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Monday, July 21, 2008

Indians and English, Indian English!

In its July 2008 issue, Reader’s Digest published an article which concerns an issue very close to my heart, and invited readers to write in their comments. I have just emailed a long comment to them. They might publish it in full (they sometimes do), or they might not, or they might cut it short to the bare essentials (in their opinion, not necessarily mine!) I thought I should post the whole thing I wrote here, for the benefit of the blog readers. I shall be glad for all the sensible comments that I get. Here goes…

I am writing this in response to your invitation to comment on the article titled 'The Americanization of Indish' written by Mohan Sivanand in your July 2008 issue. As someone who adores the English language, and has been making a living teaching it not only to high-school children but also those appearing for tests like the CAT, the UPSC, the GRE and TOEFL for more than 25 years, I thought this was a chance I should not miss.

I have no problems with Indians adapting from both British and American English, nor with Indians, including Indian writers, who boldly experiment with Indian images, metaphors, allusions, special/untranslateable local expressions, and peculiarly Indian themes/concerns as they work with English: in that sense I am no rigid purist; I know that any rich and vigorous language does and must keep evolving, for the benefit of all concerned. I am proud of the works of the whole long tradition of Indian writers in English from the time of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Toru Dutt to Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu to Kamala Das, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai right down to the contemporary tribe of writers for what they have done and are doing with English literature. No one will be happier if because of their efforts, along with the contributions of millions of ordinary Indian users of English, a genuine 'Indian English' evolves and is recognised as such by the whole world someday.

What I object to, and cannot help lamenting over, is the fact that vast numbers of today's nominally educated adult Indians - and that includes millions of successful professionals (alas, even teachers!) - think nothing of mutilating the language for no rhyme or reason, or rather because they have simply never bothered to learn the language well, and are quite blase about passing off whole pages and speeches of bad, clumsy, unidiomatic, misspelt, mispronounced and just plain wrong English as 'our kind' of English, or simply shrugging it off as a matter of no consequence. Semi-literate poster writers (the kind who have been mocked at in the caption accompanying the photograph at the end of your article) can be easily forgiven for wretched spelling; should you do the same with editors with postgraduate degrees who cannot remove bad spelling from books they supposedly go through with a fine-toothed comb (and probably using the MS-Word spell-check facility, too!), and college graduates who apparently have so pathetic a grasp of the fundamentals of the language that they have to be tested for not just spelling but punctuation, correct syntax, proper use of tenses, gender, number, articles and punctuation, besides vocabulary? - witness the contents of the typical CAT conducted by the IIMs. This is a basic literacy test, albeit conducted at very high speed, and yet these institutes ask such questions of those who are supposed to be the cream of our student population! What does that say about the quality of English education given in even the best schools in our country these days?

I am compelled to deal, day in and day out, with 'highly educated' adults who can neither read and speak their native tongues without continuously (unconsciously and unashamedly) interspersing them with English words and phrases, nor can speak or write English for any length of time without lapsing into gross errors of the sorts mentioned above, besides caricaturing the language with silly and ugly Indianisms, most of which are too familiar to mention ('We are like that only'/'Please pull my photo'/'He won't leave me unless I say sorry'/ What is your good name please?'/ 'Open your shoes here'/ 'We charge Rs 500 a day for fooding and lodging'/'My cousin brother is coming'...!) What does it say about our national psyche? Do the Chinese or the Russians or the Japanese or the French habitually do the same, or indeed the British and the Americans?

And have you surveyed the kind of rude, crude sms text they write instead of English on forums such as are provided by social-networking sites like orkut on the Net? Given that the average orkuter is in his or her early 20s, what does that augur for the standards of English that are going to prevail over the coming decades? I heard once that a New York politician who could spell 'cat' was called talented. Is that what the new generation of adult Indian users of English is going to be like?

I believe that this is not a facile question lightly to be ignored. Language is not merely the vehicle of communication and the bedrock of culture; it is the very framework of thought. A whole nation which has become so frivolous, so disrespectful of standards, so callous with language, whose citizens have nearly forgotten their native tongues and made a hash of English at the same time, is not likely to prosper rapidly and robustly in any other walk of life. I can vouch from personal experience that someone who matriculated from a Bangla-medium school 75 years ago (my own grandfather) could write at least more grammatically and idiomatically-correct English than 95% of postgraduates I meet today, though he could not have spoken with a pseudo-American twang, and flavoured his speech with so much currently-'in' slang as the young do these days. This development is certainly something to ponder about!

Yours truly,
Suvro Chatterjee
July 21, 2008


ishani said...

Hi Suvro,

Just wanted to leave a comment to say that I stumbled on your blog quite by chance - and I'm glad I did. Really great posts and thought provoking, must visit more often! I will send the link to Nilanjan (who has enquired a number of times about your whereabouts). Hope you are doing very well - Ishani Duttagupta (ishani.duttagupta@gmail.com)

ginger candy said...


Your comment in response to the article in Reader's Digest is a definite eye-opener to the abysmal level of moral decadence in India. Language, as you have already mentioned, is the basic touchstone for measuring the cultural and educational standards of any country. While the fact still remains true that India is churning out scads of supposedly educated people with glamorous degrees to their credit, it is highly lamentable that a minuscule proportion of them know how to write in basic and simple English.

What I find more alarming nowadays, is the general inclination of people, educated and illiterate alike, to subvert the basic norms of the English language and maim it in any possible way they can conjure. When questioned, instead of feeling penitent, they are shamelessly bold enough to say that language is pretty inconsequential in the 'modern' generation, and one would certainly do well if he spends his time honing other 'important' skills instead (like Maths and Science- the prerequisites for Joint Entrance Examination, as you have already guessed). It is this imminent danger that I am fiercely afraid of, and going by the general plebeian attitude, I must say I am exasperated by now. Those who are absolutely incapable of following the niceties of the English language, and who cannot write a coherent essay to save their lives, shall not achieve true excellence in their whole lifetime: this much I know. I see lots of people around me conversing in English everyday (I work in a Software company, remember?), often in affected American accent, but when it comes down to as simple a task as writing an official e-mail, they flounder like small schoolchildren. Moreover, most of them find reading two pages of substantial and proper English an insurmountable ordeal. But above all this, it's the utter disregard and disrespect for the English Language that bothers me the most; When shall we learn to respect something as important as language (English and others), which serves as the basic communicative medium?

Another important observation that you have made is regarding the flagrant use of 'sms-text' nowadays. One who is apt at writing this gibberish is eulogized as rakish these days, instead of being dismissed as an unfortunate illiterate. And did I tell you about people who have a Master's degree in English to their credit writing in sms-text, just to stay 'cool' in social Networking sites as that of Orkut! Speaks volumes about our love of education, isn't it?

Your analysis on this topic is so consummate that I have no new points to state. All I have written above is because I love the English language in all it's purity, and I can't bear to see it getting mutilated. So folks, I urge you not to write in sms-text anymore: It is not 'cool', it is not 'in', and it is certainly very foolish! Kindly don't disappoint me.

Bye and Best of luck.


Sudipto Basu said...

I've had long debates on the evolution of language on net forums. I will quickly pen down some things I observed, and my reactions on the same.

1. Lots of people consider language to be only a vehicle to convey something. They do not acknowledge that language not only conveys a thought, but often beautifies it (if effectively used). Ironically, a lot of supposed book-lovers think in the former fashion too! Their argument is foolish and paradoxical, since they themselves realise deep down that no one would have touched Shakespeare's writings (forget considering them classics!) had he written the same stories in bad English. Languages evolve; a lot of words considered indecent/bad/ungrammatical pass into daily usage and start meaning something altogether different, while a whole lot of other words gradually pass into the ever-growing list of the archaic. But nothing, I repeat nothing, can excuse unimaginative and poor writing (revolutionary/novel or not)!

2. Language is a weapon that no real leader underestimates. Demagogues use it to sway masses for their own petty means, and able statesmen use it to reform countries. Famous people often die, the words emanating from their mouths live on and remind us of them. If that is not testimony to the power of language, what is?

3. Again, a man is known by the language he uses. Language is the reflection of one's character. The one who spits venom indiscriminately after every couple of words betrays his own insecurity. The one who shortens whole sentences to make crude caricatures in the name of saving time only proves how lazy he is. It is as simple as that!

4. Language does evolve. It must. Question is: is it really changing for the good or bad? Anyone who has read George Orwell's 1984 can recall how Newspeak was constantly evolving. But in that case, it was being cut down, mutilated and changed for the worse. Why does not one realise that by shortening the language and chopping off words and letters out without rhyme or reason, it only leads to the range of thought being shortened. If this trend continues, some decades later, man will completely lose the ability to think (quite alarmingly, he has began to show signs of the same already!). That is reason to be worried about for those who think; it is not mere fussing over something "cool" just because they have become too old to imbibe the "in" ways of the new generation.

email: sudibasu@rediffmail.com

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

This month Reader’s Digest issue has published your comment on the “The Americanization of English” by Mohand Sivanand. As you had rightly predicted the comment has been reduced drastically to only few lines. The Editor has said that all the wrong English usage is justified as it can be traced back to the Hindi syntax. Also, that the sms text has been fascinating the linguistic researchers and so is something of great worth.

Our youth has already accepted sms text as the latest trend and its usage as something to show off. As a result, they do not bother with spellings and similar basic things on which the foundation of English is based. Now with this encouragement from esteemed magazines like Reader’s Digest the youth will be refueled to continue using the sms text.

And really Sir, do the linguistic researchers do not have anything better to do than to research on sms text? The Harappan script has been partly and tentatively deciphered; the language has been tentatively identified as Dravidian. Why do not the linguistic researchers try to confirm this theory and go ahead to decipher the remaining? At least it might up open up a new dimension of India’s past and give us Indians a chance to fall back on our glorious past once again, especially when our future with sms text looks so dire!

Anwesha Chatterjee.

Dev said...

One observation I feel urged to express is regarding spoken English. It's considered something of a status nowadays to speak English with an American accent. However, it appears artificial when one does that. I have studied in an English medium school and none of my teachers spoke in that accent. Neither did they speak in a British accent, or in a pronounced regional Indian accent. But the accent in which they spoke was most similar to the way certain news readers on English news channels, like for instance on NDTV, speak. It's a lucid way to speak English and it's in none of the accents that I mentioned before. So it can be called a formal Indian-English accent. Unfortunately, no one ever talks of such an accent. Rather they are either talking of European origin accents or about the unclear regional accents whenever spoken Indian English is talked about. We endanger a perfectly comfortable and clear way to use English which at the same time is from our country itself by doing this.

And the less said about the English written on Orkut or via SMS, the better. I honestly believe people who write like that exhibit their illiteracy in some measures, even if they have half-a-dozen PhD's!

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

About a couple of years ago I had a conversation about the very same topic with an acquaintance. His justification of the usage of phrases like "we are like that only" was that it is our "DNA"; Indians "can't" help speaking this way. Well, plenty of people (known or unknown to him) have been proving him wrong but the large majority of us still need to make a basic paradigm shift as far as languages are concerned. Here in Chennai, we are either "uncool" for speaking in Tamil or a "snob" for speaking in English. One sad thing I have noticed is that a lot of times the very people who jeer and deride are the ones who did and still do have the opportunity to be fluent and proficient (in any language for that matter). These people can't be bothered to take the interest or trouble and to overcome their embarrassment they make fun of those who can and do speak or write well.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

You have got that last part just right, Vaishnavi. There is a vast unspoken conspiracy to hide our collective embarrassment over our ignorance by pretending that speaking or writing wretchedly caricatured English is 'cool'. Alas, it is so easy to pretend that rigorous standards of precision and accuracy are important in mathematics, but not so when we are dealing with language. And how much easier in an age when most people have no idea how richly language can and has been used, having grown up poorly read and proud of it!

My revenge, by the way, lies in insisting that I shall accord no man the status of 'educated' unless he can use at least one language with flawless elegance and accuracy...you can't imagine how many people I infuriate this way!

ginger candy said...

Dear Sir,

Please read this article: http://www.firstpost.com/ideas/chetan-bhagat-mediocre-middlebrow-and-mahaan-100106.html#en

This has been getting a lot of flak on the Internet (mainly the twitterati) lately for picking on the poor Mr. Bhagat. Some eminent journalists promptly backed up Mr. Bhagat, even going as far as to say that proper English died with Queen Victoria! I am, of course, a staunch supporter of this article. Please let me know what you think of it.

And lest I forget, Shubho Bijoya to you and your family. Amar pronam neben.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Many thanks for the link, Joydeep: anything you send is always highly readable. Both Bhagat and Murthy mix up a little sense with a lot of nonsense whenever they open their mouths, and everything goes because they have made pots of money (I have said as much in connection with Steve Jobs in my latest post). In this particular case, it's rather an example of the pot calling the kettle black - if Murthy is basically a bodyshopper who likes to call his work hi-tech, Bhagat is a pulp writer for teens who would like to think of his work as literature. My only consolation is that both will be quite forgotten in 20 years' time... and in connection with English, both have conveniently forgotten that countless Indians have mastered English despite not coming from privileged backgrounds. I found this line by Ms. Chaudhry particularly hilarious: 'The class argument hardly holds when your own parents are more literate than you'. I wish all Indians between age 16 and 30 would read this! And also her observation that if anyone wrote anything in a vernacular language as poor as Bhagat's English is, s/he would be dismissed as half-literate immediately by all who matter. Speaks volumes about the elite of today's India...

Biswajit Biswas said...

From a very early age many “educated” and so-called “successful”(I don’t really understand what they mean by “success”) people have led me to believe that Science and Mathematics are the most important subject and other subjects are not as important . I had blindly believed them.
As I am growing up I am beginning to realize how nonsensical those talks were (it reminds me of my Mathematics teacher who says “mathematics came much later , language was invented first”) . They don’t understand that all subjects under the sun are useless without skills of communication. If one cannot express oneself properly (as Suvro Sir often tells us , “ you have not learnt English and have forgotten your mother tongue”) he/she cannot do anything significant in life even if he/she wants to .
The common idea among my friends is that improving one’s language is useless (perhaps most of them have been brainwashed by some “successful grown ups”) as “it is useless at a higher level” and they pay no respect to the language (so they don’t bother to write complete words and mutilate the language). They call it “useless “ without even caring to think what great difference a single word can make (once , at school my physics teacher had said “when we place 2 objects in space the force acting between them can be found out the by the formula of gravitation” . I don’t know when that teacher will realize that there are other forces acting as well) and if someone explains the grammatical errors to them, the most common argument is “they are the same”. They realize their mistake but refuse to correct it!
-Biswajit Biswas (e-mail : biswajitbiswas@y7mail.com)
[If I have made any mistake , I would appreciate it if someone helps me correct it]

Suvro Chatterjee said...

The very fact that you took the trouble not only to read but comment on this post, as well as the attitude expressed in your last line shows, Biswajit, that you stand outside the common herd: that you care about this elusive but priceless thing called quality. So thank you very much. You have my best wishes: maybe someday you will tell people I learnt something of value because I came in touch with Sir...

Anonymous said...

I arrived at your blog because your student (sometime student?) Aakash sent me the link to your review of The Englishman's Cameo. Thank you for that, by the way - I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

I won't add anything to what you've said in this post, because it sums up perfectly what I feel about what's happening to Indian English under the guise of 'letting the language evolve'. Sheer bad English seems to be becoming the order of the day, not the exception. (Incidentally, I came across a mention of a man 'peddling a cycle' down a road in one of the bestsellers this year, published by Westland-Tranquebar. And no, this man was not trying to sell the cycle; he was using it as transport).

A part Indian-part New Zealander linguist I know through the blogger community was recently talking about how he feels sad that "Indian English is disdained by so many Indians", instead of being 'celebrated' (his words, not mine). I'm going to send him a link to this post, because I couldn't have put it better myself.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Many thanks for writing, Madhulika (you didn't sign off with your name, and I nearly deleted the comment without reading, because most comments sent with names like that are filled with pointless ranting or abuse!). It's always good to hear from a kindred soul; there are so few around nowadays. (speaking of bad English, have you heard about the shoes that will 'lust forever'?) And thanks for saying you liked my review of your book: the pleasure is mutual. As I said, good luck with your next books. And now I shall have to go and explore 'Dusted off'...

dustedoff said...

Oh, I am sorry for not having signed that comment - my only excuse can be that this post pushed every thought out of my mind, other than that I wanted to say, "I think so too!"

Hah. Shoes that will 'lust forever' - possibly for people with a foot fetish?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for writing again, Madhulika. Since I don't have your email i.d. (mine is suvro.chatterjee@gmail.com) I have to reply to you here. Since you are interested in this business of mangling English, I shall request you to visit my other blog also (suvrooncemore.blogspot.in). I have written on the same subject there in a more humorous vein, not once but often, one of the latest still on the home page itself.

Subhadip Dutta said...

I once tried to read one of Bhagat's books (I do not remember which one - the books are so crass), and trust me, I could not reach the end of the second page. Something in the style of writing told me that it was not even anywhere near to ordinary, let alone good quality!

One more incident (I think I have already told Sir about it) - I was reading a book named 'The Men Who Ruled India' by Mr. Philip Mason while I was traveling by train. Somebody suddenly asked me, "Are you reading Chetan Bhagat?" Reluctant to answer such an insulting question (insulting for Mr. Mason), I, out of difficulty, answered 'No', and I showed him the name of the book - I did not want to read it out for him, because I knew he would neither understand the name of the book if I read it out, nor would he try to if the writer was not Bhagat. He was incapable of thinking beyond Chetan Bhagat. I did not even feel like mocking at him in my mind - I just felt pity for the poor soul. Speaks volumes of the levels of literacy (I prefer not to use the word education) of the average Indian!

The link by ginger candy was something I loved. Thanks for sharing it.