Monday, August 07, 2006

Inglish, it’s cool! July 16, 2006

A few years ago TV viewers in Tamil Nadu were entertained by pictures of irate children and grandchildren of Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, scolding the police in chaste English while apologetic policemen grovelled in Tamil. The scene was not remarkable except that the amused viewers had been victims of incessant sermons by the mighty minister on the evils of English, and the irony did not escape them.

Last year I wrote a long essay about two trends that are likely to determine our linguistic future. One is the rapid spread of English across India; the second is the unprecedented popularity of Hindi. The collision of the two we call Hinglish, but should, in fact, be called Inglish because it is increasingly pan-India’s street language and borrows from all vernaculars. Mixing English with our mother tongues has been going on for generations, but what is different this time around is that Inglish is both the aspirational language of the lower classes and the fashionable idiom of upper class drawing rooms. Inglish is the stylish language of Bollywood, FM radio and national advertising. Advertisers, in particular, have been surprised by the terrific resonance to slogans such as, ‘Life ho to aise’, ‘Josh machine’ and ‘Dil mange more’.

What exactly is Inglish is not easy to define, and needs more research. Is its base English or vernacular bhasha? For the upwardly mobile, I think, it is bhasha, such as what my newsboy speaks: ‘Aaj main busy hoon, kal bill milega, definitely’. Or my bania’s helper: ‘voh, mujhe avoid karti hai!’ For the classes, on the other hand, the base is definitely English, as in: ‘Hungry, kya?’ or ‘Careful yaar, voh dangerous hai!’ Zee News’ evening bulletin is more even handed with an equal number of English and Hindi words: ‘Aaj Middle East mein peace ho gai!’

In Inglish, perhaps for the first time we may have found a unifying language of the masses and the classes, acceptable to the South and the North. Its rise has parallels with Urdu, which became a naturalised subcontinental language mainly after the decline of Muslim rule. Originally the camp argot of the country’s Muslim conquerors, Urdu was forged from a combination of the conqueror’s imported Farsi and local bhasha. Just as soldiers transported it to the Deccan, so is Inglish riding the coat-tails of Outsourcing and Bollywood. It is appropriate that this should be happening to English for it is a bastard and has borrowed promiscuously from all languages. It sprang up in late 14th century England among common people when the Norman aristocracy spoke French and the clergy Latin. The first efforts to translate the Bible into English led to burnings at the stake, but in a hundred years it had produced Shakespeare. Inglish too might do the same in the 21st century!

So, is Inglish our ‘conquest of English’ to paraphrase Salman Rushdie? Or is it our journey to ‘conquer the world’ in the words of Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, who predicts that Indian English will soon become the most widely spoken variant of English as a result of India’s economic rise and the sheer size of its population. ‘When 300 hundred million Indians pronounce an English word in a certain way’, he says, ‘it will be the only way to pronounce it.’ Raghuvir Sahay sums it up well: “The English taught us English to turn us into subjects/ Now we teach ourselves English to turn into masters”.


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