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English Language Thrives in a S. Asian Reincarnation

Culture: Hindi is India's official dialect, but the colonists' tongue remains popular. Its slang mutations are many and perplexing, however.

February 25, 1996|THOMAS WAGNER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW DELHI, India — Sixteen decades after the British introduced English in India, this ancient land has changed the language in ways that often perplex English-speakers from other countries.

Like teenagers churning out their own slang, Indians have Indianized English, turning it into a road map of the subcontinent's complex social, ethnic, religious, cultural and geographic landscape.

For instance, a father might place a matrimonial advertisement in a newspaper seeking a "mutual alliance." It means he wants to find spouses for his son and daughter from the same family. That way, the son can protect his sister from abuse by in-laws, a common problem in India.

Or you might overhear an Indian inviting his "cousin-brother" to a "military hotel" located on a "kutcha road" and where people eat on "dining leafs." He wants to take his male cousin to a non-vegetarian restaurant on a dirt road where the food is served on banana leaves.

Indians often sit down at work for meals they bring from home in "tiffin-carriers," their term for metal lunch boxes.

They are proud to talk about "America-returned" or "England-returned" relatives--those who have worked or studied there. But most would be too embarrassed to discuss a relative who engaged in "intermarriage" or "interdining," meaning doing such things across caste boundaries.

And what is someone from America or Britain to make of newspaper headlines like "55 Jhuggis Gutted" or "Striking Workers Gherao Their Bosses"? The first story is about a fire that burned shacks; the latter reports on strikers who surrounded their bosses.

With English known for picking up words and phrases from other languages, it is not surprising India's version has taken its own path. India is home to 24 languages that are each spoken by at least 1 million people, and there are many other languages and dialects among its 900 million people.

It is hard to find Indians who don't speak three or four languages at least. And many comply with India's intricate social hierarchy and caste system by using a variety of styles and dialects, depending on the social situation they are in.

India's constitution officially recognizes 18 languages, but it gives top billing to Hindi and English.

Hindi is India's official language, even though it is the primary tongue of only about 30% of the people. English is the "associate" official language.

As many as 90 million Indians speak English fluently and many others finish school at least knowing how to read and understand some of it. Many linguists believe South Asia is now the world's third most populous English-speaking region, behind America and Britain.

Radio stations, Indian movies and even newscasts on state-owned Doordarshan TV often switch back and forth from Hindi to English, sometimes phrase by phrase.

Even though the British rulers pulled out in 1947, English is considered the most important language for national, political and commercial communication.

Because of that, English is seen as the gateway to a good career and social status, no matter what language people grow up speaking. Competition for college positions and jobs is intense, and the top private schools all teach in English.

That doesn't mean English has no enemies.

Indian nationalists, especially during election campaigns, criticize it as a holdover from the colonial past and condemn officials who often use it during public appearances. Some politicians respond by condemning English in public, then quietly sending their children to schools that teach in it.

Many of India's states work hard to preserve their regional languages by insisting that teachers in public elementary schools use them.

But highly regarded Indian authors, such as Vikram Seth and Anita Desai, no longer feel sheepish about writing in English rather than an Indian language, as nationalists once demanded.

And even Bal Thackeray, one of India's most right-wing politicians, recently said his Shiv Sena party would run educated and English-speaking candidates in this spring's parliamentary elections to bolster the party's image.

Braj B. Kachru, a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois, said English is in India to stay.

"Most Indians accept English now that it has been adapted to their culture and values," said Kachru, who studies the use of English in India and other South Asian nations.

"They also see the advantage that India has in being able to convey those positions and viewpoints to the outside world, especially the West."

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Say What?

Examples of Indianized English:

Batch-mate: Fellow student

Break one's head: Rack one's brain

Dearness allowance: Cost-of-living adjustment

Double roti: Loaf of bread

Eve-teasing: Sexual harassment of young women

Goonda: Undesirable person, scoundrel, petty criminal

Homely: A good homemaker

Prepone: Move up

Sit on someone's neck: Watch carefully

Swadeshi: Locally produced

Associated Press

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