ENGLISH?... HINGLISH? ...INGLISH! --Dr Anwesha Arya

ENGLISH?... HINGLISH? ...INGLISH!  --Dr Anwesha Arya

 


(Headline on a poster on the walls of Sydenham College, Bombay, in the 1950s, trying to attract students whose English was very poor to join free Tutorials, and improve their English.  “Ij u week in Inglis? Join free tutorials today.”)

Language seems to lose itself on the journey from the past. It meanders and forges new links, silting words along shorelines, and leaves us longing for more. Go to the source, and origins are baffling, as they gush with links to the Indo-European language family. Yes, English and Sanskrit are cousins. You heard me. English and Sanskrit are not sworn enemies, but mere cousins. Language is also a living evolving entity. Almost daily, we make up words. We invent text-speak, ‘lol’ and ‘omg’ being but a couple. We even change usage according to digital predictive text. Whether at the Indian Premier League (IPL), where Hindi flashes in its English avatar as ‘Dhamaka’, or in casual conversations on the train doing time-pass with friends?

And yes time-pass is a valid English verb, according to Prof. Craig Jeffery (Read: Time-pass: Youth, Class and the politics of Waiting 2010, Stanford University Press). Even if the term is not used in ‘proper’ English, in India, it is widely understood as a valid way to waste time or kill time, till the next engagement is due. If we invented it, then is modern Indian English not ours? Shouldn’t we just call it English with an ‘I’? Yoga has been described as Indian heritage gone global. So why ignore a global trend, alive and kicking, at home? The phenomenon that is the phenomenal Indian English: Shouldn’t we claim English as ours? Recast its SPELL as ‘Inglish’?

English, as we use it in India, is not only unique, but worth celebrating. It is being studied at Oxford University as a popular development, the evolution of ‘Hinglish’ and apparent corruptions of the Queen’s English into something more. Once, language was the plaything of dictionary compilers. But language is no more the preserve of lexicographers, or dictionary compilers, anymore. Neither is it the realm of linguists and scholars. It belongs quite rightly to all who use it. Marlon James, the first Jamaican born recipient of the Man Booker Prize (October 2015) observed how diversity in English language, as used globally today, is crucial. Professor Michael Wood, in his introductory speech at the same event, spoke of this with pride. English is evolving everywhere.

In India it lives already as I-nglish, we just need to file an affidavit about naming it as, and publishing two ads in prominent newspapers, announcing the new moniker. In Jamaica, perhaps, it has become J-inglish. Even the most prestigious, most ‘English’, most ‘propah’ of literary prizes (The Booker, above) has dropped its guard, refusing to shield English from infiltration. They welcome outside influences. Let’s celebrate language. After nearly seven decades of shifting the colonial yoke, a true celebration of Independence would be to appoint ‘their’ language, as ‘our’ language. Because English is Inglish.

In India, and elsewhere, many want to speak the Queen’s speak, but does the Queen own it anymore? But to linger on time-pass a little, why is English still the property of England, when, in 1959 Rex Harrison (playing George Bernard Shaw’s language expert, Dr. Prof. Higgins, in a film adaptation of Pygmalion) sang “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? Why can’t the English learn to speak? (My Fair Lady)

As a sub-continent, India aspires to nationhood (Re: Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India) but with twenty-eight or so distinct languages and cultures, not dialects and district zones, we have a unique situation. An erstwhile outsider’s language unified us, made us communicate across borders for the first time. Hindi-speakers were contacting their Malayali compatriots, while Kannadiga residents were discussing the need to rid the area of the oppressive yoke of the white supremacists, with their Tamil neighbours. But they were using English to do so. Hindi has never quite become the same unifying force. Even Nehru, our first Prime Minister, delivered his first speech at mid-night in English. Ironically, today, India is the largest English-speaking democracy in the world.

It is a language that also goes beyond our borders connecting us to a wider world. So it’s an old debate, but it still rankles. Bombay lost out to Mumbai. In a world where scrolling down on text screen means you’re alphabetical primacy will determine how quickly you are pinged, I am fortunate.

It would have been easier to stick with the phonetic transliteration of the names of our foremost metropolitan centres, rather than undertaking costly, and sometimes not so easy on the tongue, name changes. We have restructured, recast and restrung Indian words back into the English language, to the extent that none but the most avid language scholars are aware of. So shouldn’t we turn the tables, and just insist that we own the English language?
English needs to be re-instituted as an official Indian language. Call it Inglish, which is how we say it anyway. Here is why!

 

Background
English, without digressing too far, in its most contemporary form, is a coming together of Anglo-Saxon roots, with the original Indo-European branches of one massive language family. Originally, English was called pidgin, to highlight that it is in no sense pure. Looking at those spanning branches, where Sanskrit and English diversify, we find they’re rooted together. When he was an amateur language scholar and deeply devoted student of India studies, Sir William Jones (founding fore-father of the Asiatic Society) hunted for means to expose the links between these languages. Arriving in India as a young legal scholar, Jones chanced upon undiscovered Ramayan and Mahabharat copies, and announced to the world that he had ‘discovered’ the equivalent of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. Jones upheld these medieval, as yet 'untranslated', Sanskrit texts as finer in composition and relevance than anything the world had seen in the 1780s (John Keay, India Discovered). Jones went on to teach himself Sanskrit, in order to promote these unheard of treasures. 

Since circa 1600-something, a unique melding of trading terms entering our Indian languages from other countries. The Hindi narangi comes from naranja, its Spanish equivalent, because oranges travelled to the sub-continent from the Mediterranean. Our extraordinary number system [including ancient mathematician Aryabhatta’s contribution of zero], was introduced to the rest of the world by the widely travelled Arab traders. But they used the ancient Sanskritic numbers. Globally, this European or English written number system is called Arabic, however as recently updated to include Hindu, so today Arabic-Indic/ Hindu.

In the late Victorian period, a number of scholars concerned themselves with compiling this amalgamation. The Victorian era was in many ways the height for lexicographical projects. Two of the grandest were complied, interestingly in correspondence with each other. Hobson-Jobson was a by-product of this era’s passion for lexicons. The period leant itself to determined individuals with a nose for historiography and language. Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell were two such men. They began in the first instance by sending inclusions of word definitions and anecdotal suggestions to the New English Dictionary (NED), consequently to be recast as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which was beginning to be compiled. Published finally as a ten volume tome, during 1884-1928, this lexicon evidently influenced the manner in which Yule and Burnell organised their own glossary. The resultant entries were compiled along similar historical principles to the NED into a meaningfully explanatory set of definitions. Yule, it is documented, sent proofs of prospective Hobson-Jobson entries to James Murray, the first editor of the NED.

This correspondence resulted in several of Yule and Burnell’s entries being included in the original draft of the NED, with and without acknowledgement, says Kate Teltscher in her introduction (Hobson-Jobson 2013, xii). What is extraordinary to note is that this erstwhile borrowing between the two lexicons further crystallised into future editions, with as many as 500 citations of the Hobson-Jobson in the current OED. Now this grandest of all dictionaries in the world, which most of the English-speaking world sets its store by, has at its very core a set of words of Indian origin clearly demarcating a culturally relevant linguistic process. India has quite clearly recast British culture through her use of language. And this some two hundred years previously. For example Satan, the great devil, from Shaitan.

So today, when the Official Scrabble Words (OSW) finally incorporates several words of Indian origin into the officially allowed words for players to have a better score in their arsenal thanks to a punchy ‘sambhar’ for some possible 92 points (provided placed on a triple word square and all seven letters are used at once!) we ought to recall that Indian words have crept in, with cultural relevances being noted into the OED through the via-media of the much lesser known Hobson-Jobson. As a young student with literary aspirations and little pocket money I worked after hours at the Lotus House Books Store, in Bandra, not too far from my house, when I first came across this volume of ‘magic word origins’. Since then, I have been continually hooked.

Even if Hobson-Jobson is considered by most India scholars, whether at home or abroad, a work of maverick scholarship;, it is a discovery waiting to blind you with gleaming jewels of information. And it particularly lays bare the amazingly permeable skin that has always existed between cultures that interact meaningfully. What makes this dictionary in modern terms worthy of note and unique in the period says its latest Editor Kate Teltscher “was its ambition to marry serious philological work with discursive commentary, to entertain as much as inform” (Hobson-Jobson 2013). Compiled in 1886 by Yule and Burnell two staunch India enthusiasts, it documents the words and phrases that entered English from Arabic, Persian, Indian, and Chinese sources - and vice versa. Rushdie refers to it as 'the legendary dictionary of British India', (Imaginary Homelands, 1992: 81) by the books own admission. It plainly shows how words of Indian origin were absorbed into the English language and records not only the vocabulary but the culture of the Raj period. It encompasses aspects of the history, trade, peoples, and geography of Asia in entries that are at once authoritative and playful. And is certainly worth a dekho or dekko, (pronounced deco by most English in Great Britain). Meaning as in Hindi, a look!

English, the shop-keepers’ language (once so-called by early Dutch and Portuguese trading competitors, wanting to deride its validity) has surely won the day. As is known, in the early days, it was the French language and not English that ruled the roost. English, in spite itself, unites more communities than it divides. England wakes to words constantly, and happily chases them like elusive summer butterflies. Then they are recorded into noteworthy lists for the new generation to time-pass with.

Conclusion

Shouldn’t we take a cue from Arjun Singh (Amitabh Bachchan), the loyal servant, a village bumpkin from North India, in the Hindi film Namak Halaal (1982)? He proudly stakes claim on English, proclaiming “Aisi Inglis aave that I can leave Angrej behind. You see Sir, I can walk Inglis, I can talk Inglis, I can laugh Inglis.”  Shouldn’t we, who love Indian English go deeper than mere skin? Clearly, somewhere in history, the English lost their language to the native ‘namak halaals’, who gained gravitas, position and power, through its expansive use. And we, today, even invented language anew, beyond timeless time-pass. Therefore, the language that started out as the insignia of the invader/outsider, today serves us, the invaded. So, reclaim it, forget the English ban! Why not proclaim it right here? English is Indian. English is Inglish.

Dr. Anwesha Arya works and lives in the one place she has felt at home in the world: London. Along with her background as a historian and anthropologist, she has 15 years of experience in research and film-making, in the fields of gender, human rights and women’s empowerment. Anwesha has undertaken her doctoral research at the University of London, where, in 2008, she pioneered AWARE (Awareness of Women’s Active Rights Empowerment), an advocacy group on human rights. Her doctoral research tackled the intersection of ancient religion, law, society and culture, through a case study of dowry murder in contemporary India. She lives with her partner of twenty years, and their young family, in Camden.

Siraj Syed, Consulting Editor, nrizone : This is incredible. I have known Anwesha’s parents, Rinki Roy and Basu Bhattacharya, since the early 70s. Rinki is the daughter of the Master Director, late Bimal Roy, and Basu is known for his sensitive films, like Anubhav, Aavishkaar, Griha Pravesh and Astha. The family lived barely two-hundred metres from my house in Bandra West, Mumbai, and Basuda used love talking about his films and experiences with me, often on the Bhattacharya dinner table. Fate took me to Singapore in 1996, where I stayed for over eight years. In this period, Basuda passed away, and I lost contact with the family, since they moved house twice. Youngest of two sisters and a brother, Anwesha was particularly fond of me, because, as she reminds me, “You did not treat me like a baby. I was made to feel equal, and that was a very good feeling.” We met after twenty years last January, in Mumbai, courtesy a Bimal Roy Film Festival organised by her mother, and two months later, when I asked her to write for nrizone, she promised to send me an article from Camden. Here it is. And Anwesha (the search), let it continue!

 

 

 

 

Views expressed and claims made in the articles on this site are the contributors' own, and nrizone does not necessarily agree with them, or endorse them, in any way.
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