Rant

Another semester rumbles to a close. It’s been a particularly trying one, because I volunteered to teach undergrad students, along with my usual load of postgraduate-and-above teaching, and was quickly disabused of any vain notions of my abilities in the area. (OK,OK, I’m just trying to say, without loss of face, that I failed miserably. ) And no, this isn’t carefully camouflaged elitism; you know  (nudge nudge, wink  wink) I can only teach at “higher levels.” Not at all. Humble crow has been eaten. I realize that it takes far greater skill to engage hyperactive teenagers fresh out of high school who’d much rather be in their labs than waste time on esoteric subjects like English.

At a workshop for teachers in the Department recently, a young man (who teaches English at an engineering college in Hyd)  had us in splits over the “unlearning”  he does in class, thanks to what his students already come indoctrinated with, or pick up from their “subject teachers” (whatay quaint phrase!): sentences that begin “Suppose if …; quaint phrases like “show put up”; and weird grammar rules like “all two-letter words are prepositions.” I know. Four-letter-word!

Any interest in the cultural connotations of Indian English must vapourize when you spend an entire work-life telling young people that they could very well be accused of lewd innuendo when they say  ‘missionary’ (for machinery) or of confusing horses with people when they say ‘oats’ (for votes).

And yet . . . I don’t know. This business of aspiring to speak “propah English” saddens me immensely. As a teacher of English, I recognize the importance of a standard. (Yes, yes, I’m paid to promote it.) But I also rile against a standard that comes from abroad. While even the likes of David Abercrombie and Daniel Jones have asked the question “RP – RIP?”, we in India are yet to get over our infatuation with speaking la-di-dah. A case in point: During the Chandrayaan launch, there were several snooty comments all over the Indian blogosphere about the thick Malayalam accents of the bigwigs at ISRO. Seriously, what is with these commenters? The men at ISRO are what they are not because of their accents but because of what they’ve achieved.  

But it’s not just the accent  that is sniggered at. There is the matter of “common Indian errors” — a heady mix of half-truths and prejudices.  A senior professor once bristled at what she called the uniquely Indian usage “can able to/cannot able to” as in “I cannot able to understand.”/ “I can able to do it.”

However, this ‘uniquely Indian usage’ was pretty common in 16th century England; you’ll find it in Shakespeare and the King James Bible (no less!). Nor has the usage completely died out. You don’t have to take my word for it; trust David Crystal. (Did I mention that I absolutely adore the man? His work, actually.) He has a fascinating blog post on the phrase, which you can read about here. It is not something we Indians invented because we inflict our cradle tongues on English, or because we’re just too dumb to learn English properly.

 Our variety of English is as much a product of colonial contact as that of the Americans, the Australians or the African-Americans. But while each of these Englishes has acquired the status of a variety because its speakers recognize its link to their culture, their ethos, we remain hopelessly opposed to grooming our own homegrown standard. 

And to make my point, here’s an excerpt from an essay titled Expressive Language by Amiri Baraka, (poet, playwright, and activist) whose work I’ve been reading:

I heard an old Negro street singer last week, Reverend Pearly Brown, singing, “God don’t never change!” This is a precise thing he is singing. He does not mean “God does not ever change.” He means “God don’t never change.” The difference is in the final human reference . . . A man who is rich and famous who sings “God don’t never change.” is confirming his hegemony and good fortune . . . or merely calling the bank. A blind, hopeless black American is saying something very different. He is telling you about the extraordinary order of the world.

 Throughout his career Baraka has, through the powerful use of the black idiom, introduced both blacks and whites to the richness of black culture by exploring the connotations of particular words in black and white English. Those who see nothing but non-standard, ungrammatical, or un-aesthetic English in that double negative are clearly missing a lot. 

When will we take our blinkers off and recognize that the Indian English idiom expresses our culture?  Perhaps never. Because there are many among us who see it as merely hackneyed, clichéd, non-standard and unaesthetic. Because there are many among us still willing and eager to carry the white man’s burden.

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14 Comments »

  1. Quirky Indian said

    A very thought-provoking rant, SS. But I shall have to disagree. Please forgive the long comment this is sure to turn out to be.

    Is there an Indian English Idiom? Can there ever be one? I don’t think so. We’ll have a Telugu English Idiom, we’ll have a Marathi English Idiom and a Punjabi English Idiom but never an Indian English Idiom. Even within these categories, depending on the socio-economic class of the speaker, the variations will be huge. That might sound elitist, but it’s actually a sad reflection on the abysmal state of our educational system. But that’s for another rant. Coming back to the issue at hand – you’re never going to have an “Indian” standard, unlike say the Americans or Australians. And we’ve gone over this before…..there is variation in American English, for example, but nothing close to the variations we have here. And in the absence not only of a truly ‘Indian’ standard – is there anything truly ‘Indian’, apart from defecating on the streets? – but also of the hope of ever having one, I for one, am quite happy carrying the white man’s burden.

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.com

  2. Quirky:

    Your response is predictable. 🙂

    Very true about the variations in Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, etc. English. A point that is widely recognized today. So Hinglish, Benglish, Tanglish, etc. etc. But consider – aren’t these variations largely of specific vocab borrowed from the mother tongue and of accent? Isn’t it possible for you to understand someone from the south who speaks English? The criterion for a dialect is intelligibility. If your English is unintelligible to me, then we’re speaking different dialects. For linguists at least this is an important difference. If you take the example of Britain itself, a dialect like Geordie (Tyneside dialect) is pretty incomprehensible to others. And yet they have a Standard British English. That’s the point I’m making.

    There is work done on the grammatical, syntactic and semantic variation of Indian English. By people like Kacchru. Work which shows that there are similar peculiarities in the English spoken in India across states. Now, you can decide whether these are non-standard features, curiosities, or representative of a people’s background.

    I was actually going to ignore this, however:
    Is there anything truly Indian? I believe there is. And I believe that you know it, too. You and I do not relieve ourselves on the road. Does that make us not Indian?

  3. Quirky Indian said

    SS, as is your response. 🙂

    And our respective views are unsurprising, given your idealism and my cynicism.

    On to my reply to your reply….as with most things to do with India, one can’t ignore the numbers. While I do not have the number of people speaking Geordie, you can be assured it will be a very small proportion of the total English speaking population of Britain, and an insignificant number compared to even the standard english speaking population. Hence the ability to arrive at a standard – as with most such things, the number of people adopting a particular ‘standard’ matters in making it the standard. Therein lies the logical fallacy in your reply.

    In India, the number of people speaking each of the many variations will be very large, and most variations, unlike in England, are not derived from dialects/variants of English, but from completely different languages…and, as a linguist, I am sure you know that while there are certain elements of homogeneity, there are even more elements of disparity, brought on the by influence of the mother-tongue. So which of these is a standard? And which of these will be an acceptable standard to our fractious and parochial populace? Will “UP Englis”, with all its regional flavours and idioms ever be accepted by Tamil speakers of English as a standard? And vice-versa? Perhaps the best solution is not to painstakingly evolve a forced standard, but to stick to either a British or an American one.

    And yes, I sincerely don’t believe ‘being Indian’ implies the existence of positive traits. Currently, there’s just a long list of negatives.

    As for the other thing, we don’t. But then we are very far removed – an insignificant minority -from the rest of the people we share this peninsula with – distant enough to make our views and actions meaningless to the rest of the nation. Which may not be a bad thing given my outlook, but which is certainly a loss given your sunny idealism.

    Apologies for the increased length of the reply, but what is to be doing?

    Cheerio,

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.com

  4. Quirky:

    It appears to me that we’re talking slightly at cross-purposes here. I’m saying “we should” and you’re saying “we can’t”.

    I didn’t really mean to talk about “enforcing” any standards. I have my own misgivings about standards. To me a standard is just another dialect. Any clout it has is actually political and social rather than linguistic. And numbers are not, never have been, the criterion for deciding a standard. A case in point: RP is spoken by a very small percentage of people in England and yet it is considered a standard (at least for pronunciation). Standards have traditionally been the variety spoken by the educated, the rich, the powerful. A minority, you will grant. Or the language recorded in “great works” of literature. Not the language of the common man and woman.

    As for the numbers: 2% of the population of India is equivalent (though not equal) to 2% of the population of Britain. Vast numbers do not mean anything in this context. If it did, then the fact that we have a greater number of speakers of English than Britain should have automatically ensured that our variety becomes the standard.

    Also, I’d say you’re mixing up sections of the population here. Educated speakers of English in India speak differently. There is a degree of homogeneity there. For those who merely speak a bit of it for bare communication purposes, the standards don’t matter. Standards are only necessary in formal settings – teaching, publishing, mass media perhaps. Otherwise all of us speak with some degree of variation from the standard.

    This is an issue that I’m very passionate about, so it is difficult for me to be objective about it. Therefore perhaps you’re right and I’m being illogical.

    You do not have to agree with me. That’s not why I blog. But I urge you to consider this: Language is very intimately connected with culture. And whenever people have been forced to learn a language not a part of their culture, they have always innovated, experimented, changed the language so as to express themselves in it. Variety for me is what keeps a language alive and vibrant. It comes with its problems, no doubt: making communication happen, or reaching a common minimum level of intelligibility. But that is a far worthier challenge for me, than aspiring to speak the Queen’s English. If it helps me express myself better, then I want that variety and not the Queen’s. If this is “sunny idealism”, so be it.

  5. Quirky Indian said

    SS, we do seem to be talking at cross-purposes here, so let me clarify:

    1. For a country like India, it is imperative we have a comon language, and my belief is that it has to be English.

    2. That brings up the next question, which variety of English, given the many kinds of English prevalent here?

    3. The varieties of English here vary not just spatially, but by socio-economic class as well. And the differences – again based one the influence of one’s mother tongue – are considerable. And the numbers of people who speak these varieties are suficiently large to keep that variety flourishing. (So in this case, numbers matter, not the percentage.) And lingusitic and regional pride will keep us from adopting, or even adapting and adopting other Indian English variants as some sort of ‘standard”. Hard truth about this country.

    4. You’re absolutely right, normally the standard is the language of the educated, the rich and the powerful. Except, given the regional pulls here, the rich and powerful also speak different varieties, and if there is a common standard, it is the Queen’s English – or an aspirational avataar of the same.

    5. Ergo, since there does seem to some standard that at least cuts across regional boundaries – very critical in India – why not use the Queen’s English, instead of chasing a dream of a homegrown standard? And, in all practicality, the Queen’s English may perhaps morph into something more and more “indian” (again, if there is such a thing 🙂 ) with the passage of time.

    6. As for people being forced to learn a language that is not part of thier culture, I agree; but consider this: Punjabi or Marathi are as foreign to you as Telugu is to someone from Punjab or Maharashtra – and so a Pinglish or Minglish – apologies for using such terrible words – will perhaps be as ‘foreign’ to a Telugu English speaker as, say, Australian. And you’re right, variety is good – but clear communication and intelligibility in today’s age is better. And so, based all the reasons I have attempted to articulate, I believe we should go with the variant of the Queens’ English that we speak. And if that is predictable, so be it. 🙂

    7. Have a great weekend.

    8. Cheers.

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.om

    Quirky: I’m of the view, too, that English is the most useful link language we have, that variations in Indian Englishes are very real problems. This is part of the rationale for Standard British being the standard of English promoted here. And we all know what 60+ years of this standard has achieved for us. While the erratic educational system is largely to blame, cultural distancing is another important factor. I also know that Indian English will never emerge as a standard. The powerful minority that use the existing standard (whether the Queen’s or General American (and that includes me) have vested interests in propagating this standard. It takes courage, nay foolhardiness, to look beyond. Enjoy your weekend, too. – SS

  6. anwesha c said

    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cambridge_quarterly/v035/35.2chandran.html#REF10

    Dear Quirky,
    I urge you to read this illuminating piece of writing which, I think, summarizes almost everything regarding teaching of English in India.
    Also, it is time that we stop talking about ‘Queen’s English’ and start thimking about Indian English which is an accepted variant in school education (and I am speaking from experience).
    English in India has found many registers and it can co-exist quite well with other languages (and it also has to, as the language of opportunities).
    And as much as we might claim that our languages are unique, I would beg to differ on your point about Marathi and Punjabi being very different from Telugu; because it shows that you are sadly unaware of the Sanskritic influences (albeit, often unwanted) on Telugu. Also, Punjabi especially is the new Hindi, what with the overdose of Punjabi language and culture projected by Bollywood and other associated bodies!!
    And it would be interesting to know who our bold, italicised friend is…

  7. @ Anwesha:

    So you finally delurked!

    Yes, that’s a superb piece. And I had the rare privilege of reading it before it went to press. (KNC shared it with me.) Project Muse requires subscription, btw. You can only access it on the campus LAN.

    And the comment in bold and italics below Quirky’s is mine! Added “SS” to avoid confusion.

  8. Quirky Indian said

    @SS: I apologise for clogging your comments section like this….I promise this is the last comment. No more.

    @Anwesha: at your urging, I did try to read that illuminating piece of writing and only managed to read an abstract…..thanks anyway. If any one of you can send me the paper, I would love to read it.

    It appears you haven’t clearly understood my argument…..my point is that the Queen’s English has been sufficiently indigenised and is the only variant that should be the standard……India is the modern-day equivalent of the Tower of Babel anyway, and we can do without trying to fashion any other home-grown hybrid, especially when we have the makings of one already. The purposes of a language like English in India are unambiguous communication, intelligibility, enhanced employability of the speaker and socio-economic mobility. You speak from experience about the accepted variant in school education, and I speak from experience ( in at least 5 states, each with its own official language) when I say that for the bulk of the population there is nothing standard in the way English is taught across India….except perhaps the fact that what children are taught is rubbish…..affecting not only their performance at the higher-education levels, but, as a result, their employment prospects as well……we are predominantly a service economy….and call-centres are only one part of this. Every other segment requires good, standard communication skills as well. You need one nation-wide standard here, and that can only be our variant of the Queen’s English as it is spoken by the people SS refers to as “the educated, the rich and the powerful”….while this may go against the egalitarian sensibilities of many of us, practical and economic considerations should be factors in this decision, not some evangelical cultural zeal.

    Thank you too, for reminding me of the Sanskritic influence on many Indian languages…..but the fact remains that they are different languages, the chastity and purity of which are zealously, jealously and often violently protected. For most Indians, it is impossible to have a rational, balanced debate on language….our politics of identity have ensured that, and having a common influence doesn’t really mean much on the ground. You are, I dare presume, a native Bangla speaker…..does that mean that, apart from perhaps understanding a smattering of words in Telugu, you can get by in a strictly Telugu-speaking environment? Somehow – and no aspersions here on your undoubtedly sterling linguistic abilities – I doubt it. As for your point about the seeping in of the larger Punjabi culture because of Bollywood, it still does not mean that a native Hindi speaker will be able to get by in a strictly Punjabi-speaking environment just because he’s familiar with words like ‘rab’, ‘balle balle’ or ‘chak de’… though I grant that it would be easier than your Telugu adventure!

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.com

  9. Quirky:

    Thank you for engaging in the debate, in your trademark acerbic yet brilliant style that I’ve come to admire. You’ve pointed to an important dimension – the need for clear standards of communication. On this I’m in complete agreement with you. And in your words “The Queen’s English has been sufficiently indiginised”, I read recognition of this variant called Indian English. 🙂

  10. anwesha c said

    “we are predominantly a service economy”
    check your facts, quirky; the tertiary sector is where people like you dwell

    and as much as you rant about the necessity about there being one variety (mutually intelligible, etc etc)…stuff like that; there isn’t a possibility of attaining such a standrad unless every single individual is brainwashed
    anyday, a tower of babel instead of a 1984!!

    and yeah “…what children are taught is rubbish”
    yet another generalisation, i am sorry to say…i think it is high time that such strong sentiments aren’t only vented out but also reacted against

    and once again, that reference to sanskritic influence was not for you to comment upon my linguistic background but was a response to your statement about the weird matrix of languages that you conjured up, about intelligibility and all

    all said and done, must i say your stubbornness and ability to divert attention from major points of criticism (directed at you) is commendable

    and as you say,
    cheers

  11. anwesha c said

    and yeah
    spelling check (since this is about language)

    ‘standrad’ was a typo

  12. Quirky Indian said

    @SS: Thank you….much appreciated, coming from someone whose work I admire. And I was never disputed the fact that the Queen’s English was indigenised – my position all along has been that any Indian standard has to be based on this indigenised version, the one that is used by you, by Anwesha, by me. It can’t be some chimera of regional Indian languages and their derived English idioms.

    And I know I promised not to comment, but……

    @Anwesha:
    “we are predominantly a service economy”
    ’check your facts, quirky; the tertiary sector is where people like you dwell’

    I did, actually. That is why I wrote what I did. The services sector accounts for approximately 54% of our GDP. Industry contributes 29% and agriculture 17%. These were 2007 figures; the services share would only have gone up in 2008.

    “and as much as you rant about the necessity about there being one variety (mutually intelligible, etc etc)…stuff like that; there isn’t a possibility of attaining such a standrad unless every single individual is brainwashed
    anyday, a tower of babel instead of a 1984!!”

    The teaching of a uniform English language standard across the country is equivalent to brainwashing? Isn’t that a little drastic? Surely you could’ve come up with a better argument than that?

    “and yeah “…what children are taught is rubbish”
    yet another generalisation, i am sorry to say…i think it is high time that such strong sentiments aren’t only vented out but also reacted against”

    Funnily enough, I wish it were a generalization. Sadly, it isn’t. The employability of Indian graduates has been the subject of many studies, including by McKinsey and Nasscom….0nly 20% meet the criterion of employability based on English language skills….here are some interesting links you may want to read. I would be delighted to send you more.

    http://www.financialexpress.com/news/employability-gaps-puncture-indias-talent-pool-claim/43054/0

    http://www.hindu.com/edu/2008/01/07/stories/2008010750210800.htm

    http://appliedclinicaltrialsonline.findpharma.com/appliedclinicaltrials/CRO%2FSponsor/Indias-Talent-Crunch/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/563295

    Indian parents, by and large, spend a lot of money on their children’s education. People in the lower income groups rightly see English as a stepping stone to a better life. Please talk – and I don’t mean this in any facetious way – to the children of your neighbourhood grocer; the daughter of a cab driver and the son of some domestic help. Chances are, their parents are shelling out good money to send them to a school that allegedly teaches English. The kids won’t be able to string together half a coherent sentence in English. I have interacted with many of these children, and it hurts me to see parents paying the equivalent of two months’ salary as fees twice a year….other costs not included. And for what? This is the case in our metros – can you imagine the scenario in smaller towns? Let’s not even get to rural India.

    “and once again, that reference to sanskritic influence was not for you to comment upon my linguistic background but was a response to your statement about the weird matrix of languages that you conjured up, about intelligibility and all”

    May I clarify that there was nothing personal intended in my remark about your linguistic background? A recent post on your blog mentioned that aspect, and I brought up the Bangla-Telugu example since it seemed particularly relevant to your situation. As for the weird matrix of languages, I’m afraid it’s not ‘conjured up’ but completely true. As a country, we have huge issues when it comes to language, and the fact remains that ‘common influence’ notwithstanding, these are completely different languages and it would be impractical to assume otherwise.

    “all said and done, must i say your stubbornness and ability to divert attention from major points of criticism (directed at you) is commendable”

    A back-handed complement! Thank you. I am happy to address points of criticism that are valid and backed by sound reasoning. Your comments, unfortunately, displayed very little of those qualities.

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.com

  13. Quirky Indian said

    @SS – sorry for the ‘was’ in that sentence…..

  14. Quirky Indian said

    @Anwesha – spell check in my case too: ‘compliment’, not complement.

    Cheers.

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