Monday 13 July 2020

E is for English

Pick up a newspaper, and it is likely to be the Times of India, or perhaps the Hindustani Times.  Inside, there will be stories headlined 'Cops Nab Robber.'  The prose is slightly wordy, but elegant in its stiff way, and thoroughly correct.  The first leader thunders benevolently. The titles, the layout, the writing: they are all straight out of the 1930s.

Turn on the television and there may be a quiz show.  The contestants are fresh-faced young men and women, speaking beautifully articulated English. They are excitable but modestly restrained like well-brought up children. Lord Reith would have approved.  Another viewers' competition is signed off with the words "chin-chin and cheerio," without a trace of self-consciousness.

This is Indian English, a splendid outgrowth of the imperial legacy.  At first it might seem simply quaint, as if the whole Indian nation is pretending not to have noticed that its colonial elders have quietly left the drawing room; and so they carry on talking politely, handing round the tiffin, and remain on their best behaviour - just in case the grown-ups come back.  The reality is different.  The continuing vigour of Indian English has driven real developments, but according to its own very particular laws.  If the language sounds fossilised it is the hearing that is defective.

It is easy to be deaf to the subtle changes the language has undergone. What sound like tiny errors are in fact the blurs of a moving language as it shifts away from its origins.  For example, Indians reach to Delhi, buildings are ramshackled, and car-drivers horn.  Alongside this small but widespread drift of Indian from British English as it is loosened from its linguistic moorings, there are the more dramatic cultural lurches: the goondas, the octrois, the multifarious wallahs.

But to concentrate on these surface elements is to miss the far deeper currents of Indian English.  After all, officially, Hindi is the language of India.  But the hold of English has been too strong - its practicality too great, and its cachet too alluring.  It now forms the second official language, nominally as a stopgap measure, but in reality until it overtakes Hindi as the first.

The further up society, the deeper English's ingrained and reflexive use. For the intellectuals, as witnessed in the media, it is second nature. Indeed, to engage the modern technological world rather than an ancient Hindu one, there is no alternative: life as they know it would be literally unthinkable, since the words are not there to conceive it.  For the thrusting executives and entrepreneurs of the new dynamic India, it is an indispensable passport to world markets.  For the middle classes generally, it is a paradoxical mark of belonging.  Only in the poorer and more isolated areas of India is English sparse and suspect.  But even there it will conquer.  It is now so strongly identified with progress, and with personal betterment, that these people will inevitably demand the right to learn and speak it. As that happens, Indian English will emerge increasingly as a major force in the shaping of the world language.

A Partial India A to Z

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