Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Indian English

“I want curtain material”.

That was the monsoon (since kerala doesn’t go strictly by the spring summer, autumn pattern) of the year 1976. I had just joined the most reputed women’s college in Changanasserry and wanted curtain for my room in the staff hostel.

The sales man looked blankly at me for a moment, and then said “We don’t have it here”.

“What”, i exclaimed. You don’t have curtain material here?”

“No’, he said mulishly. “We don’t have it here”

I was not prepared to buy that. I stood there looking around to see if i could locate for myself what i was looking for. This guy must be a discontented employee like that bus conductor in ALL ABOUT A DOG.

Sensing a deadlock, a more senior salesman came up and asked me what i wanted. I repeated. “I want material for curtain”.

“Can you explain what that is?”

“What curtain is?” stupefied, i asked. “Don’t people here use curtains?”

“You explain what it is. Then I’ll tell you”, the senior salesman assured me.

I stared at him incredulously. By then a few more salesmen had joined us, to join the fun. Many seemed amused and enthused. There was some excitement in the air about the outcome of the demand of this strange woman who walked into the shop with sunglasses which she pushed to her head (where it still remained) after she entered the shop, and wore choli blouse instead of the back open, open necked blouses that were popular in Changanasserry, and had painted nails and coloured bangles that went well with the sari.

“You know window?’ i said little desperate drwing a large square in the air. I was a bit embarrassed by the amusement i was affording them. “That strip of material that you put through a spring and stretch across the window- - - - - ‘. I was acting out the act of pulling a new spring across the window fter having hooked it at one end. There was a lot of grinning an exchanginsg of glances between the sales boys gathered around me.

But I didn’t have to complete. In a chorus, all of them said in unison said, “Oh! Kurrrrrrrrrrrtan. She means kurrrrrrrtain”. And they all laughed and dispersed.

I didn’t know then that the English that exists outside the phonetic class is a totally different ball game. The mid central neutral vowel in English that we have in such words as curtain, mercy has always posed problems for malayalees. But then i realised all that only after i stepped out of college into the malayalee world. During my stint in Mumbai much later, i came to know that the Marathi tongue had trouble getting around the vowel sound in words like hen, bread.

“Do you have pain?” C asked me as we were standing at the office counter to sign in the muster.

“No” I answered perplexed. “I have no pain’, I answered smiling, as i took out my pen from my bag.

C looked angrily at the pen and said,“ You said you don’t have PAIN and what is that”, she said pointing to the pen.

How can i tell her that i didn’t follow her pronunciation, especially since she and her friends entertained themselves the previous day in my presence over the mallu accent which at that time was the subject for a Hindi serial too. She’d think I’m giving it back to her.

So i said nothing. It did cause bad blood between us. It was a catch 22 situation. I remained silent and the story of how kochu refused a “pain” did a huge circulation among the teachers of the college. But better mean than ridiculing a person’s “English”. Like a Marxist friend once told me, we bloody Indians, we still suffer from colonial hangover. We equate education, sophistication and efficiency with proficiency in English. I think he was not fully wrong. I remember, a decade back a Malayalam professor took over as the Principal of the college where i worked. All were sceptical about her, cos she was ‘after all a malayalam lecturer’. But, she proved to be the best principal the college ever had. With an unparalleled vision she took the college leaps and bound ahead to put it among the colleges in the league of the handful of A rated colleges(rated by UGC’s accreditation committee) in the state.

One can have visions in Malayalam too!

What’s the purpose of this post? It’s to emphasise the need for an official Indian English, which should factor in the existing deviation among the Indian users of English from the RP and Standard English. The Standard English and RP are irrelevant in India. Like V K Krishna Menon once said. We in India did not pick up English from the streets of England but from classics. The present day user of English may not enjoy an intimate relation withclassics. The point VKK was making was that a non native speaker picks up English from the written word and not the spoken. So the ears are not tuned to the way language is spoken. Besides, the influence of mother tongue plays a major role on the non native speaker of English. Like for example the vowel sound in words mercy, map. Catch them young, and every speaker can overcome that difficulty. The problem is not with the pronunciation alone. Idiomatic English too sometimes doesn’t come too easily to an Indian speaker who is fluent in English.

As the utility of the English language is increasing by the minute, we should keep politics aside and acquire competence in the language. We don’t have to look westward for a model. Here in India we have one. Some call it convent English, others, metro English. Whatever the name, it refers to that English which is intelligible to both by Indians and the English speaking world. The reasons are 1. It does not follow the British stress pattern. It distributes word stress equally as should not be done in queen’s English (hence easy for the Indian listener). 2. It has devernacularised vowel and consonant sounds without going all the way British. Hence, on account of the second fact, it is easily intelligible to the speakers of English the world over.

This English – this Standard Indian English, should be taught uniformly in all schools in India – compulsorily. The phonetic drills need not be modelled on RP, but after the neutral accented Indian English.

With India growing into a super power, the Indian variety will gain recognition the world over. After all, the dominance of a language is determined by economics. The Anglo-Saxon English became the base of Standard English cos it was the dialect spoken in the East Midland region, the commercial hub of Great Britain from the fifteenth century.

To conlude, i must share with you an interesting experience i had when i found myself in a social gathering of academics and their families in Texas.

“You speak, British English. Because India was a British colony?” asked a professor’s wife.

I nearly fainted. I’ve been used to people telling me i speak mallu English, every time I step out of kerala, and here was an American saying that i speak queen’s English. Could she be pulling my leg, i wondered and looked suspiciously at her.

Seeing the perplexity on my face, my daughter told me “amma, you don’t have the American drawl. That’s what she means. Also, you used certain English idioms not very common here’.

“Like?”, i asked.

‘Yesterday, you used the expression ‘donkey’s years’ and my American friend remarked rather admiringly on the typical British nature of your language?. !!!!!?????

My my my! Uncle Sam too is jet lagged after all these centuries! He too hasn’t fully recovered from colonial hangover!


  1. Interesting post..

    While reading the 'curtain' incident,I, myself was recollecting several of such incidents.The horrible part though is the 'pity','stupid' kind of looks from the salesmen.

    Regarding Indian English, we think and speak as a 'regional' first,still considering English as a foreign language.As Balachandran Chullikkad once commented 'no one can speak real english here'.

    Since we operate with many syllabuses,how can we dream of such a uniform spoken English I doubt.My daughter is into IGSCE and I go through lots of real life 'situations' at home.ha ha..

    There was one embarrassing situation where I found myself as an alien hearing the 't' sound in often,while talking to a British.

    Hope you would have read what Meenakshi of Compulsive confessor wrote about her England trip.Many times she met up with situations whether she studied real'english' or what ! When she asked for a 'dust bin' at a shop and they couldn't find.

    Your American experience make sense of it all.

  2. Neutral Pronunciation: The standardization of English pronunciation for communication with the majority of the audience. This is accomplished through the study and knowledge of neutral pronunciation of English, one that is free of regionalisms and that conforms to the norms of the theatrical stage and public usage - that is, the pronunciation of news broadcasters, television actors and national mass media performers.

    Neutral English: This is not to imply that neutral pronunciation has greater merit than any of the regional dialects. It is also a dialect, but one without any regionalisms. It is, however, the dialect that is used by trained speakers and performers for public usage. The way we speak English regionally is part of our personal identity. It is something that should be used and mentioned in our everyday speech. However, when we are speaking or performing in a public forum, neutral English should be used, so as to erase regional barriers and communicate effectively with the most people. - Kathryn LaBouff

    Ref: http://www.neutralaccent.com

  3. A 1997 survey by India Today magazine estimated that about a third of the country's population of more than one billion could carry on a conversation in English.Isnt that good enough?

    Having travelled to different parts of the world,where they refuse to speak any language other than their own,ours is an exception.How we speak is another matter.But,for every non English speaking, have accents of their own.

    If spoken English can be curious, the written form is even more so. In railway offices, a standard opening line in correspondence is: "Dear Sir, with reference to your above see my below."

    Employers complain that the standard of English is so abysmal that recruits cannot write a sentence without three grammatical mistakes. One call centre executive in Bombay said a new recruit wrote an email that began: "I am in well here and hope you are also in the same well."
    Now Penguin, the quintessentially British publishing house, has put the nearest thing to an official imprimatur on the result by producing a collection of some of the most colourful phrases in use - in effect a dictionary of what might be called "Indlish".

    Its title, "Entry From Backside Only", refers to a phrase commonly used on signposts to indicate the rear entrance of a building. Binoo John, the author, said young Indians had embraced the variant of the language as a charming offspring of the mingling of English and Hindi, rather than an embarrassing mongrel.

  4. this is such an awesome post..reading one after a long time..i actually wished that you could share more such quips from the past..:) While i was in Hamburg, I often used to meet German and French colleagues who had a wrong illusion that we spoke really good English..Apparently our fast recitation of the queen's language made them think that we were probably good at it..Only if they knew that I had the Indian accent!!:)

  5. No, no, no! Please don't start giving our educationists wrong ideas. If we lost pijja and Howrah breeze and ungle and andy from Gelf, we're losing all the fun, quirky stuff we put into the language. What's the point of a blah accent that doesn't sound like it's from anywhere? Oh, the fun you can have with accent-based mini-parlor games like "Guess where s/he's from?"

  6. a nice post..

    I am told that I have very little "malluism" in my English..

    Should I be proud? Or feel bad about the lost identity? :)

  7. Dear KT Ms
    That's indeed an interesting post..
    I have to play the part of an interpreter whenever I take my kids to Kerala/India, not malayalam to english and vice versa but Indian english to british English and then the other way round!!

  8. Indeed handling language let alone English is a “PAIN”.

    However I do not agree with the idea of Indianised version of spoken or written English. For that matter any language. Remember the late professor Krishnan Nair often used to comment, “Rape of the language”! Should Malayalam be westenised, be marathised for example? Certainly not!
    The difficulty, especially in India where a multitude of languages, dialects and regional variants are spoken, languages will be rubbished in use. People speak or pronounce a language the way and in the fashion they do their mother tongue,( the English of many countries in black Africa, for instance).Then a little bit of pun and fun is always there with the Mallus use of English.
    Catch them young, that is the solution. But then the teacher who catches those young and teaches has far worse ways of using English.
    “Your Lesbian shipment has reached “, said one message, I do not know if the clerk got it wrong in spelling, nevertheless he /she must have been unaware of the meaning.
    Australians have a fair sense of humour. This bloke from down under laughed his gut out when the driver told him that the cigarette cartons where in the “dicky” of the car. The word has a different meaning in the Aussies sense of humour.

    I remember us feeling aghast when R our daughter came back from kindergarten and said,” the fox jamppedu andu jamppedu…”. Still worse she claimed that it was correct to pronounce ,’giraffe’ as “ geeraaffee”. And ‘leopard’ as ‘leeyopadu’.

    Why confine here and deface ourselves? In the Queens Britain, Scottish and English accents are far flung. And the very same subjects in the heart of London has atrocious ways of using the “ Queens English”.

  9. brilliant, madam. i was marvelling how good a teacher you must have been to your students.

  10. Dr.Antony is correct, also I need to add one more thing; you don't have a solid subject to post may be thats the reason you always turning against the Kerala Society ...


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