Posts Tagged Indian English

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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Oh, North is North, and South is South, and never the twain shall meet*.

There’s been a bit of comment warring over the tiresome north India-south India divide over at Krish Ashok’s blog. (A blog that I frequent because the author is witty, has a way with words and revels in delightfully irreverent humour that spares nothing and no one, not even himself.) 

The original hair-raising comment that set off the war is ridiculously juvenile and I’m not going to bother quoting it here. Suffice it to say it spawned off a debate on stereotypes about north Indians and south Indians — a debate that clearly refuses to die down, and not just on blogs.  

Yes, there are considerable cultural differences between the peoples of the north and the south in India. One of the most poignant expressions of this difference that I recall is from Amitav Ghosh’s Countdown (a journalistic piece written in response to the Indian and Pakistani parallel nuclear tests in 1998):

“Most of us here are from north India,” a bluntly spoken major [in the Indian army] said to me. “We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with south Indians or Bengalis.”

Absolutely true; and one of the many ironies that make this a fascinating country. However, underlying the terms “north Indian” and “south Indian” are falsely homogenizing stereotypes.

Stereotypes do contain at least a grain of truth. They cannot arise swayambhu. Trouble begins when stereotypes become the norm, the default lens through which people are viewed and understood. Any differences from the stereotypes then become ‘deviations’ and marginalization sets in.

In somewhat of a coincidence I read another blog last week about the recent Air Tel ads featuring the Tamil actor Madhavan and the Bollywood actress Vidya Balan. The blogger very rightly points out that while the Hindi version of the ad shows the woman using the familiar form of address (tum) for the man, in the Telugu and Tamil versions she uses the “respectful” form (equivalent to aap in Hindi) suggesting stereotypes about the way women in the north and in the south address their husbands. 

It’s a valid observation, but I am concerned about a more insidious subtext that runs through the ads — that of the woman massaging the shoulders of the man back home from work; of the man as the one who pays all the bills; and of the man watching television while the woman cajoles him into doing housework. These are damning stereotypes that are unfair to women all over India — north, south, east or west. The north-south stereotypes about forms of address, though not unimportant, perhaps deflect attention from the ones common to women on both sides of the divide.

I’m not being merely clichéd when I say that while one cannot but be aware of difference, it’s rewarding and enriching to look for similarities. We sometimes risk missing the wood for the tree when we focus only on the differences. 

A relatively recent addition to this north-south divide is the parodying of stereotypes about how English is spoken in different states on either side of the divide. And I go ballistic when the claim of ‘satire’ is made for such humour.  So let me take this claim apart.

First, some fundas.

Humour, especially satire, is an oft-used weapon in dealing with stereotypes. Cathartic of course, but satire only works for us when we recognize, and disapprove of, the stereotypes it lampoons.  Although a clear line of demarcation is difficult to draw, satire differs from normal comedy in that while the latter attempts to elicit laughter by portraying our common human foibles, in satire there is an overt intent to correct some perceived “wrong” in people or institutions.

Satire invites us to scorn its target because it is believed to be unacceptable in some form.  Therefore it can only be funny if the audience also shares this scorn. Satire relies on commonly held notions of what is unacceptable.  I’m referring, of course, to the English tradition of satire as practised by its acknowledged masters—Dryden, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson, and then later Dickens, Twain, Orwell, and Huxley.  Contemporary satire relies heavily on developing a belief or statement completely, to its logical conclusion, thus making obvious its ridiculousness. This form of satire sometimes invites negative reactions because developing the belief/statement completely might suggest support of it though quite the reverse is true. (The recent New Yorker cover featuring the Obamas is a case in point.) 

Given that satire is a weapon of scorn and thereby correction, I’d say that so-called satirical representations of Punjabi English, or Tamlish or Hinglish are highly questionable. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but let me give you the grounds for my questioning.

First: Who in India speaks English without an accent of some form or the other? Show of hands, please?  For that matter, who in the world speaks English without an accent? There is nothing linguistically superior about one or the other accent. Certain accents are preferred over others for social (spoken by certain privileged classes) and political (spoken by a politically powerful group or country) reasons.

Second: There are political and historical reasons we speak English the way we do. When Thomas Babington Macaulay declared in 1835 that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” he laid the foundation stone (erm … I work at a university and this is one of our stock phrases) for the process of teaching English in India—one that still flourishes in Indian schools, colleges, and universities—i.e., teaching it through the preserved, written word. Consequently, what we learn is literary, written English, not the spoken variety. And given the notoriously poor sound-symbol concord of English, we are not attuned to English as it is spoken — the sounds of English words. Only a privileged few have access to such attuning and it is largely they, I suspect, who pillory Indian English. 

Third: When we speak in English in India, we do so for communicative purposes in situations where other linguistic means of expression are unavailable. And so long as it serves that function, what is there to laugh about, pray? As for the argument that people also speak the language out of a false notion of ‘prestige’, well, those responsible for sustaining and nourishing this ‘privileged’ status of English are squarely to be blamed. 

Fourth: Common opinion holds that it is the pernicious influence of the mother-tongue that shapes the sound of Indian English. But this opinion is often laced with contempt. And I don’t see why. When one speaks a language for a considerable length of time, the human vocal apparatus—the tongue, the teeth, and the lips—gets accustomed to moving and coordinating in a certain manner. And this obviously has an involuntary bearing upon the articulation of the sounds of another language learned subsequently. Just basic physiology of the human mouth, hardly justifying any contempt for the intelligence of such speakers.

So now, all ye satirists of Indian English, what, really, are you attacking? Some soul-searching is warranted I should think. And no, I’m not angling toward muzzling of free speech or any such bunkum. What I do advocate is that the onus be placed on speakers, so that they are aware of and sensitive to the import of speech. 

But to return to what I started out with—the north-south divide—are there occasions, situations, anything at all, when neither north nor south,  Border, nor Breed, nor Birth* matter? Is there anything in our shared cultural life that could make such differences seem immaterial? Cricket? Corruption? Traffic jams? Films? Inflation? Ad infinitum?  

(*All postcolonial critics, save your breath and those e-mails. Despite Kipling’s current standing—jingoistic imperialist and the Empire’s most vocal mouthpiece—I enjoy the lyrical charm of his ballads and story-telling.)

 

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“Whoring after English Gods”

Lovely title, isn’t it? Perfectly describes the English-speaking minority in India. Not my genius – alas! – but that of the poet R. Parthasarathy.  The relevance will become crystal further down.

This is a first … blogging in the space of two days. The reason for this (rather pointless) productivity is that I’m disturbed. I could of course ventilate with the spouse and the kid. But both of them deserve a break from me weekends.  So let me cut a vein open here instead.

Government schools are everyone’s favourite punching bag when it comes to criticizing education in India. Here in Hyderabad there will now be further cause to vilify them. Because government school teachers are all set to create some very serious havoc as they struggle to implement the government’s new dictum  – to adopt the CBSE syllabus (virtually overnight) and to teach it in English. Now, most of these teachers rarely speak English and are understandably nervous about teaching in it. 

I suppose it’s quite useless to ask “Why this obsession with English?”  Because English is today economically important, given our reputation as the world’s best outsourcing outpost!   

Writing and speaking in English seems the most natural (nay, the most sought after) thing to do – look at the scores of talented Indians writing in English whether offline or online. The question “Why am I writing/speaking in English?” is no longer relevant. 

But the irony is that for every Booker-prize-winning author or promising young thing paid obscene amouts for a book not even begun, there are hundreds  struggling to learn enough English to pass a board exam or face an interview.  Like they say, for everything that you can say about India, the opposite is also true.

There was a time when our writers, especially our poets, agonized over this incongruity of using English in India.  Here, for instance, is an extract from R. Parthasarathy’s Rough Passage, describing English as a necessary exile and thereby a route back to one’s roots 

……
He had spent his youth
Whoring after English Gods.
There is something to be said for exile:

You learn roots are deep,
That language is a tree, loses colour
Under another sky.

The bark disappears with the snow,
And branches become hoarse.
…..

The allegory of English as a whore with whom Indians are infatuated is best developed in Keki Daruwalla’s The Mistress. A long poem, so I’ll just quote some bits here: 

No one believes me when I say
my mistress is half-caste. Perched
on the genealogical tree somewhere
is a Muslim mid-wife and a Goan cook.

But she is more mixed than that.
Down the genetic lane, babus
and professors of English
have also made their one-night contributions.

You can make her out the way she speaks;
her consonants bludgeon you;
her argot is rococo, her latest ‘slang’
is available in classical dictionaries.

….

 My love for her survives from night to night,
even though each time
I have to wrestle with her in bed.
….

In the streets she is known.
They hiss when she passes.

Despite this she is vain,
flashes her bangles and her tinsel;
wears heels even though her feet
are smeared up to the ankles with henna.

 ….

No she is not Anglo-Indian. The Demellos would
bugger me if they got scent of this…

She is not Goan, not Syrian Christian.
She is Indian English, the language that I use.

(Of course, the inherent sexism in the poem, of viewing English as female and sexual object,  is unmistakable. Nevertheless, the point remains I should think.)

And then there was the inimitable Kamala Das, defending her use of English even while declaring otherwise! 

I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone…

(Source for all three poems: Indian Poetry in English. Ed. M. Paranjape. Macmillan)

These concerns are no longer relevant today, I know.  And maybe rightly so. A whole host of writers from Raja Rao to Rushdie to Arundhati Roy have been telling us that English is now our language, and that we are fashioning it to suit our purpose.

And yes, I am a sucker for their argument too, marvelling as I do at the elegant minimalism of verse like this: 

First thing in the morning
He trips on the one chair in his room.
He opens the window
And a teacup falls like a head axed.
The toothbrush slips from his fingers
And then the newspaper.
Too much gravity in here, he tells his cat,
And lies down on the floor.

(Conformist by C.P. Surendran, from his collection Posthumous Poems; Viking Penguin)

But, and this is the catch, how and when will the rest of English India catch up?

OK, I’m done ventilating. And yes, I feel slightly better. The angst will return when I go to work on Monday. But till then . . .

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How do you say “Please” in ‘Indian’?

One of my pet theories (and there are many, though this one is teacher’s pet!) is that there is really nothing truly pan-Indian. Paradoxically, when speaking of India or Indians you often need to make pan-Indian generalizations, take recourse to stereotypes. Because it’s easier to speak of stereotypes than of vast, individual differences, isn’t it?  Allow me to elaborate.

One of my favourite urban legends,  among the many in circulation at the Department where I teach,  is this one:  A colleague teaching a text by an Indian English writer was trying to explain to her class that one of the characters in the text was based on the mythological figure Sita. One of her students, a young woman from one of India’s North-Eastern states, stood up and asked, “Excuse me Ma’am, but who is Sita?”

Point made? No? Then stop reading!

Stereotype – this word can be a terrible stone to cast if your target is someone’s view, or idea, or a character or an image in a book or a film.  The etymology of the word, interestingly, is in  printing technology – a duplicate impression of an original typographical  element, used for printing instead of the original. (Courtesy – OED.) No wonder stereotypes have negative connotations as something unreal – an impression or imitation.

All right, there’s  a point to this rant and I shall make it forthwith.

Idly googling the other day,  I came across an interesting observation on a blog by the CEO of a travel  website and forum. Speaking of prevailing stereotypes about the Indian tourist, he says:

 Many foreigners have pointed out to me that Indians never say ‘please’ and are therefore impolite. Now, here is my question to you. What is the word for ‘please’ in an Indian language? Yup, that is right By and large, there is no word for ‘please’ in most Indian languages. But as we all know, that hasn’t stopped (sic) from being polite. We use intonation, body language and a hundred other markers to ensure that others know that we are being polite. The problem is, most foreigners cannot get all of those markers. They look out for the marker they are familiar with, which is the word ‘please’ and its equivalents. And when that is absent, wrongly assume we are rude. I suspect there are many other instances of this, leading to our stereotype.

(The original context here.)

He seems to be saying two things:

  • Indians do not know/use the word “please”.
  • Indian languages do not have the word “please”.

With the implication that the first is because of the second. 

Let me dispense with the second contention first. Perhaps the blogger has never paid attention to the mechanical, recorded voice one hears in lifts, railway stations, and traffic signals, which belts out instructions/information in the local language.  The instruction usually begins with the request “please pay attention.” And that word “please” is Kripaya in Hindi,  dayachesi in my own tongue, Telugu, dayawayi in Malayalam, doya kore in Bengali … Here’s a site that tells you how to say “please” in a hundred different languages of the world, including many Indian languages.

Of course the word exists in all our Indian languages. And of course we use it whenever we want to! “Please”, when used to make a request, is an interjection in English whereas in Indian languages, and indeed in many languages of the world,  it is usually a verb in inflected form or a phrase consisting of a noun and an inflected verb. But this is knowledge only a linguist or a grammar nerd would have, or be interested in! For speakers, it is a word that means “please.”

So how valid is the assertion that “please” does not exist in Indian languages? Just because it is a verb or a phrase in these languages, but an interjection in English? The French say “S’il vous plait”. Does it then follow that the French do not have a word for “please”? C’est absurde!!

And now to the other assertion.  I seriously doubt that the reason for Indian tourists’ perceived rudeness is the lack of the word “please” in their  collective lexicon.

Politeness is a cultural marker. It is perceived and expressed differently in different cultures. And linguistic expression is just one of the means by which politeness is conveyed. (The blogger also rightly points out that there are many other markers of politeness that Indians use.)

The point is that these other markers could denote rudeness even if you sprinkled your speech liberally with “please”. For instance, a Japanese speaker might use “please” appropriately, but American listeners could still perceive them as rude because of the pitch of the voice. In Japan, it is considered rude and unfriendly to speak in a low pitch. Quite the reverse is true in the Anglo-American world. (I owe this insight to the Language Log folks.) In English itself, “Please come here!” when said with gritted teeth  and in a low, menacing tone (specially by a teacher!) could very well be a threat rather than a request.

Therefore the connection between the use of “please” and the perception of rudeness is tenuous at best and laughable at worst. But there’s a bigger problem with this claim. It’s just the kind of pan-Indian, stereotypical generalization referred to earlier in this post.  Who is this tourist the blogger is speaking about? Is there one, homogeneous class of English-speaking Indians you can describe as not using “please”?  

Although we count as an English-speaking nation, English is spoken very differently across the country, across classes and across linguistic communities. The English-educated (and Westernized) classes speak it quite differently from those educated in the vernacular medium (for whom English is just a “subject” in school or college).  Or from those who never formally learn English, but pick it up, at least essential words and phrases, out of sheer necessity. And to add to this medley, the teaching of English in India is a very formal, bookish process, steeped in literary, written language, largely British, rather than current, spoken usage. 

How would someone untutored formally in English, or tutored only in the formal, written variety, know enough of the nuances  of spoken English to be able to say “May I please look at your menu /price-list?”  Learning a language in the constricted environment of the classroom is no guarantee that you can use it appropriately in speech.

 In fact,  in school Wren and Martin taught us that “please” is used with requests, in very formal situations – formal, official letters, formal written prose, formal public speech, or when speaking to higher-ups. Tourists would definitely view themselves as being in an informal, ‘fun’ setting. 

The point is, (not) using “please” is a consequence of the kind of exposure to English one has had, and the way English is used and taught in India. Not politeness, or translation breakdowns between English and Indian languages, or the lack of that word in Indian languages. (Thanks to Prasanth, of the daily pheesh, for the brief chat on this.) 

The quintessential Indian tourist who doesn’t use “please” is a cultural and linguistic stereotype that may be convenient but has no basis in fact. 

And to hammer it in, here’s Dilbert making my point more effectively and succinctly. (HT: Language Log)

(This is an unusually long post, I know. Well, it was written on the longest day of the year, 21 June!)

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Back from … er … nowhere

I know. The blog has been silent for over a month. I offer only my stunningly original philosophy as explanation: I blog when I have something worthwhile to say, not because I have a blog. Ha!

It was vacation time last month and I was generally, languorously, indulging my latent laziness. That explains a lot doesn’t it? But there was work, too. Trying to keep junior in good humour and out of trouble, mostly. Anyone dare suggest that isn’t work? (I’m rolling up my sleeves …)

Midway during the vacation I attended a “do” on Intellectual Property Rights. One of those government-sponsored things for us government wallahs.  Now, in academia which is where I belong, these “do’s” are called workshops and/or seminars.  No, I’m not going to digress into IPR (this blog has a focus and all that). Suffice it to say it was informative and I came away more knowledgeable about patents, copyrights, international patent laws, etc., than I was.

I mention this only because I’m troubled by the word “workshop”. Should it have been called a seminar?

The two terms are used interchangeably in academia to mean a meeting where ideas and information are discussed and exchanged. However, in a workshop the emphasis is on skills, techniques, and problem-solving. And one expects to get hands-on training on those skills and techniques. A seminar, on the other hand, involves intense, advanced study of a subject by a small group of researchers. There’s clearly a difference between the two.

So when you go to a “workshop” expecting to learn skills and instead find yourself bombarded by speaker after speaker holding forth, monologue after monologue, on a subject, one is, shall we say, at a loss for words. 

I wonder if it’s because we don’t realize this difference that our academic programmes, whether we call them workshops, seminars, symposia or conferences, are boring, monologic, paper-reading sessions. And therefore sources of much amusement and derision.

Fixing a word down to exactly what it means and then finding that the meaning is at variance with what is intended, with usage, can be … well … detrimental to one’s health!  While in this vein, here are a couple names of shops I saw recently in my city:

  • Stay Teen: For a beauty parlour I’d say this is a singularly unimaginative name. For one thing, it would put older customers off. And, seriously, don’t they know all the unglamorous problems that go with the teens? Acne, pimples, unwanted hair, puppy fat …
  •  Book Sea: I suppose I know what the owner of this bookshop is trying to say, through this rather ambitious name, about the shop. But there’s something odd about this adjectival use of “book”. I mean, yes, we do say book club and book shop and book lovers and the like … and yet, book sea? Meaning, metaphorically, a sea of books, or vast numbers of books? It doesn’t sound right somehow.

Beats me why people would want to exaggerate so when trying to sell something. Nothing is as convincing as the truth.

A friend tells me I tend to read things too literally, being from a literature background. Sigh! They’re not the same thing at all. But there’s really no point in trying to tell him that, is there?

I wish I could tell him that literature does other things for me. It helps me imagine, and thereby understand, the other. As the Israeli writer Amos Oz puts it:

I believe in literature as a bridge between peoples. I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better businessperson or a better lover but even a better person.

(This is from his acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Award of Letters, 2007. Read the entire piece here.)

 

A new semester of teaching begins for me, bringing me a new group of eager young men and women, and, hopefully, much more grist for this (blog)mill!

 

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Postscript (How Indian is my English?)

The number of e-mails the earlier post on Indian English prompted inspires this postscript. 

If speaking a language means speaking a culture, then what culture does Indian English reflect? Probably that of the elite, western-educated, upper classes.  Not very nice baggage for a language to be carrying, is it?! (This language-culture nexus, by the way, has its roots in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.)

Indian English  is our Aunty tongue, as Probal Dasgupta calls it. Nobody’s mother tongue and yet important enough to be a part of the family of Indian languages. 

Then again, there is now another subculture of Indian English –  that of the call centres and BPOs.  This entire industry hinges on the accent neutralization/reduction business.  So Indian English speakers have a global market; it’s just their accents that are problematic and therefore have to be “neutralized” or reduced!!  (Susan Sontag’s essay on the subject -The  World as India – claims that call centre India, with its operators who live as Indians by day and American/Europeans by night, donning and doffing names and accents at will,  is a metaphor for today’s globalized world. The article appeared in the TLS, July 2003; not available online unfortunately. )

It’s not all bleak. The defenders of Indian English and indeed of all other varieties of English are nothing if not vociferous.  While there are those who claim that Indians and people with different accents should be proud of their accents because of the colour and liveliness they add to everyday conversation, others (like David Crystal) suggest that the stupendous number of speakers of English in India  will probably compel the world to learn Indian English.  

I doubt it. Sheer numbers mean nothing. Especially when pitted against the power politics of the standard, rooted as it is in the strength of education, political and social power, and literary merit. Obstacles far too formidable for the “varieties” to overcome. In India, too, there is clear bias in favour of people who speak “convent English,” the equivalent, I guess, of standard British English. 

Steven Pinker raises this very interesting point  – that the different Englishes of the world are actually similar, if you look at the way the educated, upper classes speak/write.  Which really hammers my point home. If the educated classes are speaking the standard, or nearly the standard, what hope is there for the “varieties”?  

And finally, to return to that point about language and culture, there are some aspects of our culture that English simply cannot convey. Here’s an example:

http://zigzackly.blogspot.com/2008/04/name-this.html

And I don’t normally do this – advertise blogs. However, honourable exceptions always abound:

Meena Kandasamy’s blog – http://meenu.wordpress.com/ No comments. Just read.

And this one is by a former student – http://thedailypheesh.blogspot.com/ 

More friend than student now. Promising stuff.

 

 

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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.

Friends,
our dear sister
is departing for foreign
in two three days,
and
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.

 

 

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