A midnight’s child takes us on a tour of Indian English

Indian English idiom My backside neighbour something-something happening and one by two teaImage: renegadetravels.com
Blog Language Saturday, April 09, 2016 - 09:40

By Ranita Hirji

What is Indian English?

It is a language which is all our own. We have given birth to this phenomenon, so we understand it, control it, and grow it to serve us.

Indian English is a lovable creature; that is why we are so attached to it. It is so obedient, always at our service, so malleable, so pliable… Where else would be get such unconditional loyalty?

An orphan learns the art of survival and develops a hybrid personality of its own, and bears very little resemblance to its biological parents. The English language which our white colonisers brought to us retained its genetic hues while still under strict parental control. That is the strange creature – the English language – which I and other midnight’s children took as our own and nurtured and held so close to our (hearts) that it became part of us. The English language and I were close companions – it never failed me and I took its loyal service for granted calling upon it to articulate my thoughts and bail me out when I pondered over expression. It was the King’s English (or Queen’s) that I embraced and used with ease while my until recently Monarch smiled benevolently as I dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s with a precision my computer would find difficult to match.

As midnight’s child when I left for my destination I arrived at my destination with the alacrity of a newcomer eager to stay in a new city, very different from the city in which I had always lived.

But today in the Indian English Idiom – the orphan with the hybrid personality - I leave to my destination where I will be putting up with one of my friend and then deciding as to whether I will be staying there for longer time or I will be returning back to my native.

Indian English or Indlish, Hinglish, Kandlish – call it what you will – is our own home-grown version of the English language and transliteration determines the logic of its grammar.

Since the perfect tense and continuous tense are interchangeable in the Indian languages, ‘I walked to school everyday’ easily becomes I am walking to school everyday, or better still I am walking to school daily. And it can also be daily I am walking to my school. Never mind if the rules of English grammar say that the position of every word is fixed in a sentence and syntax is not to be fiddled with.

What rules of English grammar are we talking about? This is our own home-grown Indlish and transliteration dictates its logic.

Indlish does not differentiate between he said me and he told me… What is the point in splitting hairs anyway? After all it is same thing da. My backside neighbour said me not to throw my garbage in front of his house but my next-door neighbour told me to throw it there only.

And since our Indian languages use repetitive words – Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – in Indlish we use what all words to mean that all only.

There was a time when I ordered a cup of tea in a restaurant and the waiter poured it out of a teapot through a metal strainer into a teacup and handed it to me with a smile. But today I have to give my order for one cup tea if I wish to be served, and a harassed waiter dumps one cup tea on my table, spilling some as he does so, and hurries off to the next table with their order of one by two tea, one toast butter, one masala bun.

Unable to find an equivalent in any Indian language, the Indian English idiom has conveniently decided to do away with the articles a and the or replace them with one, this, that. So we put one cup tea on table and cover it with that plate under it. It is no use asking me to place a cup of tea on the table and cover it with the saucer.

Indian English will not allow me to write a list of the things I need on a sheet of paper. Instead I must write my list on one paper. If I wish to draw your attention to the frock I wore yesterday I have to refer to that frock which I was wearing yesterday no…?

Of course transliteration too has its peculiarities in different brands of Indlish. In Gujlish it is mostly I will be coming instead of most probably I will come, and the expression simply is commonly used in South India as a transliteration of chumma. After all, what what things we say, that all means same thing only, no? Then what for we should break our heads? Why we should trouble ourself to say why are you doing this when why you are doing this means exact and same thing. Chumma time waste only!

And what is all this big fuss about prepositions? Why I can’t leave to Mangalore? Why do I have to leave for Mangalore? And why do I have to put the food on the table? Why I can’t put the food on top of the table?  And who says my sister is older than I? I tell you she is elder to me. And that is final I say. I would rather go for a picnic, not on a picnic, and reach to my destination and not arrive at my destination.

When it comes to action words (verbs as they say) I would rather put a call to my friend than make a call to my friend. After all I make rotis, but I still put a word to you.

So how did this strange creature, Indlish, proliferate?

Through another post-independence, post-colonial phenomenon called the English-medium school where the medium of instruction was supposedly English. As the demand for English-medium schools grew, so did the need for teachers who could teach in English. So people with different levels of proficiency in English stepped in to meet the demand. They taught in the English they were most comfortable with – a transliteration of their mother tongue. Not only was it easy for them to teach in Indlish, it was also easy for the students to learn a foreign language which resembled the structures and patterns of their mother tongue.

It was a win-win for all. In less than two decades this creature – Indlish – had been domesticated, loved and nurtured in every urban middle-class Indian home. Today this Indlish is on display everywhere. It is a ubiquitous creature – from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. And we Indians have no problem recognising it and using it.

Is it any wonder, then, that we are the largest ‘English’-speaking nation in the world?

Ranita Hirji is Dean, Commits – Institute of Journalism and Mass Communication, Bangalore

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