26

I live in southern India, and for a long time I've been curious about this phenomenon that I've observed.

Indian English uses the word "only" in a special way. It's used to emphasize things. Sort of like US/UK/AU/NZ people would use the word "indeed."

Some examples (several of which shamelessly stolen from this answer):

I was born in Calcutta only.

You're just stating clearly where you were born.

It's a new movie only.

You're not suggesting anything with the word "only". You're just confirming that the movie is definitely new.

It's on that branch only.

Again, you're sure and you're stating it clearly.

They are Punjabi only.

Same deal.

He is a garbage collector only.

This is not necessarily meant to be offensive, as in UK/US/AU English "He's only a garbage collector." Rather, the speaker is stating what someone's job is, unambigiously.

He paid me 5000 Rupees only.

You're not trying to imply that the amount is too low or insufficient, as in "He paid me only 5000 Rupees." You're saying it was exactly 5000 Rupees, and emphasizing that you recall the matter clearly and are sure.

We went to the beach only.

Nothing negative about the beach. That's simply where you went, and you want to state that clearly.

- Excuse me, I have a parcel for Mr. Kumar.

- That's me only.

Kumar is confirming that he is indeed the person they are looking for.

What is the origin of this usage of "only"?

I certainly don't recognize it from US/UK/AU/NZ English. I know that many unique features of Indian English are actually old features of British English that have since died out elsewhere but remain in India. Is that the case here?

Another theory I have is that it developed as a means to substitute a feature of certain Indian languages. For example, in Hindi, people say "hee" at the end of sentences all the time, for the sake of emphasis. Similarly, in Tamil (which I partly know), they say "tha" at the end. It has exactly that function. For example, "Athu tha" means "That, indeed." So another possible theory is that this usage of "only" developed as speakers felt the need to have such an intensifier at the end of sentences, as many Indian languages do. Without it they may have felt that the sentence would lack credibility or sincerity.

Does anyone have any insights, research or knowledge about the origins of this usage of "only"?

Are there regions/countries other than South-India that also use this? What about North India?

  • 1
    See also Indian English use of "only" and others similar thereto. – TimLymington Jul 2 '16 at 9:27
  • @Mari-LouA Thanks for letting me know. Maybe the comments could be moved to chat instead? – Revetahw Jul 8 '16 at 3:54
  • 1
    What do the intensifers tha and hee mean? Any relation to only? – Jacinto Aug 12 '16 at 20:52
  • @Jacinto Tamil tha is used to add weight or sincerity to something. It can be added at the end of a sentence to add sincerity to the whole sentence. Or it can be added after a single word mid-sentence to put pressure on that word, removing all ambiguity. I'm not sure if there's any equivalent in English. Indeed may come close. Or the slang phrase "for real", maybe. And there is certainly a relation to only. In Indian English, only is used pretty much exactly like tha is used in Tamil. I don't know Hindi, but I've heard that Hindi hee is pretty much exactly like tha. – Revetahw Aug 12 '16 at 21:01
  • @Jacinto tha is used quite frequently. I think hee is also used quite frequently. Definite statements can sometimes feel bland or insincere without it. And it looks like many other Indic languages have their own variants of hee and (maybe all) other Dravidian languages have their own versions of tha. – Revetahw Aug 12 '16 at 21:02
10

To add to the theories in OP and the answer of @Malvolio, there's another interesting clue here.

As @NeilW noted in the comments, the British actually used to use the word "only" after the amounts on cheques, receipts, bills, etc. (Apparently to prevent tampering, thanks @MattBishop .) This is still practiced in India today. For example, here's one of my receipts:

enter image description here

So, as @NeilW pointed out, this usage of "only" in relation to monetary amounts is something India inherited from the British, since it used to also be practiced by the British themselves.

I tend to agree with @Malvolio that it's probably a calque. And this monetary related usage may explain why Indians ended up using the word "only" as a replacement for the Indic and Dravidian emphasizers.

During colonial times (and even after), India's national banking system and financial structures were based on a British model and the English language.

Only would have been a word many people were exposed to every day. After all, everyone, no matter who they were, had to deal with money. Paychecks, receipts from shops, cheques, "money orders", price tags, advertisements. The word only would have been (and still is) ubiquitous in society, in relation to monetary amounts.

Combine this with the strong habit from Indic and Dravidian languages to use emphasizers at the end of sentences. It's easy to understand that Indians felt a need for an equivalent word in English. And as I explained, many would have been exposed to the word only every day, in relation to money. Thus, the word could have easily slipped into usage in other contexts from there.

enter image description here

According to the Indian user @NVZ, the phenomena described in OP is common all over India.

  • 13
    My understanding -- as a British person who still does write "only" on cheques -- is that this is to prevent tampering. If you wrote a cheque for "one pound", the payee could easily add " and 99 pence" in the remaining blank space. Hence "one pound only". So it's a remnant of the times when amounts less than a pound were still worth having ;-) – Matt Bishop Jul 2 '16 at 15:29
  • 2
    This is the answer. I also live in India and it is indeed a way to prevent tampering of accounts. You have to remember that during the days of the British rule, the Rupee was one of the strongest currencies in the world. @MattBishop is correct as well. In fact if you write a cheque here in India and leave out the 'only' part, they will insist you write it in. – Tucker Jul 5 '16 at 8:42
  • 1
    Just in case it's not obvious, @MattBishop is saying that "only" is used with amounts on cheques where the amount is an exact number of pounds, ie with no pence. So you would write "Five pounds and ninety nine pence", "Six pounds only", "Six pounds and one pence". – Max Williams Jul 5 '16 at 10:19
  • 1
    @MattBishop Not just less than a pound, what if you wrote 'Ten' and someone added 'Thousand' after it, that would be a far bigger loss. – Alok Jul 5 '16 at 21:13
  • 1
    @Max Williams I hope that you would write "Six pounds and one penny" ;) – Bob Jul 26 '17 at 12:59
7
+100

The word "only" is often used by many Indians as a replacement for a certain kind of emphasis that is found in a lot of Indian languages. Let's say you are describing somebody who's a habitual liar. A lot of Indians might say, "So, he lied to you ? Of course, he is like that only ". Indian languages usually have suffixes or separate words to emphasize this typical behavior of the subject in question.

In correct English, this would be something like, "So, he lied to you ? Of course, he's just like that". There's a stress on "like" which makes this sentence different from "Of course, he's just like that".

This can be a difficult thing for most Indian speakers to grasp, because firstly, in most Indian languages, stress is communicated through either a prefix, suffix or a separate article-like word. The idea that the same sentence can mean different things when spoken differently, doesn't exist in languages derived from Sanskrit.

Secondly, we learn English almost entirely through written material. Native English speakers learn the language mostly by hearing and pick up the stresses while learning the language. We usually don't get that chance and so, apply a logic similar to Indian languages in situations where stress is important in expressing an idea.

Lets research a bit deeper

"Only" can be a conjunction, an adverb or an adjective.

It is not correct to end your sentence with a conjunction, but nobody would ever do that anyway.

It is fine to end your sentence with an adjective, but "only" as an adjective generally occurs in complete expressions such as "only child" or "the only one" in which it is systematically followed by a noun. In other cases, it is generally replaced by "alone" or "lonely".

The only remaining case is "only" as an adverb. Here it is perfectly legitimate to end a sentence with "only", although it is often poor style.

The usage is explained here.

There are only two cases where this stylistic aspect can be ignored. Emphasis - Sometimes, only is used at the end of a sentence to emphasize the exclusivity referred to by it, i.e. to emphasize that the word only is of prime importance. (This bar is for members only.) To prevent ambiguity - Sometimes, ending the sentence with only is the only way to prevent ambiguity, precisely because of the emphasis mentioned above. (Take one cookie only.) Note that in this case, only qualifies the phrase one cookie. (Take only one cookie, on the other hand might have only qualifying either one or one cookie.)

6

To judge from the comments, it's a calque of the word ही (hee) in Hindi and the other northern languages and of தானே (tāṉē) in Tamil and the other southern languages.

It's easy to see how ही (meaning "nothing else") was translated into only (meaning "nothing more"), since only is 25 times more common than a more precise translation like exactly. Given that there are a billion speakers of Indian English, that translation is arguably now correct.

  • By the way, the comment by @NeillW may also be connected to this. The British actually used it that way on cheques, etc. Since cheques, bills and receipts were everywhere, and they all contained the word "only" in the sense of "exactly, nothing more or less," that exposure could further help explain why the word "only" might have been favored as an equivalent for the Indic and Dravidian emphasizer words. – Revetahw Jun 20 '16 at 4:40
  • 2
    The (hee) one seems quite apt, especially for someone belonging from North India. The thing to keep in mind is that (hee) is used when there exists a doubt, or to emphasise. For example , if someone asks Where were you born, the answer would be I was born in Calcutta. But if there exists a doubt or the speaker wants to emphasise, then the words (hee) comes in. It's how Hindi works. So without doubt or emphasis - "Main Calcutta main paida hua tha" - I was born in Calcutta With Doubt or while emphasising - "Main Calcutta main HEE paida hua tha" - I was born in Calcutta only. – Clarskon Jul 2 '16 at 10:16
  • 1
    @tchrist I know, but it's just the way Indian English is spoken, not really my fault – Clarskon Jul 3 '16 at 11:51
  • 2
    Yes I speak Tamil and the word "only" is used for தானே. Eg. "You only told me to do this". And this usage is not particular for North India, it's common all over India. It usually happens when we try to speak English after converting words from our mother tongue. – Lucky Jul 4 '16 at 9:48
  • 2
    @tchrist -- they have been speaking it all their lives, at home, school, and work. They live in a country with hundreds of millions of fellow speakers. In what sense are they not "native speakers"? – Malvolio Jul 9 '16 at 2:18
0

Not sure whether or how this is related, but I've noticed, while watching British TV -- and perhaps it's just a regionalism -- the use of "only" as seemingly an equivalent of "you see," or "it's just that." For example, "Only, I was wondering if you had a spanner I could borrow." Not in the sense of "I need a spanner, and only a spanner."

  • 2
    Hmm, sounds almost like a filler. This might make a good follow-up question, but it needs to be fleshed out more. – Mari-Lou A Jul 6 '16 at 3:37
  • Could you add some more examples? – Revetahw Jul 26 '17 at 13:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.