22 November 2007

Indians and English: No flatulence please, unless you write for . . .

I've written about this before, but feel the need to say yet again: English in India is the most gloriously alive, playful, intelligent, articulate, and mind-expanding English in the world today.

It is odd then, that this language is so misunderstood by the waxing class. I'm saying, without any authority, but saying it anyway: The title of Amelia Gentleman's op-ed today in the International Herald Tribune, "The Queen's Hinglish" gains in India, is wrong; and though part of what Gentleman is trying to say is right, it's that kind of rightness of the boat that almost reaches your destination, and drops you off.

"The Queen's Hinglish: How to Speak Pukka" is the title of a book by Baljinder Mahal. She calls it a guide to the blending of Hindi and English by Indian immigrants to the U.K. The (US) National Public Radio interviewed her in Blighty itself, in the town of Derby in central England for some practical lessons in Hinglish. Listen to the interview and people speaking "Queen's Hinglish" here, and read all about it in Anushka Asthana's amusing and informative piece in The Observer: Kiss my chuddies! (Welcome to the Queen's Hinglish)

As Asthana says:
Asian 'yoof-speak' is spicing up English, with Hindi words such as 'gora' and slang such as 'innit' soon to enter the dictionary and experts predicting an explosive impact of the language used by second-generation immigrants. Welcome to the 'Queen's Hinglish'.

What's happening in the UK is also happening in the USA and everywhere else the diaspora has spread.

Gentleman says:
In "The Queen's Hinglish," another recent book on the theme, Baljinder K. Mahal writes that more people speak English in South Asia than in Britain and North America combined, with India alone accounting for more than 350 million English speakers.

She mentions Kishore Singh's (in my opinion, spot on) review in Business Standard (India) which is itself, an example of Hinglish as written in India, but it's no yoof-speak: Paul Theroux's Sleaze Yatra

Alice boards a train in Bombay. She is en route to Bangalore with a friend who, at the last minute, ditches her for a new found amour, so Alice, alone in her coach with her co-passengers, spends her free time thinking how Indians have mummified an English where words like “utterance” and “miscreants”, “thrice”, “ample” and “jocundity” survive in daily usage. She meets a young man who adds to her vocabulary of Indian words with “ruminative”, and Alice can’t help thinking as she looks out of the train window that “it’s so Merchant-Ivory”.

This is eventually the superior white writing if not about the inferior then certainly the exotic brown, and in the end all you walk away with is the author’s peevishness about Indians being curmudgeonly (and there’s another word for you to collect, Alice).

Indian words

Indians have the finest tone sense of English speakers today, and do irony better than the British (Americans who are still looking iurny up in the dictionary don't count, and there could be a dissertation or two in the works on the subtle nuancing of motherfu**er, so I should leave my foot where it is). I can, however, imagine Singh's smile as he typed those 'mummified' words that are now Indian, as English in the Anglo world has dropped them for more relevant and colourful expression.

"Enjoy your thing," said the saleswoman to me in a New York Macy's. Yanklish?

It isn't just that Indians in India are using words and expressions from other languages to express themselves when English doesn't touch the place that needs that something. It's a fact that Indians in India have a wider vocabulary than many Anglos, of English itself. By this, I don't mean that they use English words we don't know, to impress and intimidate (like that "overlord of the OED", Martin Amis). They are communicating. They also have more fun with English, and you can see it in the most unexpected places. Look at any Indian newspaper, and see the punning, allusions, and alliteration everywhere. Take for example, today's Hindustan Times. Its editorial is Hammered and Sickled. How can a state’s police force and administration look the other way while vigilante armies set foot on the path of ‘justice’, asks Barkha Dutt.

It's a bit of an addiction with that rag. Other "edits" listed on that page are "Match, set and shame", "Tie of the storm", and "Lock, shock and barrel".

Or see today's outlookindia.com, where Rajinder's Puri's Opinion column is centre-page: The Adharma Of Coalitions Nandigram and l'affaire N-Deal have both exposed the cancerous rot afflicting the UPA alliance . . .

Sometimes allusions can be embarrassing to an Anglo. Sai Arjun Singh's column in Business Standard is called WordsWORTH. But never fear. He is no Bachi Karkaria. Read his column Ghosts in the Machine to see that Indians writing from India can write as perfectly as any columnist in the Guardian or the New York Times. He is not only impeccable in his cultural-knowledge display (never straying from what the reader in London or New York or Cedar Rapids or Yale might know) but he doesn't play with words. He uses the words he should to be taken seriously where it counts – though why he might want to write as if he hails from the UK, where fiction sales are as depressed as a puppy left at the vet's, is beyond me. Onwards to the language used: pulp fiction, visceral, montage, juxtaposing of old-world mysticism with the banality of urban . . .

Now, Bachi Karkaria would have to clip her tongue to be taken seriously in the lands of the Queen or the thing-enjoyers. See for instance, her 4 Nov op-ed in the Times of India"Mine is bigger than yours". It is not only important for what it says (though she never writes self-importantly); the way she states her case adds immeasurably to the reader's (okay, this reader's) joy in being biffed around the head with fresh-as-newcaught-fish ideas. The fact that I tend to agree with her is beside the point, but do go get biffed.

It belongs in a dictionary!

Her coined word: Causewallis, is what language is all about.

But getting back to Amelia Gentleman's column.

She mentions two more books:

The title of Binoo K. John's new study of the language, "Entry From Backside Only" (a sign commonly seen in alleyways) misleadingly suggests this will be another exercise in ridicule. Instead it is a celebration . . .

(Note: "Entry from Backside Only: Hazaar Fundas of Indian-English" is only published by Penguin India though they've done a publicity blitz in the UK (do they think only Indians would be interested?), so I have linked it for your pleasure, to Oxford Bookstores in India.)

Gentleman continues:
Some of the perceived shortcomings of Indian English can be blamed directly on the English colonizers, according to another recent book, "Indlish," by Jyoti Sanyal. In its introduction, the book notes that: "Indian English suffers from flatulent orotundity, a form of high-flown language that tries to impress but instead obscures." This style of speaking and writing, the book argues, is a hangover from the Raj and the bureaucratic officialese that it bequeathed to India.

The publisher's blurb is an alarum. This book "may be the last hope for reform." The editor of Indlish is Martin Cutts, "research director and owner" of the Plain Language Commission. I would think that they've got enough to do, being based in the EU. It enrages me to think of the kind of help this book is giving to Indians, when there are so many poor English users elsewhere who are in desperate need, such as Microsoft, and the people who wrote that flatulent orotundity, the European Constitution, now euphemised as the European Reform Treaty.

All this Indian speaker of English stuff inevitably leads to Indian call centres. You can't teach all these operators perfect English, Gentleman quotes Binoo K. John as saying (though that is the goal). Sanyal's work offers advice on how to shake off the "Victorian legacy that hangs like a dead albatross around each educated Indian's neck," encouraging the use of a simpler style.

(BTW, Where are all the help guides to stop the New Yorker from saying in 15,000 words what could be said more elegantly, understandably, with even a touch of the luminous, in 750, and often many less?)

Reducing a stock enriches, but this language reduction when it's applied in this way to Indian English is actually not only a flattening of expression, but worse - a margarinic substitution. It mirrors the prissy attitude of the government of Singapore.

I don't want an Indian call centre person to say to me or to anyone that fatuous absurdity, "No worries", but that is what they're taught to say when speaking to us in Australia. Are they also taught, "Don't quote Wordsworth."?

In perfect English, please say with me, "Enjoy your thing."

Previous Medlar Comfits raves on this topic:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The article is brilliant, thank you.
As it will appear shortly, I am an English-as-a-second-language speaker! My first language is Persian, a language with lots of idioms, poems and prose. As a person interested in that language who has been trying to speak it correctly and in its poetic way, adopting a simple and straightforward English might not be entirely satisfying. My brain tries to find the poetic versions for simple expressions, I might know the simple words everyone knows but those words are not convincing enough to me, they are not showing what I feel. In search to use poetic words, I might come up with some unheard, unusual and maybe outdated words which are convincing to me but not as much to an English-as-a-first-language speaker. To express myself in the way I love, I might make it difficult for others to understand me! and I guess it may be the case for many of us who adopted English as our second language or maybe not...