Ill-concealed smirking at the peculiarities of Indian English has long been a handy fallback for travel writers, who delight in transcribing misspelt menus, garbled hotel signs and awkward idioms. Naturally, this has always been viewed in India with irritation.
Paul Theroux was criticized by one reviewer last week for dwelling on what one of his American characters in his new work of fiction, The Elephanta Suite, describes as India’s “mummified” form of English—a language, the heroine reflects, where words such as utterance, miscreant, thrice and jocundity remain in daily use. This was “the superior white writing if not about the inferior then certainly the exotic brown”, the reviewer, Kishore Singh, concluded.
Bollywood scriptwriters have also milked the struggles of non-proficient English speakers for easy humour. But a recent side effect of India’s growing economy and burgeoning national self-confidence is the emergence of a new pride in Indian English, in all its forms.
Three recent books published in India chart the growing, global reach of Hinglish—a blend of English and Hindi.
The title of Binoo K. John’s new study of the language, Entry from Backside Only (a sign commonly seen in alleyways), misleadingly suggests this will be another exercise in ridicule. Instead it is a celebration.
“My idea was not to sneer at Indian English but to look at the way it is growing and becoming a language in its own right, like American English,” John said. The book is a history of how English endured after Indian independence, tracing how Gandhi’s decision to use it as a nation-building tool was vital to its survival. It describes how the language has evolved, plucking sentence constructions and vocabulary from Hindi and the 30 other languages spoken in India.
“I believe this happy blend of Hindi and English will become a globally accepted form of English in 20 years or so,” John said. “More and more people will use it without fear of being laughed at. We are not afraid of speaking in the way that we want to anymore. There is no longer any fear of grammatical puritans coming and telling us it should not be like that.”
In The Queen’s Hinglish, another recent book on the theme, Baljinder K. Mahal writes that more people speak English in South Asia than in Britain and North America combined, with India alone accounting for more than 350 million English speakers.
“Although the practice was previously frowned upon by purists, people there are becoming more and more comfortable with mixing words from languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi with English,” she writes. “This means that Hinglish, as this modern blend of standard English, Indian English and South Asian languages is popularly known, could soon become the most widely spoken form of English on earth.” Words such as prepone (the opposite of postpone), or airdash (to travel by plane at short notice) or eve-teasing (for sexual harassment) could spread internationally, she predicts. “The purists—as they always do—have lost the battle,” she writes. “Hinglish, once seen as the lingo of the uneducated masses, is now trendy—the language of the movers and shakers.”
Vaishna Narang, a professor of linguistics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the shift was noticeable. “People used to attach a snob value to British English and received pronunciation. Today no one bothers about that,” she said.
She, too, attributed the change to the country’s growing prosperity. “There is a much, much greater sense of confidence in ourselves and our language. People no longer look at Indian music and culture and language as in any way substandard or vernacular.”
English newspapers are sprinkled more liberally with Hindi than they would have been a decade ago. Television advertising is now rarely in the clipped British English tone that once characterized it, said Nima Namkhu, senior creative director of Publicis in New Delhi. “Now it’s much more about how people on the street talk, a mix of Hindi and English. We are still moving away from memories of being a colony, towards being a nation of our own. This is part of that.”
Some of the perceived shortcomings of Indian English can be blamed directly on the English colonizers, according to another recent book, Indlish, by Jyoti Sanyal. In its introduction, the book notes that: “Indian English suffers from flatulent orotundity, a form of high-flown language that tries to impress but instead obscures.”
This style of speaking and writing, the book argues, is a hangover from the Raj and the bureaucratic officialese that it bequeathed to India.
In the classrooms where call centre operators are taught how to lose their Indian accents and sentence construction, voice trainers are fighting a rearguard action against the spread of Hinglish. “We have to eradicate all trace of Indianness so that they begin to speak a more global English,” said Puja Gupta, a voice trainer. “We tell people not to ask ‘What is your good name’ and we try to stop them using the ‘ing’ form of the verb—to say ‘I have’ instead of ‘I am having.’ These are genuine Indianisms and people would immediately know that the caller is not from the US. This kind of language can hinder your communication with people from the UK or the US.”
But John believes the contact that call centre workers have with the rest of the world will ultimately help disseminate Hinglish further around the world. “You can’t teach all these operators perfect English,” he said.
Andy Kirkpatrick, a professor at the Institute of Education in Hong Kong and author of World Englishes, said the rise of Indian English was inevitable. “The world is about people for whom English is a learned language doing business with other people for whom English is a learned language,” he said. “Indian English is certainly likely to become more and more powerful.”
©2007/INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
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