It’s a truism that the one constant in the cosmos is change, and India is embracing change in many areas. In movies and commerce and sport, and in its view of itself and its place in the world, India is all about change, moving forward and evolving. In one area of life though, change is contemned, and that is language, including the English language.
The problem of resistance to change in language in not unique to India, it is universal. People everywhere, and every when, have always fought to hold back the tides of linguistic change. Cnut had a much better chance of success with his alleged attempt at stopping the literal tides.
I have loved language and languages since I first read Lord of the Rings as a seven-year old, returning to it some twenty times to immerse myself in the wondrous appendices that documented the structure and evolution of those mythical languages. India has mythical languages of its own: Shuddh Hindi and pure English.
In the real world, Hindi is a language continuum, with the standardised Hindi that learners like me are taught (or teach themselves) being based on Khari Boli. The vaguely-defined “shuddh” Hindi apparently means a heavily Sanskritised language, one that borrows lots of words from Sanskrit and shuns words from other sources. More Sanskrit equals more shuddh, it seems
Of course, just as modern Standard Hindi is an artificial construct that doesn’t really exist outside the classroom, so too was Sanskrit. In fact, its very name tells us that it was not a living, spoken vernacular, but a crystallised snapshot of “tradition” in language.
To call any language “shuddh”, or pure, is to deny a fundamental truth of language, that it is always evolving. Language is a wonderfully human characteristic, and because it’s formed by human interaction, it never stands still or remains unchanged. The language that Chaucer wrote in was English, but without assistance or training, any native English speaker today would really struggle to understand the Canterbury Tales as written. This is not a bad thing, it is a reflection of the simple inevitability of linguistic change over time.
It is this constant evolution that makes attempts to defend linguistic purity pointless. A famous epigram by James Nicoll said of English: The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. India is proof of this. The English language today may be a global juggernaut, happy to loot words from anywhere and anyone, but its thugs and goons would need new labels if it hadn’t gone on safari to India, and selling hair cleaner would be much harder without shampoo.
Despite the rich contribution that India’s own languages have made to English, many Indians today seem to have an inferiority complex about Indian English. There appears to be a deeply entrenched belief that there is a “pure” version of any language – an elevated, refined ideal. ONE elevated, refined, ideal. Whether applied to English, Urdu (chaste) or Hindi (shuddh), the concept is a myth. In the case of shuddh Hindi, this fallacy was brilliantly mocked in 3 Idiots, in the speech scene, where the gulf between Sanskrit and real-world Hindi was highlighted for comic effect.
This is not an attack on Sanskrit. Sanskrit is rightly revered by Indians as a treasure, a link to its rich past and a source of vocabulary that serves to link North and South Indian languages despite their coming from two very different language families. The work of Pāṇini set a standard of rigour and thoroughness still esteemed among linguists to this day.
The problem lies, not with Sanskrit, but with the misty-eyed nostalgia that looks back to it and says “language was better back then” The same mindset that believes using words from a millennia old language somehow purifies and improves a living language also believes that Indian English is a bastard offspring of “real” English. Indian English is something to be mocked, laughed at, or ashamed of, certainly not to be celebrated and esteemed. This view is reinforced by the attitudes of many who speak the prestige variants of English looked up to as ideal.
Many speakers of US and British English cling to the notion the English has been degraded over the centuries, that it was better and purer in the good old days. They insist on ludicrous made up “rules”, like saying that infinitives must not be carelessly split, or that prepositions are not words to end sentences with. They fret over things like misplaced apostrophes or deviations from standardised spelling and call such orthographical variances evidence of “poor grammar”. Like those who try to impose shuddh Hindi, the preachers of these rules look back to another ancient language, in their case Latin, seeking to force English to conform to Latin grammar as if it were the pure ideal.
Here at The NRI there have been many articles about Indian English – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. In them, and in many of the comments, the view that there is a “correct” English is commonly expressed. Indian English expressions are measured against the image of this mythical beast and found wanting. A google search of common Indian English expressions and usages shows that they are almost always called “mistakes”, “errors”, “wrong”, etc., and almost always these labels are being applied by Indians, to their own English.
The exciting reality of all languages is that there is no one, pure ideal form. Every language does have its own rules, but they are formed democratically and organically from within, by consensus usage over time, not imposed from without by self-appointed umpires. Every language has different registers, just as cars have more than one gear. When moving from a long, flat and straight highway to a windy, hilly back road, you change gear to suit the change in the road. Similarly in language, we all have the ability to select the appropriate register for the situation, be it applying for a job, talking to our kids, out shopping, or relaxing with friends.
Like a wardrobe full of clothes, We can pull out the right language outfit for each occasion. It also follows that there will be many national costumes. Like a plant, English has travelled the world and made a home for itself in many different places, and everywhere it settles and puts down roots, it produces a version of itself that reveals the soil in which it was planted.
The point of all these analogies is that there is no one English, one unchanging, perfect standard, any variation from which is an error. There is a family of Englishes, able to communicate amongst themselves, but each a little different from the others. This variety of different Englishes should be celebrated, but many speakers of Indian English instead feel that they should abandon it and use a foreign version instead. This belief completely ignores the contributions that Indian English has made and is making to global English.
The influence of India’s own languages on its English has been enriching. Unique uses of verbs like “reach” may be slightly disorienting for speakers of other variants, but not critically so, and they help to mark Indian English as unique, a badge of identity. Prepone has already begun the process of becoming a part of global English, an incredibly useful word that was actually invented in India, a coinage, not simply a modified definition influenced by local languages, as with the ubiquity of “reach” in its Indian sense.
Exact figures are hard to pin down, but it is widely believed that more people speak English in India than in any other country. If this is not already true, it very soon will be. This means that Indian English does not need to grovel before any other variant, apologising for its differences and beating itself up as a stupid, inferior child, the backward runt of the litter. Indian English is not better than American English, or British English, or New Zealand English, or any other English. Neither is it worse. It is simply different.
Instead of saying that the structures, idioms and vocabulary that identify Indian English are “incorrect”, “mistakes” and “to be avoided”, recognise them as part of the fabric of the national costume. There will be times when some parts of that costume need to be taken off, as it were, in the interests of clear communication. For example, the use of “revert” in its Indian sense when communicating with speakers of other variants may well prove confusing, and it would probably be advisable to use a more widely familiar alternative. That’s a matter of practicality and courtesy, not an admission of error.
New Zealand English is on the same journey to self-acceptance that Indian English is. In New Zealand, our English is finding its own identity by adopting more and more Māori words, and our accent is shifting ever further from that of our nearest sibling English, Australian. Even within New Zealand, there is some evidence for a standard NZ English and a Māori English. To some of my friends and family I could say “Come over after mahi for a korero and a kai, bring the mokos, they can have a moe here” and it would be both perfectly comprehensible and perfectly natural. To others I would say “Come round after work for dinner and chat. Bring the grandkids, they can sleep here”. Neither of those versions is intrinsically wrong or intrinsically right. Both are grammatically correct English, and both have their place in the family of Englishes.
The English of 2012 is different from the English of 1812. The English of 2212 will be different to the English of 2012. Instead of being ashamed of the variations and changes in our shared language, embrace them. Multi-lingualism is very, very common among Indians, and if asked, “what languages do you speak?”, many might say “I speak Hindi, Bengali, Tamizh, Malayalam, Telugu, Oriya, Panjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu, Kannada” or the like. Speakers of Indian English should stand up proudly and say, “I speak Indian English, British English, American English – how many Englishes can YOU speak?”
Addendum: For an excellent summary on the ever-changing nature of language, written for the interested amateur like me, I very strongly recommend Guy Deutscher’s “The Unfolding of Language: The Evolution of Mankind’s Greatest Invention”
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