Passages from India by Amrit Dhillon

IT EVOKES a gentler, more polite, more genteel era. The English spoken in India involves terms such as “doing the needful” when something must be done, asking “what is your good name?” when speaking on the telephone, and referring to “Eve teasing” instead of sexual harassment.

People are “felicitated” on their birthdays, friends go to funerals to “condole” with the bereaved over their loss, and judges sometimes throw words such as “poppycock” into their solemn rulings.

Distinctly odd though it might be, this form of English – known as Hinglish (a Hindi form of English) – will soon become the most commonly spoken form of the language, a British language expert predicted during a recent visit to India.

The claim by David Crystal, author of dozens of books on the English language, is based on the fact that about 350 million Indians speak English as a second language, exceeding the number in Britain and the US who speak it as their first language.

“With the percentage rising as the Indian population grows, with the internet spreading English, and with Indians at the forefront of the IT revolution, Indian English will reach around the globe and take over from British and American forms,” Crystal said during a lecture, The Future of Englishes, at the British Council in New Delhi.

Crystal says Hinglish will probably become more widely known in the next few years for two reasons: India’s success in IT and its back office work for western multinationals, and the growing popularity of Indian culture around the world, particularly Bollywood movies.

Given Indians’ expertise in writing software and IT, Crystal expects Indian idioms to spread on the internet. “Certain phrases are bound to become global, with so many Indians working in IT,” he says. “As more Indians talk in chat rooms about their lives, their festivals and customs, send e-mails or start blogging [maintaining personal websites], the phrases and words they use to describe their lives will be picked up by others on the internet.”

India‘s outsourcing success has already produced a new verb. Americans about to lose their job because it’s being moved to India grumble about being “Bangalored”.

Hinglish is a strange beast. It contains words and phrases that many English speakers wouldn’t understand. Some are archaic relics of the British Raj, such as “pukka”, meaning genuine. Others are neologisms such as “time-pass”, meaning an activity that isn’t very interesting but passes the time.

The language even has its own dictionary. While working at the British High Commission in the Indian capital in the 1960s, Nigel Hankin, an eccentric Englishman, met a newly arrived doctor who gave him a list of about 20 words and phrases encountered in Delhi‘s English newspapers. Hankin set out to translate them, and thus was born the Hanklyn-Janklyn, a glossary of Indian English.

Binoo John, who is writing a book on the evolution of Indian English, says it tends to be more formal than British English because Indians tend to be respectful towards strangers and there is a strong literary tradition. “English literature here is widely read and appreciated,” he says. “For example, perfectly ordinary people can quote Shakespeare and so you tend to have longer words and more complex syntax. The way Indians use nouns as verbs – just as Shakespeare does – shows they are tapping into the core creativity of the language.”

International companies such as Ford or Pepsi have had to bow before the power of Hinglish. Pepsi changed its international slogan “Ask for More” to “Dil Maange More” (The heart wants more), while Ford sells the Ford Ikon by calling it the Josh car – josh being Hindi for exciting and powerful.

English has always had a special status in India, owing to its colonial history. In India, it’s the language of the government and the elite, used in daily life and in the media. It’s also the only language that unites Indians in a country that has 14 official languages and more than 1,600 dialects. Hindi is spoken only in the north. Indians in the south refuse to speak it, preferring English. So when a north Indian telephones a south Indian, they usually can communicate only in English.

India has more people who speak English as a second language than any other country. The next is Nigeria, but it’s far behind with up to 80 million speakers. Every country has its own variant of English – Hong Kong‘s Chinglish and Singapore‘s Singlish, being examples. But Hinglish is far ahead of all other variants by virtue of the size of the Indian population – now more than one billion. As the population keeps growing rapidly, so will the practitioners of Hinglish.

The popularity of English can be seen in every city or town in India. Private English tuition is a major industry. The poor are desperate to ensure their children learn it because it’s a passport to jobs and prosperity. They might not have running water or flush toilets, but they want to send their children to schools where the medium of instruction is English, not an Indian language.

Ranjeeta Khajur works as a maid in a New Delhi suburb. Although poor, she pays for a private tutor to teach English to her two sons. “If I had known English, I could have learnt computers and worked in an office,” she says. “My husband could have worked in an embassy. My children have to speak English to get better jobs, otherwise they’ll be a servant like me.”

Innovative projects that take computer skills to impoverished villagers often succeed because, as the organisers are pleasantly surprised to find, most village children have a smattering of English and can negotiate their way around the computer world without much difficulty. India‘s passion for English partly explains the success of its software and call centre industries. It has the second largest pool of English-speaking technical power in the world – unlike China where the lack of proficiency in English is a problem. The number of world-class scientists and engineers it churns out every year is also the second highest in the world, after the US.

And if the Indian call centre business is booming, it’s thanks to the millions of English-speaking graduates who emerge every year from Indian colleges and institutes.

Perhaps the biggest change in the status of Hinglish is Indians’ attitude towards it. The longing to ape British or American accents, the cruel sneering at a less than proficient person’s mispronunciation, and the cringing embarrassment over Indianisms have all disappeared.

“The old snobbery attached to ‘good’ accents is fading,” says society-watcher Madhu Jain. “People don’t snigger if you’ve got a thick, small-town accent, as long as you’re understood.”

Crystal says the younger generations are getting over the linguistic colonialism. “They’re breaking and bending the rules,” he says. “They’re being creative because they’re confident. That’s evidence that they now feel they ‘own’ the language rather than are just borrowing it.”

But cult status of Hinglish and its growing use annoy Hindu nationalists. K. S. Sudershan, the leader of a group affiliated with the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, lashed out last month at the practice of using English to teach children, saying it exposed them to “lesbianism and casual sex”.

Sadly for him, Indians are not understanding him.

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