The Brave New World of Many Englishes

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  • The Brave New World of Many Englishes

Pankaj K Deo

We have had a long exposure to English education, which was introduced in India by Lord Macaulay in 1835. However, many of our expressions in English remain inscrutable to non-Indians, including the native speakers. It comes partly from our cultural tradition and partly from our linguistic ingenuity of using the language figuratively.

That we Indians display amazing linguistic resourcefulness is not something new. The only change that has come about is the level of its ready acceptance globally, especially by the revered dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary. This ready acceptance of Indian English is attributable to the growing number of people who use English as their second language but with a high level of proficiency globally. So, dictionaries have now become more liberal in including non-native varieties of English.

There was a time when it took years for a word like ‘prepone’ to be accepted by the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and other English dictionaries. Not anymore. These once venerated dictionaries have started readily accepting Indian words like ‘timepass’.

The OED 2015 edition added words such as keema, papad and curry leaf to a long list of such words that already existed in it, bhaji and bhang, to name a few. More than 60 per cent of the Indian English words are from Hindi. The inclusion of new words is based on their frequency of usage, which is now easier to find due to the Internet. The growing influence of the Indian diaspora has provided the main impetus to this trend.

Second comes first

According to David Crystal, the UK-based linguist, the most profound change that has happened in the 21st century is that the people who use English as the second language now outnumber those who use it as their first language “in a ratio of three to one”. This is happening for the first time in the history of the English language. “There’s never before been a language that’s been spoken by more people as a second language than a first,” says Crystal.

Globalisation, the new technological tools of communication, and the internet with most of its content in English, are propelling the global spread of the English language, after colonisation. However, this comes with its own set of problems.

Colonisation of the language

People in India continue to learn British English at school and college due to the colonial legacy. Ever since the introduction of English education in India, the print versions of dictionaries, published by Oxford and Cambridge from the UK, have determined not only the spellings of English words but also their meaning, usage and pronunciation for Indian students.

As far as grammatical rules are concerned, two books of the colonial era, one written by J. C. Nesfield and another by the writer duo, Wren and Martin, are still relied upon by many across the country. India’s English newspapers — some started by the British themselves — took upon themselves the role of rightful custodians of the English Language after its native speakers left Indian shores in 1947. All our English newspapers follow British English in terms of spelling and grammar.

The inscrutable Indians

An American IT client on a visit to India told the Indian IT manager who had come to receive him at the airport that he lost his driver’s licence. Now what is called ‘driver’s license’ in the US is called ‘driving licence in India’. So, the Indian IT manager asked whether the client’s driver was also coming. Another case is that of ‘fortnight’, a word that does not exist in American vocabulary, but we Indians use frequently in our communication. So, when an IT/ITES manager writes to a US-based client that he will finish the project in a fortnight, the client is often bemused and writes back to the IT/ITES manager to finish it in two weeks, which means pretty the same thing. Indians also use the word ‘revert’ or ‘revert back’ in the sense of ‘reply’, which mostly fails to elicit a ‘reply’ from overseas because ‘revert’ is never used in that sense anywhere else in the world. ‘Revert’ means ‘to return to a former state’ in the rest of the world.

American invasion

However, satellite channels, computers and the Internet globalised the process of language acquisition, particularly for English. Millennials start using MS Office now at an early stage in India, and when they type a word in British English (colour, centre, etc.) on Microsoft word or PowerPoint, these autocorrect it to American spellings (color, center, etc.) by default.

Moreover, the films or serials the millennials now watch, all come from the US. So they are learning one kind of English in schools/colleges/universities, which still follow British English, but are acquiring another variety (American English) from movie/TV/mobile screens. To top it all, the Internet, everyone’s first port of call for all kinds of information, is largely in American English. So, British English no longer seems to enjoy the exclusive status that it once did in India due to the country’s colonial past.

The overpowering influence that the US enjoys globally now is stealthily seeping into our day-to-day communication in English, many a time leading to ambiguities. People working in the IT/IES sectors are often witness to cases of misunderstandings arising out of different varieties of English used in different geographies.

Global contradictions

One often comes across matrimonial ads, both offline and online, where an Indian family seeks alliance for their US settled son with a beautiful, educated and ‘homely’ girl who is preferably a green card holder. Now the word ‘homely’ would mean ‘ugly’ or a person who is plain and unattractive in appearance in a disapproving sense in American English.

However, ‘homely’ in the Indian sense means a person who is warm and friendly and who enjoys the pleasures of home and family, which is an acceptable meaning in British English.

On the other hand, if an Indian girl born and brought up in the US looks at the matrimonial, she would be horrified. The second generation of Indians living in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, etc. use the English language just like the native speakers of their country of birth.

Power of social media

In the beginning was the ‘word’, and the ‘word’ was with Great Britain, which controlled the publication of most English language books, allowing the mother country to maintain some sort of proprietary control over the usage of the English language. Not any longer, for things get published mostly online, especially on social media. And all social media companies are headquartered in the US.

Further, conversations taking place on these social media platforms are happening largely among non-native speakers. Besides, texting language with its own set of abbreviations and emoticons add a new dimension to communication on social media.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg columnist, in his article entitled, Brits and Americans No Longer Own English, sums up the whole situation brilliantly: “English is quite unlike the dollar, as dominant in financial transactions as that language is in the global conversation. We all mint our versions, and they’re all legal tender these days.”

The origin of chutnification

The inclusion of Indian words into English vocabulary started officially with the publication of a dictionary called Hobson-Jobson in 1886 compiled by Colonel Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell. It was meant for newly arrived British officers who could not understand many words of Hindi and Urdu used by their senior colleagues, who had been living in India for long. It included words such as pyjama, bazar, bungalow, veranda, and even tiffin. Many of these words such as pyjama and jungle are now a legitimate part of English vocabulary used by the native speakers across the world. The credit for naturalisation of such words into English goes to a large extent to Rudyard Kipling. Born in Bombay

and educated in the UK, Kipling wrote his timeless classic, The Jungle Book, in the US, living in his house called Naulakha in Vermont, USA. Kipling was the brand ambassador of Indian English way before Salman Rushdie started the chutnification of the English language in the 1980s.

Dead don’t die

Our newspapers provide the best samples of such linguistic ingenuity and figurativeness. If you read the obituaries published in Indian newspapers, you will find most Indians leaving for their ‘heavenly abode’ or ‘passing away peacefully’, whereas native speakers of English continue to simply ‘die’ in the obituaries published in their newspapers. Some of our obituaries also announce ‘the sad demise’ of a loved one. As a newspaper editor, Khushwant Singh had found a regional pattern in the obituaries of Indians and later wrote in his widely read newspaper column, “North Indians were always going to their ‘heavenly abode’, Gujaratis were ‘passing away’; Maharashtrians ‘breathed their last’; and South Indians made quicker exit: they simply ‘expired’.”

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