How Indian is my English?

One of the questions that should bother (It doesn’t. At least, not strongly enough.)  those of us who speak English in India  is: What to do about Indian English? Pretend that we don’t speak it? Banish it as non-standard English? Study it the way one would a specimen in a zoology lab, or as a curiosity, taking care to immunize one’s own speech and writing from it?

An American friend once observed that he was amazed at the range and variety of English he encounters in India. It’s as if every person speaks a different dialect.  In fact, every state in India has its own variety of Indian English, which can be quite taxing for a foreigner! And the variation is not just in accent, but also in sentence structure, vocabulary,  and idiom, the vernacular of each state forging its own distinctive flavour of Indian English.  

In academia, Indian English is definitely non-standard; our entire English education is aimed at erasing it and inflicting “the standard” upon us.  But what is this “standard”? More often than not it’s Standard British English as seen or heard in British Literature, the BBC or textbooks published by British-based publishing houses.  In corporate India, of course, American English (as seen/heard in Hollywood and American media) rules.

But shouldn’t it trouble us – that the standard for our most important link language comes from abroad? Don’t we speak enough English to be able to devise our own standard? Isn’t it time we standardized Indian English, instead of forcing a foreign variety down our throats? 

The lack of a homegrown standard is perhaps one major cause of the alarming levels of linguistic profiling (using speech characteristics, or dialect, to identify a speaker’s race, religion or social class; a term coined by John Baugh) – easily one of the biggest forms of discrimination in India.

Gross variation in English is a source of much mirth (as it is anywhere in the world of course) but the mirth is often derisive. Consider, for instance, the very Indian poems in Indian English by Nissim Ezekiel, one of the founding fathers of modern Indian poetry in English.  Here’s the most well-known example:

Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.

our dear sister
is departing for foreign
in two three days,
we are meeting today
to wish her bon voyage.

You are all knowing, friends,
what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa.
I don’t mean only external sweetness
but internal sweetness.
Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling
even for no reason
but simply because she is feeling.

Miss Pushpa is coming
from very high family.
Her father was renowned advocate
in Bulsar or Surat,
I am not remembering now
which place.

Surat? Ah, yes,
once only I stayed in Surat
with family members
of my uncle’s very old friend,
his wife was cooking nicely . . .
that was long time ago.
Coming back to Miss Pushpa
she is most popular lady
with men also and ladies also.

Whenever I asked her to do anything,
she was saying, ‘Just now only
I will do it.’ That is showing
good spirit. I am always
appreciating the good spirit.
Pushpa Miss is never saying no.
Whatever I or anybody is asking
she is always saying yes,
and today she is going
to improve her prospect,
and we are wishing her bon voyage.

Now I ask other speakers to speak,
and afterwards Miss Pushpa
will do summing up.

 The use of Indian English here is deliberate, meant to evoke laughter and not to exploit any expressive possibilities that the variety might offer. Contrast this with what African and Caribbean poets have shown is possible with pidgins, creoles, patois, and dialects. Here’s an example –  Kaumau Braithwaite’s 1967 chant about tourism, “Wings of a Dove”:

So beat dem drums
dem, spread

dem wings dem
watch dem fly 

dem, soar dem
high dem…

full o’ silk dem
full o’ food dem…

full o’ flash dem
full o’ cash dem..

So beat dem burn
dem, learn

dem that dem
got nothin’….

 This piece is from Rotten English: A Literary Anthology, an anthology of two centuries of world literature, edited by  Dohra Ahmad (professor of post-colonial literature at St. John’s University in New York). What makes this anthology special is that it consists entirely of vernacular, non-standard writing (fiction, poetry, essays) in English from around the world – Jamaican English, African-American, Dominican, Chicano-American and “Spanglish”, Irish,  Scottish,  Brooklyn English, Nigerian English and Pakistani-Londoner English.  As one reviewer of the book puts it, when you finish, you feel like a world traveler.

Reading and understanding so many different varieties is not easy, and sometimes you’re all at sea. (Ahmad acknowledges this by providing a useful glossary. ) But the anthology helps break the hold that the notion of a standard has on literary language.  For, clearly, the stilted, standard form simply cannot capture the cadences, flavours and rhythms of life that these “non-standard” varieties do.





  1. Quirky Indian said

    Hmmmm. That was an interesting post. I completely buy your point that the “standard” is more a result of power-play; hence the growing acceptability and usage of American English, which, for the pundits of British English in India, is a bastard child. The power of American entertainment and business, though, has made sure that US spellings, colloquialisms and pronunciations are as prevalent today as the British ones.
    Will we ever arrive at an Indian standard? I’m not sure. The better (I think I’m being elitist here) academic institutions will continue to churn out people who will adhere to the British (increasingly mixed with American) standard. The rest will continue to create a bewildering number of variants, and that’s the way it will be for a very, very long time.

    Loved the Ezekiel poem. I hadn’t come across it before. Seems the most readily available poem of his is Night of the Scorpions.

    Quirky Indian

  2. asmokescreen said

    Thanks for stopping by, Quirky Indian. And for the astute comment.

    You’ve heard the old joke about languages and dialects, right? That a language is a dialect with an army and a navy? 🙂

    English Departments in India do study (as in write research papers on) Indian English. But that’s the irony – they study it; they don’t actually use it. When teaching or writing, the Standard rules.

    Also, about this British-American debate:
    There is considerable variation in English (vocab, idiom and pronunciation) both across Britain and across the US. Which is something often overlooked when speaking of Standard British or Standard American. The point being that the standard is just another generalisation.

    It’s not all that easy to draw the line between a variety and a standard. And, as a teacher of English, the struggle to draw this line is my personal hell. 🙂

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