Inglish: From Kipling to Kolaveri

Inglish: From Kipling to Kolaveri

Accent Obsession

I’m talking about Kolaveri Di, the song that went viral almost as soon as it was uploaded on YouTube. By now, if you haven’t heard or seen this song, you must be in a coma somewhere in deep space. And you either love it or hate it; there can be no middle ground at all. Of course, the catchy beat and basic nature of the music have been greatly instrumental in its success.

Yet, the fact that the lyrics are in English with an Indian dialect also has a huge part to play in its assimilation by the masses all over India. Yes, this is no Sahir Ludhianvi-, Uday Shankar- or Kannadasan-style tour de force when it comes to lyrics. But, what it shows is that Inglish or Indian-English has finally arrived.

The British colonisation of India gave us two good things  — a common enemy to unite against, and a language that unites people who are very proud of their identity.

Let’s face it: we Indians are crazy when it comes to languages. It probably comes of having too many to deal with. Travel 150 km in any direction, and you can’t understand the local lingo. Then there is the pride factor: it is considered a slight to our language if we are asked to speak a different Indian language.

Also, we consider it infra-dig to speak in our own mother tongues. A solution to this conundrum: speak a totally different language, a foreign language, something that sounds cool.

Therefore, the British actually did us a favour by imposing English on India. This has provided us with a common language that we can agree on without hurting the strong sentiments we have about our mother tongue. And now, what with the opening of borders both within and without the country, it helps us communicate both with our compatriots and others, without a hitch.

Furthermore, one of the factors that has helped India shine in today’s world is its proficiency in English. The language that we adopted to bridge our own differences has turned out to be the unifying language of the world, and we are reaping its benefits.

Indians abroad crave admiration for their language skills and, to be fair, we do get a lot of credit. But it often goes to our heads quickly, making us feel superior to the more hardworking Chinese and Mexicans. Only after a few hard knocks do we understand that we may know the language, but there is a lot more to living in a foreign land than just that.

Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that our English is distinctive, with many mother tongue influences and accent variations. Our accents range from Punjabi, Bihari and Bangla to Tamil, Mallu and Kannada. We ‘yearn’ money, ‘simbly’ because we work hard, so that ‘vun’ day we ‘vill’ be rich. Sometimes we travel in ‘sarkals’ because, ‘matlab ki’, we don’t know ‘bhat’ we ‘sud’ do.

But, quite often, too great an emphasis is placed on accent and grammar and not enough on clarity and effective communication. For some reason, we think that a British or American accent signifies sophistication and class. Consequently, fear of ridicule makes many of us closet English-speakers.

It is extremely sad that many bright young people feel handicapped because they are afraid to speak the language without the ‘correct’ accent.

They suffer agonies of embarrassment unnecessarily, and have low self-esteem consequently, just because of this. But, it isn’t their fault. Humans are hardwired to learning a language by listening first, speaking next, then reading it, and finally writing it. However, in India, we start off learning to write the English alphabet first, then reading it, listening to it, and finally speaking it. This results in confusion of massive proportions.

Most people who take Spoken English classes come in to acquire an accent. They want an accent because that is what they think will earn them the respect they crave. I teach Spoken English, and I find that students start off thinking that a British accent is the best accent to have.

When asked which British accent is better — London, Yorkshire, Cockney, Scottish, or Welsh — they are naturally flummoxed. When told that they must learn to communicate properly in the language first, they lose interest, and start looking into alternative teachers and franchises which promise them what they want.

The other way in which Indians develop a ‘phoren’ accent is by going abroad on a short holiday. It is obvious to even the most casual observer that a person who goes abroad to Europe or America for a week is more likely to develop an accent than an emigrant who has lived abroad for many years. In fact, the shorter the holiday, the more pronounced will be the accent.

However, if speaking English with a souped-up Indian accent is funny, it is more hilarious when people start speaking their mother tongue not just with interspersed English words, but with a weird English accent as well. When I first heard the DJ on FM radio speaking Kannada, I couldn’t understand the language.

It took a while for me to get used to the Anglicised version of my own mother-tongue, where Kannada-thaayi wears jeans. This trend has spread and as a result, every ‘mother’-tongue on the sub-continent has had a complete makeover. They have new names for them too — Hindi-English is Hinglish, Tamil-English is Tamglish, and so on.

The truth is that a put-on accent is like a set of badly-fitting false teeth. It keeps slipping, and is sure to pop out in a most embarrassing manner at the most important moment. It is impossible to learn all the accents in the world, therefore, it is better not to put on one at all, unless your job depends on it. The best thing to aim for is accent-less speech, and the only way to acquire this is through constant usage of the language through speaking boldly, mistakes and all.

But, all things said and done, we Indians are becoming more confident in all we do and all we say. Being labelled the number two rising economy in the world has done wonders to our self-esteem. And that means, if we speak with an accent, hey, it’s time the rest of the world tried to understand our lingo.

After all, we’ve been working at theirs, all these years. In any case, language is just a means to communicate, not the message itself. India is now a major player in the world, and it is high time we took pride in what we are, warts and all, and not try to ape others. Therefore, let us declare here and now: Queen’s English, please move over. Inglish is now an official world language.

Come to think of it, maybe the history of the world would have changed if Churchill’s ‘blood, sweat, toil and tears’ speech had been changed to this:
Hitler, why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri da?
Jews not different, Poles not different,
Attitude you must change now-u.
We’ll keep fighting, if you don’t stop bombing,
Peace must declare, you now-u …
Maybe if this song had been played over and over again, Hitler would have stopped the war out of sheer love... or hate...

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