Queen's speech, desi style

Last Updated : 24 June 2011, 12:52 IST
Last Updated : 24 June 2011, 12:52 IST

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I was in Hampi last year with a group of college friends as part of our “let’s finally actually do the things we always talk about doing but never do” post-New Year josh. We were a diverse bunch, as far as backgrounds were concerned — Gujratis, Telugus, Mangloreans, Malayalis and Tamilians were well represented in our little group.

We decided to take a walking tour of the ruins, with a guide who came highly recommended. Only one other lady (of Scandinavian origin, judging by her accent) was on the tour with us. Every time we spoke amongst ourselves, she shot us a peculiar look, and finally, when she could not hold it in any longer, she burst out to us, “So you all speak English to each other?” She seemed completely dumbfounded “And to the guide too?”

This shock element almost never surprises us, does it? We have faced the same incredulity from many non-Indians. The Chinese can’t believe the Indians speak English, the Germans travel to India with a book of translations, and we continue to happily borrow slangs from the Americans.  

The truth is that we have come a long way from speaking our native tongue on a day-to-day basis. So how do we justify the fact that the urban youth is more fluent in English than in any other regional language? Thus explains the birth of what we fondly call ‘Indian English’. True we wouldn’t have it, if it wasn’t for our colonial past, but the reality is that English, as we speak it, is not spoken in any other part of the world.
Then came Globish!

Robert McCrum’s new book: Globish gets its title from a word coined by a French businessman, Jean-Paul Nerrière, in 1995, to refer to a globalised version of English, containing a vocabulary limited to no more than 1500 words. Short sentences, basic syntax, an absence of idiomatic expressions and extensive hand gestures to get the point across are other hallmarks of Nerrière’s Globish. McCrum’s book, through details of this travels to India, attempts to capture the lingo that Indians use.

But the story of Indian English is a story that’s full of contradictions. The number of people in India, who can carry on a conversation in English, is estimated to be around 300 million. While this seems like a large number (and indeed it is), that’s still fewer than 30 per cent of the population. Less than a million Indian nationals speak English as their first language, but it is our official language and the language of our Constitution.

And Indian English, according to Payal Shah, who teaches English to a group of youngsters over 25, “is a great example of how English absorbs influences from other languages...and India has so many!”

Even those of us who consider ourselves to be native English speakers, often have trouble making ourselves understood, when we first enter into conversation with anglophones of another nationality; we frequently have to explain ourselves a few times over. And it can’t all be attributed to accent either.

In the 60 odd years that we’ve used the language without supervision, we’ve changed it irreversibly to suit us. Phrasing, syntax, vocabulary and idioms are all part of what makes Indian English Indian. And what’s more – it continues to evolve.

According to Robert McCrum, these contra-indications are part of English’s democratic and inclusive nature, which he says is “contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive.” He also calls English “informal, demotic, vigorous and profane.”

 But in today’s young, urban and moving-like-a-freight-train-towards-globalisation India, the role of English is perhaps more at the forefront, than at any other time in our history. English is the world’s aspirational language, the ‘lingua franca’ of international culture and commerce. Anyone who wishes truly to speak to the world must master it. And India’s quest to be globally relevant, makes learning the language more imperative than ever.

Then, of course, there’s the “cool”  factor. Speaking in English has never been cooler. The vocabulary, meanwhile, is being influenced by everything from television sitcoms to sms language. How-you-doing, LOL, GR8 and BTW are more international, ubiquitous and beloved, than Coca-Cola ever was.

But as with everything in urban India, English too is in a state of flux. No longer the bastion of the convent-educated, the language is being pulled in different directions. Indian colloquialisms are being dropped in favour of western ones by second or third generation English speakers, while first generation speakers continue to use as many vernacular words. College students in India still use the word “bunking” to mean something entirely different to its dictionary meaning. And “out-of-station”, while not having been part of the British collective consciousness for the last 70 years, is a leftover colonial expression, which, in India, is alive and well.

India was once instrumental in shaping the way the world spoke English. During the British rule in India, a large number of words that were added to the English vocabulary, were of Indian origin: everyone knows that words like “bungalow”, “nirvana” and “verandah” originated here, but there are many much more common words like “shampoo”, “cot”, “candy” and “sugar”, which all owe their existence to Sanskrit, Hindi or Tamil. Since Independence though, the flow of influence has been mostly one-sided. While university-goers all over India have embraced “cool” and “whatever” as part of their daily lingo, to be used at least five times a day, Indian slang has not really set the world on fire. All that might be about to change.

With the advent of call centres, it is not preposterous to imagine that in the very near future, the way we speak English, might influence the way the Americans and the British speak it. Our jargon might become part of the American teenager’s new vocab. With this in mind, I decided to ask a few college students, the keepers of the keys as far as the hippest new slang is concerned, what’s hot and what’s not.

Forming our own lingo

Neelima, who is studying Communicative English in one of the city’s colleges, admits that English sitcoms have played a huge role in shaping the new lingo. Popular television series How I Met Your Mother is the new Friends. “Boys love using the term ‘the Bro-Code’ at any given opportunity, and sometimes even more crass expressions,” Neelima says. “And we also use the word “like” in every sentence, sometimes even in exam sheets. It’s something our teachers complain about a lot.” When asked what indigenous expressions India might export to the world, Neelima quotes the joining together of words that end in “ness” with the suffix “is happening”. For example:
“Shyness is happening” or “Happiness is happening”, an almost exclusively Bangalorean colloquial phenomenon, which nonetheless, is cute enough to spread like wild-fire.

Shruti, another Literature student in the city, feels that words like “timepass” and “prepone” can be utilised all over the world. One colloquialism that she would like to see disappear from the national consciousness is the use of the word “backside” to denote a backyard or the rear entrance of a building. “That is the one example that Westerners always pick out when they want to make fun of the way that Indians speak English.” she
says “If it were to disappear, I think we wouldn’t be the butt of quite so many jokes.”

Yet another student, Rithika, says that “Epic” is a word that everyone seems to be using at the moment. “It’s all about the tone,” she explains “There’s so much you can say with just that single word. When quizzed about its origins, she says she’s not too sure where it came from but that “it’s just one of those words that everyone starts using and so you start using too”.  

So maybe it’s not quite time for Indian English to take over the world. But one can still dream! Imagine a British pop star saying he can’t go on tour – “why-because I have laryngitis”, or an American high school girl telling a boy to lay off or “I’ll complain to my cousin-brother about your eve-teasing”. The one thing that’s certain is that the language, English, is alive and kicking in India and is in a take-no-prisoners mood. How will this affect the rest of the English-speaking world? We’ll just have to wait and watch!

Published 24 June 2011, 12:52 IST

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