Monday, May 02, 2005

Inglish As She is Spoke

Outlook, May 2, 2005

Two reports appeared recently in my newspaper and they left me bewildered. The first said that the Karnataka government has still not decided to rescind its ban on English in primary schools despite huge popular pressure from parents. In the second report, a Karnataka minister, after a busy visit to China, announced, ‘Members of the Standing Committee of the Jiangsu Provincial People’s Congress wanted the help of the Karnataka government in teaching English in its primary schools’. This was in pursuit of its objective to make every Chinese literate in English by the 2008 Olympics. The contrast between the ambivalence of India and the certainty of China is always instructive.

It does seem bizarre that the state whose capital is Bangalore, the symbol of India’s success in the global economy, and derives its competitive advantage from its mastery of the English language should remain hostage to the deep insecurities of its vernacular chauvinists. This is after more than 15 years when it first banned English from its primary schools in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, Bengal and Gujarat have realised their mistake and have gone back to teaching English after they discovered they had created an unemployable generation.

I thought this debate was over, and English had won. But now I realise that many states, including Kerala and Karnataka, are still in a state of paralytic inaction, interminably discussing the language of school instruction. In a world where a quarter of people already know the world language and where experts predict another half will be English literates within a generation, it is painful to see Indians, who are the envy of many countries for their English skills, being stopped in their tracks by vernacular Stalinists with their bogus arguments, telling parents, ‘You don’t know what’s good for your children. We do.’

As for the Chinese, I try not to feel envious or fearful. While I am confident they will win plenty of medals at the next Olympics, I don’t think learning English will be quite as easy. Even though I cannot help but admire their ambition, I console myself with the thought that India has been spared their earlier ambitions at social engineering, the most prominent being the Cultural Revolution. A Chinese engineer, who is in India to improve his software and English skills, tells me coincidentally that China’s ambitions with regard to English are not only connected with their superpower ambitions but are also driven by envy over India’s facility with English.

I sometimes wonder what language we Indians will be speaking fifty years from now.
If we look beyond the horizon of current events we will see, I think, two trends that are likely to determine our linguistic future. One is the rapid spread of English across India, including the aspiring lower middle classes; the second is the unprecedented popularity of Hindi, even in the South, thanks to blockbuster Hindi movies, along with the universal appeal of certain programs on the Hindi TV channels, such as Indian Idol and Kaun Banega Crorepati, which won respectable ratings in the South.

At the intersection of these two trends is the fashionable collision of the two languages. It is called Hinglish, but should in fact be called Inglish because it is increasingly pan-India’s street language. Mixing English with our mother tongues has been going on for generations, but what is different this time around is that Inglish has become both the aspirational language of the lower and middle middle classes and the fashionable language of drawing rooms of the upper and upper middle classes. Similar attempts in the past were down-market and contemptuously put down by snobbish brown sahibs. But this time Inglish is the stylish language of Bollywood, of FM radio and of national advertising. Advertisers, in particular, have been surprised by the terrific resonance of slogans such as, ‘Life ho to aise, ‘Josh machine’, and ‘Dil mange more’. Radio Mirchi, to its delight, has found the same adoring response from its listeners to: ‘ladki ko mari line, girlfriend boli, I’m fine!’

Unlike my generation, today’s young are more relaxed about English and think it a skill, like learning Windows. No longer does it fly the British or American flags, except in the insecure minds of the Left or the RSS. Bollywood, television, advertising, cricket—indeed, all our mass culture is conspiring to take English to the bazaar. Gone too is the ranting against English by swadeshi intellectuals. Every Indian mother knows that English is the passport to her child’s future—to a job, to entry into the middle class—and this is why English medium schools are mushrooming in city slums and villages across the country, and English has quietly become an Indian language fifty years after the British left our shores. David Dalby, who measures these things in Linguasphere, predicts that by 2010 India will have the largest number of English speakers in the world. Thus, one of the cheerful things happening in India is the quiet democratising of English.

In Inglish, perhaps for the first time in our history, we may have found a language common to the masses and the classes, acceptable to the South and North. We are used to thinking of India in dualisms--upper vs. lower caste, urban vs. rural, India vs Bharat—but the saddest divide, I always thought, is between those who know English and those ‘who are shut out’ (in the phrase of my deaf friend Ursula Mistry in Mumbai, who deeply feels the tragedy of those who can’t participate). The exciting thing about Inglish is that it may be able to unite the people of India in the same way as cricket. We may thus be at a historic moment. One day, I expect, we will also find Inglish’s Mark Twain, the American writer who liberated Americans to write as they thought. Salman Rushdie gave Indians permission to write in English, but Midnight’s Children is not written in Inglish, alas! And this is not surprising for the young Indian mind was not decolonised until the reforms in the1990s.

What exactly is Inglish is not easy to define, and needs empirical research. Is its base English or our vernacular bhashas? If its foundation is bhasha, then it is similar to Franglais, the fashionable concoction of mostly French with English words thrown in that drives purists mad. Or is its support English, with an overlay of bhasha? I think it is both. For the upwardly mobile lower middle class, it is bhasha mixed with some English words, such as what my newsboy speaks: ‘Mein aaj busy hoon, kul bill doonga 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!’ The middle middle class seems to employ an equal combination, as in Zee News’s evening bulletin, ‘Aaj Middle East mein peace ho gai!’ Three Hindi words and three of English.

In contrast to this vibrant new language, the old ‘Indian English’ of our headlines is an anachronism: ‘sleuth nabs man’, ‘miscreants abscond’, and ‘eve-teasers get away’. In the ultimate put down, Professor Harish Trivedi of Delhi University contemptuously says, ‘Indian English? It is merely incorrect English.’ Inglish has parallels with Urdu, which became a naturalised subcontinental language and flourished 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 bhashas. As Urdu was transported to the Deccan, so is Inglish is riding on the coat tails of Bollywood across India.

So, is Inglish our ‘conquest of English’ to use Salman Rushdie’s famous words? Or is it our journey to ‘conquer the world’ in the words of Professor David Crystal, the author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, who predicts that Indian English will become the most widely spoken variant of English based on India’s likely economic success in the 21st century and the sheer size of its population. ‘If 100 million Indians pronounce an English word in a certain way’, he says, ‘this is more than Britain’s population—so, it’s the only way to pronounce it.’ If British English was the world language at the end of the 19th century, after a century of British imperialism, and American English is the world language today after the American 20th century, then the language of the 21st century might well be Inglish or at least an English heavily influenced by India (and China, to a lesser extent).

What will happen to our mother tongues? This is the insecurity behind the ancient, paralysing debate over teaching English in primary schools. The Vernacular chauvinists believe that our languages and cultures will die under the mesmerizing dominance of the power language, English. They point to Gaelic and Welsh, which were eradicated by English. Vernacularists think we have made a pact with the devil: while fluency in English gives us a competitive advantage, losing our mother tongue impoverishes our personality.

‘Can English satisfy the imaginative hunger of the masses?’ asks Kannada writer, U.R. Anathamurthy.

‘Give me a break’, retorts the poet, Arvind Mehrotra. ‘The masses don’t have imaginative hungers, and who is satisfying them anyway?’

Anathamurthy has proposed that kacca or spoken English be taught from 1st standard to the Kerala government, but the medium of instruction ought to be Malayalam. I do not agree. Unless you acquire the nuances of English before ten, you are disadvantaged. But I have more confidence in our culture. When Indians embrace English in order to win in the global market place, they don’t turn their back on their mother tongue. While English empowers us, our mother tongue continues to give us identity. I agree with Anathamurthy that in our big cities, we retain our ‘home tongues’, while using a ‘street tongue’ and working in the ‘power tongue’.

In a wonderful essay, ‘Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History’, Sheldon Pollock, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Chicago, tells that our vernaculars were also ‘created’ and are not primordial, as vernacular nationalists would like to believe. The vernacularisation of Sanskrit began in the 9th century as Kannada and Telugu became the languages of literary and political expression in the courts of the Rashtrakutas and Chalukyas. Hindi was fashioned by Sufi poets in principalities like Orcha and Gwalior in the 15th century. Bearers of these languages were the elite and not the people, as Gramschi and Bakhtin made us believe. Our consciousness of a ‘mother tongue’ did not even appear until the Europeans arrived. Languages are evolving things and we ought not to do too much social engineering. Vernacular nationalism is bad because it goes against people’s wishes for learning English. Instead of encouraging them by creating more English teachers, nationalists thwart their democratic aspirations. Meanwhile, instead of worrying about our phantom losses, let us celebrate our potential gains. Let’s celebrate cool Inglish!

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