Indian English

A nation cannot escape its history, anymore than an individual can deny his or her past. Our history conditions and moulds us into the people we are today, individually and collectively.

That is not to say, however, that all people and nations are trapped by their histories, and are defined once and for all by events which occurred a long time ago. People can and do change; so do nations, and so does the world. But we remain accountable for our history, and it should stay with us as a reminder of how we have progressed. This is especially true in the case of Great Britain, which has matured a great deal through its history. Great Britain has progressed towards multiculturalism, after leaving the days of its tyrannous empire behind. Sadly, some Brits still think of the British Empire as an achievement in their country’s past. We are used to hearing protests about various human rights violations in different parts of the world, but we rarely hear a disapproving critique of the British Empire from a British person. There is a lack of awareness about what the BE actually did. And those same Brits who hail the BE as a great time in their country’s history are often the people who want immigrants to ‘go home’ and who think that countries like America and Australia always belonged to the people who now rule those countries. They are not aware that immigration was one of the consequences of the empire, and that the British themselves emigrated to countries all over the world in order to rule over those countries and to exploit their natural resources. But that is what happened in the past, and the only way to deal with it is to accept its consequences: multiculturalism and the role of English as an international language are some of the things Great Britain has to accept. As the famous post-colonial phrase goes, ‘we are here because you were there’, and your language was there too.

When the British spread their rule across various nations, they took their language with them, and sometimes even sought to enforce that language on the indigenous population. An obvious example of this is Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Law and Education’, presented in Bengal during the days of the British Raj. Macaulay ignorantly dismissed Indian literature and spoke of the ‘intrinsic superiority’ of English literature, saying that this should be taught to natives in order to educate them. There is no doubt that Macaulay’s views were uninformed and biased (anyone who has read Hamlet and also read the Mahabharata knows that they are, on the one hand, incomparable, and on the other hand, both great works of literature). However ludicrous Macaulay’s views may sound to us today, they were common at the time, and they shaped the way in which English was treated.

As most of us know, India was a British colony until 1947, when the Quit India Movement put an end to the British Raj and its exploitation of India’s indigenous people and raw materials. But India was left with English as one of its languages, and it was the kind of English which had been used during the time of the Raj. Due to colonisation, English had become an internationally-known language, but it had the enormous task of expressing the idioms and cultural nuances of hundreds of different societies. So, the language of the Raj was mixed with Hindi, with Kannada, with various dialects. Indian English is still trying very hard to mould an alien language to suit its native customs and traditions. Apart from that, we now have a situation where American capitalism has begun to influence India, too. In the USA, the English language has had time to digest and synthesise influences from the Irish, Italian, Hispanic and other cultural groups that form modern America. But India is still trying to synthesise and create its own brand of Indian English. In Indian English, not only do we have words and phrases that are ‘roughly translated’ from local languages, but we also have the old language of the Raj and the American influence. Looking at English words used in India these days, one will notice that sometimes they are spelled the British way and sometimes the American way. Sometimes the word is completely NEW, e.g. ‘preponed the meeting’, ‘coped up with the situation’.

Is this Indian English wrong? I would say that it depends on context and consistency. It is not wrong to use Indian English, because we cannot help but put our personality and cultural influence onto a language. But we should be aware of the rules we are following and stick to them for the sake of clarity (e.g. not mix ‘color’ with ‘colour’). A language is a set of codes, and those breaking the code need to be sure that it follows a particular set of rules, otherwise it becomes incomprehensible. Until Indian English becomes globally recognised (the way American English now is), I think we have to try to stick to an international standard as much as possible. Defining that standard is very difficult – we can only say what it is NOT: it is not the language of the Raj, not the colloquial British English spoken today, not the ‘Hinglish’ mixture of Hindi and English. It requires eliminating highly cultural influences from the language, which is hard to do. We need to do this when we are speaking or writing formally, but we can customise the language as we wish when with friends who understand our informal codes.

So, we may have to limit the more quirky side of Indian English for the time being, but that does not mean we have to deny its existence or its informal usage. It’s likely that, in the near future, new words and expressions from Indian English will gradually enter the realm of internationally-recognised, standardised English. India’s growing software industry will make sure of that. Until that happens, however, we have to make the effort to say ‘bring the meeting forward’ instead of ‘prepone the meeting’, or ‘go to the back of the building’ instead of ‘go to the backside’. I don’t think such modifications are too difficult to apply.