Why English is not English?

His Holiness the Karmapa at TEDIndia, Session 9, "Within You, Without You," November 7, 2009, in Mysore, India. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

By S. Geetha

Now that the royal loot of the British Raj has been well established with facts and figures by none other than Congress leader Mr. Shashi Tharoor, in his speech in the Oxford Union, the time is ripe to say English is not English but Indian.

english-alphabet-made-coffee-beans-21324052English is the term used to refer to anything that is British. But it actually became American a century ago when H. L. Menken (the author of The American Language, 1919) paved the way for the rest of the colonized countries to attach their nationality before the word English.

During my brief stint in England I had the opportunity to tell a British “Your ancestors stole the Kohinoor diamond.” I used the word “stole” precisely because he was proudly proclaiming that there has not been a single incident of theft for more than two decades in his Roman town—Colchester. No wonder. Already their ancestors had looted from all corners of the world and left their tiny little land in the British Isles—as one of the  First World or G8 countries and therefore the ‘Olivers’ of England do not have to say “I want more.”

But my comment made him flush and he rushed in to the computer room to check the Encarta which declared—Kohinoor diamond -“found in India”. What was found in India is theirs now and try as you might the British are not willing to part with it. The Kohinoor was cut into two pieces in Amsterdam and they are adorning their tiara and sceptre.

And applying the same analogy or logic, the English language which is found in India and very much in use, is undoubtedly ours and it is time we removed labels like “second language” and “foreign language.”  Many of the words like time, bus, train, hotel, bread, ice cream and so many of them have become naturalized Indian words.  It is time we patented our variety of English which like “Basmati” has a desi flavour.

English is not English because not only were the British looters but also borrowers. Tracing the English literary tradition one finds that the English literary artists from the 14th century up to the 16th, have been “imitating” or “borrowing” from the famous Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristotle, Petrarch and I wonder if they left any writer of the continent without imitating.

And the English vocabulary contains 60 percent of naturalized French words and that is why such disparity between spelling and pronunciation. The height of irony is that we in India are proud of such a difficult language where nothing is regular, neither the sounds nor the grammar. “Gh” is “g” in ghost but “f” in enough. I secretly enjoy the Tamil tilt given to their “œ” which is a common diphthong in English as in—that, tap, pat, mat and the Tamilians invariably pronounce it as “ei” and make the ‘tap’ sound like “tape” and my query is why shouldn’t the Tamilians do so? When we have forgiven all the mistakes made by the colonial masters, who tend to make our Indian languages accented, why make much ado about native language interference among our learners especially the first generation learners?

Moreover, any word from any language could get the status of being English like karma which is happily used by everyone as an English word and recently tsunami the Japanese term got absorbed into English.

Not only are continents like America and Australia a part of the British Commonwealth, everything under the sun would happily be absorbed under that phrase. The WASPS believe that God created His Commonwealth only to be enjoyed by them just as they justified till the end of the 19th century that God created the Africans only to be enslaved by them. Even the God whom they worship is a West African but they have made Him their own and are using all the marketing strategies to make Him global like their language which has gone global.

English is not English for the maximum users of the language next to the Americans are Indians.  According to a survey published by Google (the modern Bible) Britain ranks fifth with its 97 percent population speaking English with just 63,962,000 speakers. The US ranks first with 94 percent users of English numbering 298,444,149 and India ranks second with just 10 percent speaking it but because of its sheer size of our population the total speakers and users amount to 125,226,449, surpassing the British.

English is not English in India because we write the so called “standard” English, but when we speak we make it syllabic and “unaccented” like any of our mother tongues. The Indian varieties of English are indeed a treat to our ears. Though we teach accent neutrality and make our English sound GIE (General Indian English), invariably majority betray the mother tongue influence, and some Indians sound highly affected when they imitate either the British or the American accent. When a British or an American make the Indian tongues accented we immediately pardon him and we know it is his first language interference. But we are heartless and ruthless when our first generation learners make a simple mistake.

Let the world know that when Mr. Bush, Jr., when participating in the Presidential debate (while aspiring for his Presidency) none other than our former Prime Minister Mr. Vajpayee visited the US and when asked “who visited from India?”, he just camouflaged his ignorance with the famous excuse of his inability to pronounce a strange Indian name.   Anyway even if he had attempted it would have been another Bushism. This goes to prove that even heads of leading democracies escape unscathed when they give excuse that they cannot pronounce the name of the head of the Indian Government. Why are we so stringent when our children mispronounce any of the English words?

How can one forget the sarcasm yet the truth uttered with vehemence by the Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, who wrote his Pygmalion to prove the English do not know English. They either speak their dialect or use their slang. Very few educated English use the Oxbridge or the Queen’s English which is otherwise called RP (Received Pronouncitation).

Many are under the wrong impression that Macaulay introduced English education system to make every Indian learned.  How ignorant are we all!  All he desired was the creation of a band of local, clerical staff to run their colonial regime, who could be exploited and poorly paid!

O Ye Indians! Stop being Macaulays and be aware that your English is very much Indian and it is your own.  It is now part of the Indian Commonwealth.  If Kohinoor is British,   why can’t English language in use for over 300 years in India be claimed as one of the Indian languages?

Dear Mr. Tharoor you are only partially right when you stated that the English have left us “to wallow in their leavings”.  One of their “leavings” is their English language which has helped our Empire to write back and also lash back just as you have done in your debate in the Oxford Union.

Dr. S. Geetha is an M.A. Ph. D and an associate professor at Fatima College, Madurai.