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How Many Englishes Can You Speak?

How Many Englishes Can You Speak?

June 21, 2012

Til date, many Indians feel uncomfortable about their English. Can we prepone acceptance of variety in language? Kindly revert with your views.

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 Panini 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 M?ori 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 M?ori 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” 


  • Stuart
    24.06.12 01:16 PM
    Jennifer, my mention of "kiwifruit" was to highlight my own hypocrisy. It really irks me that most other variants use the name of the bird as the name of the fruit, but that's a personal grievance and intellectually I have to accept that it's a legitimate variation. Otherwise, I'd be hoist on my own green, furry petard!
  • Jennifer Kumar
    Jennifer Kumar
    24.06.12 10:59 AM
    Thanks for your reply, Stuart, and thanks for clarifying those points.

    Wow, this shows exactly why learning a little about the culture and use of the language in that culture is so helpful! I also did not know about the difference in the use of the word 'kiwi'. Thanks for sharing that!
  • Stuart
    24.06.12 10:40 AM
    Thanks, Jennifer. I did explicitly say that there would be times when we need to adapt our choice of English to facilitate communication. As a Kiwi, whose idiolect is largely based in British English, I have to do this myself when communicating with speakers of US English, and not fly into a homicidal rage when they drop the critical word "fruit" from the end of "kiwifruit" - our native bird is strictly protected and never to be eaten! :)

    The point of the article was that Indians need not feel ashamed of Indian English, but instead be proud of having more than variant at their disposal. Just as many Indians speak more than one Indian language, so many of them can speak more than variety of English. That's an asset, not a liability.

    I've heard about the Sanskrit villages too. If any communities are using it as a medium of everyday communication, they will have already experienced the inevitability of language change.

    Elizabeth McCaffrey touched on this in her Pern series, when the descendants of the settlers, priding themselves on how well they'd maintained the "purity" of the original tongue, were aghast to discover how much change had occurred in a millennia or so, particularly in vowel sounds. Linguistic change quite literally cannot be stopped.

    If anyone claims that they are speaking the Sanskrit of P??ini as an everyday vernacular, then I respect that believing that must be important to them.
  • Jennifer Kumar
    Jennifer Kumar
    24.06.12 09:22 AM
    To clarify:
    .... For instance, Indians [may] have more problems and misunderstandings when talking with Americans. (Just as myself, an American. living in India is not always understood using my English with Indians!)
  • Jennifer Kumar
    Jennifer Kumar
    24.06.12 09:19 AM
    Stuart, I think this topic will have many thoughts by everyone!

    As for me, I am a cross-cultural coach. One of the things I do is teach Spoken English, and my ideal student is an Indian (or foreigner) who works with Americans or lives and works in the US.

    I know that language identifies a person. That being said, I concentrate on helping the person retain their identity and personality in learning to be better understood by Americans. I typically coach those who already have a good grasp of the language, so things like basic grammar, basic vocabulary and everyday use of the language is not problematic. I would go further to say, it's not problematic among those groups they have been hanging out with for many years. For instance, Indians have fewer problems talking Indian English with other Indians, but comparatively speaking have more problems and misunderstandings when talking with Americans.

    I help them polish this through learning to use and understand Americanisms. This is coupled with American culture lessons depending on the subject matter we are talking about and also related personal development or career development topics. It's always a balancing act, and it's not easy.

    To make a long story short (if that's possible!), I do not think there is anything wrong with Indian English, but used outside India with non-Indians for those who want to be successful outside India, adjustments do have to be made. And, these adjustments are not meant to harm one's personality, but enhance it and enhance career growth. I must change my English to be understood in India. It works both ways :).

    Thanks for the post.

    PS. I have heard of villages in Karnataka where Sanskrit is the only language. It's rare, but I had a friend's family who lived there and my friends were fluent in spoken Sanskrit!
  • Venk Namilakonda
    Venk Namilakonda
    22.06.12 06:02 PM
    Inability to speak a purticular language which isnt their mothertongue shouldnt be taken for granted. Perhaps we Indians must learn to accept how we speak a foreign language especially english and stop hating on those who can not speak English properly. I have noticed this trend among NRIs who crack jokes on those who can not speak English properly and Its absolutely abhorable. This makes those who can not speak to feel Inferior and not able to really conversate with others with Confidence.

    As for me I love rainbows and different accents, It brings me joy to talk to people of different cultures and accents :-)
  • Stuart
    22.06.12 11:01 AM
    Divya, my embarrasment was not at missing the discussion, it was on missing such an obvious lonaword. I worked in juggernaut, safari, loot, thug and shampoo, but missed chutney. Given how much of it I eat, I ought to have remembered it! :)
    It is indeed inevitable that in a country the geographical and population size of India, regional variations are inevitable.I will look out for Pro. Kothari's work, thank you.
  • Divya S
    Divya S
    22.06.12 10:18 AM
    @Stuart-- nothing to feel ashamed about. Unless you were at the festival you wouldn't have heard about it since the media was obsessed about Salmaan Rushdie.

    Now that's a rant for another time. ;)

    On a side note, if Indian English is on your radar, you should read Prof. Rita Kothari's "Translating India: The Cultural Politics of English".

    She actually went around india recording the different versions of spoken English (and yes there are regional differences). It made for a very interesting read.


  • Stuart
    22.06.12 09:34 AM
    @Divya Thank you so much for your kind words, and the link - I am always happy to watch anything about language. I must confess too, that your link embarrassed me: I'm annoyed that in my efforts to incorporate lots of Indian loanwords in my article, I missed such an obvious one as chutney! :)
  • Rajpriya
    22.06.12 08:48 AM

    The language one learns and uses depends mostly on the influence of an environment in which he or she is born and grows up. A good education is one that teaches the use of words that are socially acceptable under the most provoking of circumstances.

    The UK is famous for its pubs. However, the distinct difference is in the class of people who patronize them. There are pubs to cater to the Upper class, the Middle class and Low class people. I am dead certain I don’t have to elaborate that there is a distinct difference in language that is spoken in these three types of pubs.

    The last class being the meeting point for ASBOs. They get drunk too soon, too often and come out with all the cuss words available in English. One comes back home with an acute hangover and even when sober the influence of alcohol gone the residue that remains are the slang.

    Being comfortable behind the iron curtains of the public Internet forums even I could use socially unacceptable language freely to bully people but I chose to remain respectable exactly the way I would look if I had to meet them face to face one day.

    In my school days bigger boys bullied me. I never ran to my parents crying and lied to them about my injuries by telling them I got them by playing rugby. Then I started playing rugby and joined the boxing team in the school until I became a champion at the interschool meetings.
    Soon my bullies became my buddies any my fans too and the respect I deserved as every other human being.

    There is an old proverb that my father related sometimes. There is this scavenging class regarded as the lowest caste in South India. He said they too have their own Gods.

    The huge difference is in the offering to those Gods. Those Gods he said don’t accept flowers but accept only slippers and shoes. Amen!
  • Divya S
    Divya S
    22.06.12 06:52 AM

    It was lovely reading about the "Indian Englishes"- and I do agree with you that it isn't better or worse than any other version of the language.

    I remember talking about this to my grandfather, who has been through the British rule- and is a bit of an Anglophile. He always rejects this "indian english", calling it bad mutation of the language by the 'low class folk'.

    My inner liberal and humanist was shocked to hear such comments from my own grandfather, but it also got me thinking. Is a lot of the bad press given to "Indian English" rooted in the never ending class conflict in India?

    I was wondering about that again this year at the Jaipur Literature festival, where authors expressed disgust at the presence of Chetan Bhagat, arguably India's most beloved novelist, who writes in Indian English. They felt he had no business being at a Literature Festival, with some going as far as insulting his decidedly middle class origins.

    As someone of middle class origins myself, I was a little offended to be honest. ;)

    Nevertheless, a great read-- it gave me something to think about on a Friday morning.

    BTW if you're interested, there was a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival called "The Chutnification of English" ( which actually touches on the development of an "Indian" English across the country. :)

  • Stuart
    22.06.12 01:41 AM
    Thanks for the reply, Harry. Your point about words considered vulgar and offensive is well taken. In my own English I don't use them, and in my teaching myself Hindi, I choose not to learn those sorts of words.
    21.06.12 10:09 PM
    @ Stuart

    I liked the article, the way it's written and it's elaboration.

    There are few things I agree on and few thing I don't. When I write post on this forum I never correct my mistakes, despite the editor on my computer says so. I normally write the way I speak. Bad English, but I don't care. Now to the point.

    Shuddh means different things to different people. Shuddh is not necessarly pure in the same contex, when you are talking with Indians.

    The word Shuddh means loosely clean and pure ( untouched / altered or changed in any way ).

    When you talk about language being Shuddh, than it's different again. There is such a thing called shuddh language. I will explain this later but for now, I will say few words that will make people's jaw drop. Pussy, Cunt, Twat, Minge, Vagina, Volva. What do all these words have in common, don't say hairs.

    What I'm trying to say is, any language without any offending words is known as shuddh language in India. If you are an Indian and you use offending words, when communicating with others, you are rude and arrogant, even when the other person doesn't take any offence.

    Sanskrit is known as shuddh language because it doesn't contain any fowl words and if there are, then they are not from sanskrit. Also it can be said that because sanskrit was not spoken by the joe public, it does not contain any slang, thus free from fowl words, meaning shuddh.

    When you say that sanskrit language was not a living, spoken vernacular. You are very wrong. Not every Joe public spoke but it was a language of brhamins and pundits. It can also be said that without sanskrit no Indian ceremony (weddings / religious) can be conducted. Sanskrit is still required, for to be classified as pundit.

    Sanskrit is the only language a good thing is spoken, said and communicated, thus being shuddh. The same applies to Shuddh Hindi as well. Period.

  • Stuart
    21.06.12 03:35 PM
    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, dustedoff. Until I read it, I had no idea lathicharge was one word, I'd assumed it was two, a nice example of the sort inventiveness under discussion.

    I certainly understand personal peeves - one of mine that I'm still working on is accepting the US usage of "momentarily" to mean "IN a moment" rather than "FOR a moment" In the end, of course, language really is the ultimate democracy, and history will determine which peeves win and which lose. With India growing in stature and influence, who's to say whether in a hundred years, the rest of the world won't be reverting back? Although the "good name" concept" definitely seems likely to remain a distinctive feature of Indian English. In the meantime, discussions like this one are stimulating and fun, thanks again.
  • dustedoff
    21.06.12 02:10 PM
    I agree with part of what you say, and disagree with part. Yes, there is certainly no 'one English', not even in India, where the English spoken in Chennai may be very different from that spoken in Delhi or in Kolkata or in Mumbai (apart from the differing accents). But the 'evolution' of English in India has two facets: one, the incorporation of local words into the language; two, the distortion of the language itself.

    Personally (and this is just my opinion!), I think the line between 'good' Indian English versus 'bad' depends more on grammar and syntax than on specific words. For example, there are hundreds of words from various Indian languages that creep into not just our speech but into written English as well. When talking to other speakers equally fluent in English and Hindi, I've seen people tend to use words from one language in sentences formed mainly in the other language. That happens in writing too, and I'm perfectly comfortable with books in which IWE authors use words from the vernacular (example: the word 'lathicharge' - so evocative, and so difficult to explain briefly in English). I must admit to not minding this, as long as it doesn't go overboard.

    On the other hand, the 'revert back', 'what is your good name', etc irritate me - I don't think of sentence constructions like these as contributing in any way to Indian English or its development. Where does it end? In a country where the language has been mangled to the extent that someone who writes like this is a best-selling novelist (yes, he actually is):

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