Chutney bad for Brand India

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 11, 2009

The boneheaded and the brashly patriotic rejoice at the formal induction of words like ‘chuddies’, ‘changa’, ‘aloo’ and ‘theek’ into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). But patriotism does not exonerate us from linguistic infantilism. The Mera Bharat Mahan brigade cheers Hinglish as the emerging linguistic superpower. But it reckons without historical precedent. Latin may be a good example of a lingua franca throttled by its thriving vernacular offshoots.

The vernaculars metamorphosed into separate Romance languages – French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and Romanian, to name a few – and Latin was snuffed out as the language of administration, religion and commerce by the eighth century.

As one of the largest hubs of non-native, English-speaking peoples of the world, it may not be in India’s interest to casually murder standard world English, nor to cease speaking it. Where would we be if Hinglish were the only ‘English’ we knew? Perhaps less fluent and assured communicators on a world stage that has at least 1.5 billion speaking English as a second language. We could also expect to be less commercially successful because standard English is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment and diplomacy. At this point, it might be shortsighted to surrender our still-enviable command of standard English to some form of feelgood linguistic nationalism.

Right now, when ‘India Poised’ is yet to become an India that has truly taken off, it is hard to be sure Hinglish – with its estimated 350 million speakers – can colonize the 700 million other people who currently speak English worldwide. That’s not counting the further 300 million forecast by the British Council to learn English in the next decade.

Does it make any sense at all to hive ourselves off into a barely intersecting linguistic universe content delightedly to shout “hazaar tension” and “hungry kya” at each other, while the rest of the world looks on in mute incomprehension? Four years ago, Collins included both phrases in its dictionary, thereby recognizing them as pukka Hinglish. But it is unclear if the nod from Collins, or OED for that matter, has ever prompted non-native, non-Hinglish speakers to use these – or other – elements of our desi vocabulary when conversing in English. Ever heard an Australian, Kiwi or Singaporean use elements of that famously creative ad anthem that is said to epitomize all the latent commercial strengths of Hinglish: “Jo chaho ho jaye, Coca Cola enjoy”?

How often do we, ostensible champions of non-standard English, use Singlish or Singaporean-English words and phrases? “Can lor,” says the Singaporean in OED English, adding for good measure, “habis, you kaypoh”. We would be lost. It is lost. In translation. The Indian speaker of English could not fathom the Singaporean had just said, “Yes, I think so…finished, you nosey (person).”

There is no reason we should. Or that anyone outside the Hinglish-speaking world understand what we mean when we order “tadka dal” or “kachori”, both accepted by the OED but unintelligible to people beyond our shores. Singapore is too minor a player on the world stage for anyone to really want to know what it means when it says “tumpang” or “The tarik” (Singlish for favour and tea). So too India. For all our bright promise, we are still too marginal a world force to be able to coerce or coax everyone else to speak as we do. ‘Yeh dil maange more’ and ‘Life ho to aisi’ is gobbledygook to much of the world.