Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Indian English -- Does It Exist? What Do We Call It?

I'm preparing to teach a seminar on "Global English," and as such I've been reading a book called The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran (my version came without pictures, though). The book is incredibly useful as a summary history of the formation and dissemination of the English language. It starts with English's early variants -- Old and Middle English -- and continues through the postcolonial era, with chapters on the dialects (and accents) of English found in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and of course the Indian subcontinent. The stuff on English in early periods is particularly helpful to me, as I've never really understood things like the 'great vowel shift' (now I do).

As I was reading the India chapter, I began to wonder: is 'Indian English' really a distinct linguistic phenomenon -- a patois or a dialect? McCrum et al. cite the following as an example of Indianized English in an old article (1986) from the Telegraph:

Frequent dacoities and looting of fish from bheris in the Sonarpur area has created a serious law and order problem. Tension prevails in the entire area which has 60 bheris. Dacoits armed with pipe-guns, swords and sticks strike before the villagers can retaliate. They surround the bheris and loot the fish. For the villagers, the attacks are 'straight out of Hindi movies'.

And this is how they interpret it:

This fragment of Indian journalistm is an unspectacular but typical example of the everyday uses of English in a society that is continuously indigenizing a foreign language. It is the reinterpretation of the English language by the Indian people -- a process echoed in Ireland -- that has fascinated visitors from the very beginnings of the British involvement in India.

Their main claim here -- that Indians are "indigenizing" English -- seems reasonable at first. But in the end, both the word "indigenizing" and the idea that Indian English is a "reinterpretation" of the English language seem too vague to be really supportable. It suggests an ongoing process of systemic, and growing difference from British or American English.

There are many, many examples of Hindustani words entering into everyday English in India (such as "dacoit" in the above passage; there could be dozens of examples). But that's just local vocabulary; it doesn't prove much. Secondly, there are some grammatical tics that Hindi-speakers tend to bring into their English, most of which will be all-too-familiar to readers: overuse of the present participle ("I am doing"), overuse of "only" ("like this only"), and underuse of the definite article (the missing "the").

And there are many more examples listed here and at Wikipedia. (Some are a little questionable, if you ask me.)

But all in all, the structural differences seem pretty small. More importantly, they aren't generally reproduced (and they aren't taught). When Indians become aware of grammatical tics, they tend to try and correct them. The goal is some idea of "standard" English, not "indigenized" English.

The idea that Indian English is evolving into an identifiable dialect has been popular, partly along the lines of "one should respect different cultures": there is this postcolonial awareness that standard (i.e., BBC) English need not apply to everyone. In principle I agree (no one standard should or could be applied), but I find the evidence that thoroughgoing indigenization has actually occurred to be suspect.

To be clear: I'm not saying that people in India who speak less standarized English should become more "correct." Rather, I've observed that people learning English in India eventually do away with Hindi elements. The distinguishing features of the "dialect" disappear, and the only remaining defining feature of Indian English is the vocabulary, which is fascinating, but relatively trivial.


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Doordarshan English news commentators from the only two channels past (1980's), never mixed non-english words. Or used non-standard english.

Also to pick an example from 1980's Telegraph and not from The Statesman is deliberately misleading. It would be like picking a paragraph from The Guardian (from the 90's) instead of The Times to talk about poor copy-editing. Both the Telegraph and The Guardian were more exciting reads, but somewhat cavalier in their editing. It would be like picking Illustrated Weekly as the standard bearer of Indian magazines. Or look to US News and World report to talk about US journalism.

10:21 AM  
Amardeep said...

Suvendra, the Guardian of old seems like a perfect analogue to the Telegraph of old.

It's funny that you mention the 'Illustrated Weekly'. I have a post I've been meaning to do on their transformation in the 1970s, from a very staid, conservative 'coffee table' magazine, to a kind of tabloid. For me it represents a kind of transition of English-speaking India...

Hm, maybe later this week.

10:36 AM  
ModelMinority said...

The differences between Indian and British English seem to be of the same scale (or slightly larger) that that between "American" versions and British ones - or even between local British ones. If they are accorded the status of dialects, so should Indian English.

Personally, I dont think any of the above really rise to the level of dialects, but many have wonderful local phrases/words.

11:55 AM  
Greg Goulding said...

I think another important distinction to make is between those who are learning English as, essentially, a second language, and those who speak as basically a first or simultaneously learned tongue. The type of carry-overs that people bring into a second language we can't really call changes in the second language until they become part of the natural language of the other group.

However, looking at it like this, I think we still see a few definate changes that would constitute a slightly different dialect--although, at this point, not too much, and I would say not even to the point of divergence between American and British English.

For instance, the overuse of "only", I would say, persists to a certain extent even in people who speak English as their primary/first language, although not to as great an extent as with people speaking with a Hindustani accent. Much more prevelant in Indian English, at least what I've heard, are certain phrases, such as "even I" ('Even I think this is ridiculous') which (I assume) comes from Hindustani somehow, or the phrase "X cum Y" (washer cum drier) which seems like a British anachronism (do they still say this in the UK); also, I've noticed sometimes that there are changes in the v/w sound that persist way past the level of accents...

but this is just off my own ear, so I could be far gone... in any case, when does a dialect differ from an accent? It seems like a smaller version of the "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy" problem...

One important thing to bear in mind is that UK, US, Australian, Canadian and Indian English are all mutually intelligible; Caribbean Patois, however, is not quite.

12:44 PM  
Greg Goulding said...

oooh, it's also interesting, of course, to look in the other direction; in Hindi at least, I can think of more than a few actual grammatical constructions that have snuck into comprehensibility in English, i.e. "alag shabd mein" or my own favorite "kya samay/time hei" which I've said and had understand in both Delhi and Uttaranchal until I remembered how to say bajna... I'm sure more proficient speakers could add much more to this thread...

12:52 PM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

alag shabd mein
Separate sound mine? What does this mean?

2:40 PM  
Amardeep said...

Suvendra, I think Greg means "mein" as in "inside" or "in": in separate words (in other words?). I haven't heard the expression 'alag shabd mein' myself, though.

And Greg, thank you for those great points. Indeed, this post completely depends on how one defines "dialect," and from what I gather, the linguists themselves don't quite agree on that point. In addition to McCrum et al., I've heard and read many literature scholars speak in a celebratory way of 'Indian English' as if it were a constant, connecting Midnight's Children and The God of Small Things.

Linguists also have other words they use, like "ethnolect" and "socioloect," which might be relevant to this discussion.

But I think the thing to emphasize is that the way Indian English works is completely different from Jamaican patois. Part of it is the mutual intelligibility factor. But it should also be noted that there isn't really a basolect/acrolect divide in Indian English (the fact that someone speaks English is itself a class marker -- Indian English is in a sense the acrolect of Hindi).

Your other observation, about the Anglicization of Hindi, is important too. In fact, nearly everyone I know speaks that kind of Hindi... I have maybe one friend who speaks a 'pure' (shudh) Hindi, but she is actually a Bengali.

I was planning to do a post on something related (Hobson Jobson) tomorrow.

BTW, why haven't you been updating your blog? I would love to read more observations like this from you... (Sorry to nag ;-)

3:04 PM  
uncleji said...

Nicely made points. But the problem is that apart from the creation of new voc there has been little empirical research into the development or forms of Hinglish/Indian English etc.

Also isn't the distinction between Hindi and Urdu based on a different vocab ?

There seem to be a distinction between "old" Indian English, rapidly being supplanted by Hnglish or its regional versions.

I would disagree that speaking English is a class marker anymore as (thanks to Bollywood) english has been spread across South Asia, different regions and classes are adapting it their own needs (see Das).

Regarding that Indian Speakers of English would revert to Standard English may increasingly be challenged as the size numbers and influence of Indian Speakers becomes evident.

points stolen from

"Ingish as she's spoken" Gurcharan Das
Outlook India, 3 May 2005 http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=5675
Transcript of David Crystal (prof of lingistic) on "Indian English"

8:24 AM  
Kerim Friedman said...

First off, you should look at this annual review article on World Englishes. Especially look at stuff by BB Kachru listed there.

Secondly, class issues are very important here. The ability to move twoards Standard English depends upon having been taught the standard. This is somewhat analogous to the situation with what is called "Standard Black English" in which we have a variety of the standard which is clearly marked as African American, but does not qualify as a full-blown dialect. The way some black preachers speak is a good example. They can code-switch between AAVE ("ebonics") and SBE, and do so for affect, but rarely speak SE, fearing the accusation of sounding "too White" - although they can probably do so if they like. Certain black comedians use "sounding white" for comic effect.

See: Spears, A.K. (1988) "Black American English" in J.B. Cole, ed. Anthropology for the Nineties. New York: Free Press.

11:37 AM  
verbal chameleon said...

Have you looked at the television series that spawned the book? It is quite interesting, and widely available in college and public libraries. It's divided into regions, so you can dip in, and snippets from some of the videos may be useful to you as examples for students.
You've probably already seen them, but just in case.

12:54 AM  
Anonymous said...

"alag shabd mein" means IN OTHER WORDS...ohmigod. shabd doesn't mean sound it means WORD.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous said...

Contact Dr S V Shastri. He is THE Authority on "Indian English".

9:35 AM  

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