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Is English Now An Indian Language?

June 2004
Is English Now An Indian Language?

Is English Now An Indian Language?


There is an old joke about an American and a Briton who disagree on the pronunciation of the word ?either'. "It should be pronounced E-ther," says the American. "No, it should be pronounced I-ther," says the Briton. So they turn to the Indian who is with them and ask him for his opinion. "Oh, it can be pronounced A-ther way," says the Indian diplomatically. It's probably not a very funny joke, especially if one is not familiar with Indian English, but in a minor way it demonstrates the famous adaptability of Indian culture. India has been long known to absorb foreign influences and "Indianize" them over time. The English language is, of course, a great example.

Recently it was reported that employees at some call centers in India have been asked to retain their natural accent when dealing with foreign customers. This apparently establishes a better rapport and creates greater trust. Also, it was noted, clients prefer to hear real Indian names rather than fake Western ones since they already know that these employees are based in India. As long as we can express ourselves clearly, there is probably no reason to artificially imitate a foreign accent. Almost every country, after all, has regional variations even when they're all speaking the same language. Even on the influential BBC, which is a standard bearer for RP (Received Pronunciation), one finds newscasters with varying accents.

To a certain extent, native languages have influenced the way English is spoken in India. So there is certainly a need to standardize the speech when one is dealing with foreign clients; but in the future, as more and more people become accustomed to dealing with Indians, it may become unnecessary to assume Western names and foreign accents. Written Indian English is much more standardized, and ? thanks to the works of several wonderful authors ? it has found broad acceptance even outside India. There is little regional variation because it's used regularly only by a tiny minority in India, and the language adheres more closely to what is considered "proper" English. Nevertheless, even when it comes to the written form, many terms and expressions from Indian English are probably incomprehensible outside the subcontinent.

Popular words such as ?bandh' (general strike) and ?hartal' (closing of shops) from the vernacular languages, and a Hinglish term like ?lathi-charge' are routinely used in India's numerous English-language newspapers. Lathi is the large stick used by policemen to apprehend or chase away miscreants during a disturbance. A typical headline could read "Hartal Disrupts Business" or "Lathi-Charge During Bandh." These and other terms in the press may initially baffle non-Indians, but there are of course a number of commonly used English words that can be traced back to Indian languages.

For instance, the following sentence has ten words that came from India: After taking a shampoo bath in the bungalow, he packed his pajamas and dungarees before wearing his khakis; then he put his sandals on and, picking up a cup of chai, walked to the nearby veranda, where he sat on a cot and gazed at the jungle.

Many such sub-continental words, which entered the English language during Britain's long association with India, can be found in any good dictionary. These include words that have a distinct Indian connotation (guru, swami, kismet, yoga, nirvana), words that appear Indian (dacoit, loot, lacquer, thug, dinghy), and even words that don't necessarily appear Indian (cash, musk, sugar, candy, chintz). Cash comes from ?kashya', the Sanskrit name for a seed that was used in weighing bullion. While musk (from ?mushka') and sugar (from ?sharkara') also have their origin in Sanskrit, candy (from ?khand').

Certain Indian terms such as ?crore' (10 million) and ?lakh' (100,000) are not used outside India, although they're also listed in standard dictionaries. Perhaps, given India's rising prominence in a more globalized world, some of these words will be used more widely in the future. Already, for instance, the concise Indian-English word ?prepone' ? which means the opposite of postpone ? is listed in the OED, and it has deservedly found broad recognition. Unusual words like ?cousin-sister' and ?co-brother-in-law', though, will probably make sense only in the Indian context.

Although matrimonial ads for ?foreign-returned' spouses are less common these days, the term remains well known; but an expression like ?foreign hand' would mystify anybody who is not familiar with Indian politics. For certain politicians, at least in the past, it was a convenient way to accuse foreign powers of nefarious deeds without actually having to name them. When it comes to euphemisms in Indian English, a ?police encounter' is even more menacing than it sounds, and ?booth capturing' is a way to sabotage an election. With the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), which proved to be so successful in the recent Indian election, the latter expression is due for a change.

Sexual harassment in public places is quaintly called ?eve teasing', and ?speed money' is the polite term used for bribes or ?baksheesh'.

The catchy phrase ?pin-drop silence', meaning it's so silent that one can hear a pin drop, is quite widely used, and it may even appeal to non-Indians. However, some other terms will only cause confusion outside India. The word ?tempo' may denote speed in musical terminology, but it stands for a light passenger vehicle in India, where a newcomer will soon realize that tempos travel with quite a tempo on the crowded streets! Although ?ticketless travel' is a great convenience in the age of the Internet, its meaning changes on the subcontinent, where ticketless travel can sometimes lead to a hefty fine!

In fast-paced urban India, compound words often facilitate a telegraphic form of speech. For example, if you plan on ?air-dashing' from one city to another, you may want to get a good ?time-pass' book. Another interesting tendency, particularly among young people, is to shorten certain words. Enthusiasm would become ?enthu' if one wants to sound hip. A fundamentalist is known as a ?fundu' while fundamentals are called ?fundas'. It's also common to come across an obscure word like ?jango', which means a trendy person.

Wordplay remains a hallmark of Indian English, frequently resulting in colorful terms and expressions. Rhyming compound words, many of which are drawn from Indian languages, are popular in everyday conversations. If you're in the mood for a ?party-warty', you could be invited to somebody's house ?aas-pass' (close by) for ?baath-cheeth' (a chat) or ?gup-shap' (gossip) over a cup of ?chai-wai' (tea). Widely used idioms such as ?may you live a hundred years' and ?as helpless as a calf' are literal translations from the Indian languages.

Not surprisingly, it's the growing number of distinguished writers from India and the diaspora who have, with their dazzling and creative use of the language, given Indian English its greatest legitimacy. Given the language's astonishing popularity and importance everywhere, it is ironic to note that the use of English could have been severely restricted in India after independence. Fortunately, the subcontinent's unmatched linguistic diversity saved English as a ?link' language for all Indians, and today it's also seen as an indispensable link to the rest of the world. By one estimate, India "has some 37 million speakers of English as a second language, and perhaps up to 300 million who can use the language passably." Maybe it's reasonable to think of India's unique brand of English as yet another Indian language in a polyglot nation.

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