Friday, May 27, 2011

Indian English, our heritage.

In India, we are brought up bi or even multi-lingual. When we speak English, we freely borrow from various languages without giving it much thought. The people we speak to are as multi-lingual as we are so we don't notice anything amiss. What we do has a name - Code Switching.

It is distinct from speaking "Pidgin" which happens when two people who don't know each other's languages at all or have very sketchy knowledge, try and communicate with each other. Pidgin is no doubt simple sentences with a lot of signing and gesticulating but I wouldn't sneer at it. It needs a lot of inventive ability based on guesswork plus a great deal of courage to be able to communicate with someone who doesn't speak your language at all.

After settling in New Zealand I realised I couldn't Code Switch anymore. My resources, if you will, were suddenly reduced by half or more. When we settle in English speaking countries, this is one of the difficulties many of us do encounter. We cannot borrow from other languages as the people we speak to don't know those languages. We do get used to it though so the best POA is to hang on in there with a huge dose of humour whilst we transition.

Our Accents: In American movies Indians sound like they have stones rattling around their mouths. The English have portrayed an Indian brilliantly in "The Party" by Peter Sellers. Some of us found it hilarious, as long as we watched it with other Indians whilst others hated it and even tried to have it banned. It is touching really. We want people to take us seriously; not poke fun at us. Some might say we are unable to laugh at ourselves.

Yet there is a very real, very major upside to Indian English.

We have a mix of many and varied accents. If we are all fitted into a single, homogenous box, we know that is a bit too simplistic. But guess what? The accents are ours. Today I live in New Zealand and have discovered, after many years of being settled here, that there is a unique reason for us to feel good about our spoken English. And it is nothing to do with the English.

The English left India in 1947. They weren't around when we, most of us, were born. Language being ever evolving, we had the freedom to do with English as we willed. So we coloured it with our local dialects (and accents :-) throughout India. What we did not have to contend with was another race of people constantly looking over our shoulder to correct us, perhaps to smirk, get amused or annoyed, to say it wasn't quite right, to say we were ruining what was naturally their property, their language. We learnt the language in school with teachers who were Indian. We were absolutely free to do with the language as we wanted.

And, if I might add, on the whole, we didn't do too badly. What's more, we understood each other with our myriad accents perfectly.

Today, Indian English is our heritage. We write books, magazines, newspapers, manuals in English - (check this out for an interesting article on the state of Indian Publishing then and now by Urvashi Butalia We do business in English. We speak English. And we don't really think of the English when we do all of the above. Nor do we expect them to think of India everytime they drink tea or play polo.

This clip was sent to me by Navroze Dubash. It isn't about code switching but about how we sound to the Americans. I guess we do it too. When we portray Americans we drop our t's - internet is innernet; we speak out of one corner of the mouth and rrrrrroll all our Rs. Still, if you didn't like "The Party" don't watch it.



  1. Hello,
    At times spoken English is rather difficult to comprehend with each country having it's own English accent.
    Some people with normal hearing abilities who are unable to catch up with a foreign accent, enable English sub-titles whilst watching English Movie DVDs and refer to websites for lyrics of English Songs etc.
    There's a funny instance of a highly educated father of Indian origin settled in the UK who at times finds it difficult to understand what his UK born son has to say. So much for Queen's English!

  2. Thanks for that insight, Navroze

  3. Here's an interesting discussion I came across today on Hindi-English or Hinglish