Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 2 August 2010

2 August 2010

Indian English

With David Cameron's visit to India in the news, our attention at Collins Language is drawn to the linguistic variety of the subcontinent. By a conservative count, India has 415 languages. English is one of them. After the United States, India has more English speakers than any other country – more than 90 million of them – who generally use it as a second or even third language. To them may be added many millions in Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as millions more in other countries. The British were on the subcontinent from the seventeenth century onward as traders, colonizers, missionaries, soldiers, and administrators, culminating in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Imperial Raj (reign). Even after independence in 1947, the use of English did not decline. In fact, it grew with the rise of the internet, satellite communications, and India-based call centres for foreign companies' telemarketing and technical support.

Statistics are always in flux, and generalizations always hazardous, in the second most populous country on earth. Twenty-two Indian languages have more than a million native speakers. That fact alone guarantees that the Indian English spoken by a bilingual or multilingual person will reflect a native language, whether it be Hindi, the official, most widely spoken one or, in order of population, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and Gujarati. Though spelling usually follows British English, which also may confer social prestige on its users, Indian English differs in many ways. Its syntax, usages, and pronunciations are rich pickings for comedians though Indians also make fun of themselves, helped by the habit of using seemingly pompous formulations such as beginning a business letter with 'Respected Sir' and ending it with 'Please do the needful', or asking, 'What is your good name, sir?'

Word order may appear wrenched to non-Indian ears. Some short words like also, but, and only may be tagged for emphasis at the end of sentences, or repeated: 'We talked about books only only.' Like only, itself can emphasize time and place: 'Can we discuss the topic next week itself?' A question may end, 'yes?' 'no?' or 'isn't it?' To distinguish between male and female, a cousin may be a cousin brother or a cousin sister: 'He is your cousin brother, isn't it?' Compounding words often occurs: a time-pass is time spent purposelessly or unexcitingly: 'That course was a real time-pass.' Likewise, word-shortening: enthusiasm is enthu, fundamentals are fundas. Though Indians are no more profane than other English-speakers, damn is used much more frequently.

The progressive tense is much used, as in 'Chanda is wearing sari' and 'You have seen?' The definite or indefinite article is often dropped: 'She was often guest.' Rhyming phrases abound, as in the title of a famous Anglo-Indian dictionary, whose shortened form was Hobson-Jobson. A person older than oneself may be respectfully addressed as aunty or uncle, or the suffix –ji or the Urdu-derived sahib tacked on to a name or title: 'Swami-ji', 'Begum Sahib'.

Hindi often intervenes, as in wallah, to denote an occupation or activity, as in tiffin-wallah, a person who delivers snacks or lunches. Indians are expert at mixing or switching from one language or social context to another. Since since and for is the same in Hindi, since is often used for the latter: 'I have been ill since two weeks.' Hindi in fact has fused with English to form the hybrid language Hinglish, one common word of which is yaar, a buddy or companion.

Pronunciation varies much from the north to the south but Indians, like most Canadians, generally pronounce the r before consonants or at the end of words. V and w often sound the same. They often pronounce weak vowels as full ones, and stress the syllable rather than longer rhythmic units, lending speech a sing-song quality.

Outside the country, India has loaned many words to standard English. From Hindi: shampoo. From Malayalam: ginger. From Sanskrit: guru, yoga, pariah. From Tamil: curry. So it goes: bamboo, mango, bungalow, chintz, juggernaut, pundit … Culturally, international enthusiasm for Indian food has made terms for breads and snacks (chapatti, samosas, pakoras), spice mixtures (masala), and tandoori chicken familiar to restaurant-goers and home cooks alike. The fame of the Indian movie industry has also grown mightily, as witness Bollywood, which blends Bombay and Hollywood. Bombay has officially been renamed Mumbai, taken from Sanskrit and Marathi words. The new name may take a while to catch on.

Fraser Sutherland


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