences from people around the world who share an interest in communications and linguistics. Obviously, context matters. My in-laws speaks English as a second language so I change my vocabulary to match theirs. –  dave May 30 '11 at 21:36

People in southern Africa (roughly south of the equator) often refer to their part of the continent as "the subcontinent", so to avoid ambiguity you should speak of "the Indian subcontinent" if that's the one you mean.

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Depending on where you were brought up, the globe is divided into five or six contintents:

Africa, America, Europe, Asia, Australia -- that's the mid-European view.

Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia -- that's the North American view.

Each of these continents may have regions that could be considered a subcontinent, i.e. a part of the land mass that makes up the continent. Assuming that "the subcontinent" refers only to India and Sri Lanka is assuming that your audience knows that you refer to these countries. If you mention "the subcontinent" in a conversation in Africa or Europe, people may not make the connection to India/Sri Lanka at all.

Also, the term "Asian" may mean different things in different countries. Generally speaking, "Asian" would be any person from the continent of Asia, which includes China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, India, Pakistan, Mongolia and many more countries. Personally, I feel that "Asian" is too broad a brush to apply, since there are a lot of differences between the people and the cultures of the countries on the Asian continent.

I've often come across the term "Asian" to refer specifically to people from India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka, whereas people from more Eastern regions of Asia are instead referred to by country of origin, e.g. Chinese, Japanese.

This is the usage I notice in New Zealand. It may well be different in other countries.

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This accords with British usage in my experience. –  Marcin May 29 '11 at 11:07
I feel like this is just philosophizing. A metonym, place-name, nickname, what-have-you can be theoretically ambiguous and still enjoy significant usage if English speakers largely agree that it refers to one place unambiguously. There may be many subcontinents in various places on Earth, but I have never seen one with as much political and economic significance to be referred to as the subcontinent except for India. –  Uticensis May 29 '11 at 11:32
@Billare: my point is that not everybody on this globe may be aware that "the subcontinent" means India, since it is not immediately apparent from the name. Nor is "The Peninsula". Which one? For some, it may require some additional explanation. –  teylyn May 29 '11 at 13:24
In the abstract I agree with what you say, but in practice, “the subcontinent” is very different from “the peninsula”. Sampling a quick Google books search, nineteen of the top twenty hits for "the subcontinent" refer to the Indian s. (the exception refers to Southern Africa); the top twenty results for "the peninsula" include seven different peninsulas, with the most popular accounting for just five hits. Certainly not everyone everywhere will know what it means; but many people will. –  PLL May 29 '11 at 19:21
Haha five or six? There are seven continents according to any American third grader. Is that really not an established, widespread fact? Damn my publicly funded education! –  Preston Fitzgerald Jun 2 '14 at 5:22

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