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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rajan Philips

Spicing up our English

Is Indian English a respectable member of the varieties of English that we have today?

Can it claim an equal status across the world like the American English, Caribbean English Australian English and so on? Or is it a variation to be ignored or seen at best as a source of light hearted diversion?

The truth lies somewhere in between, I believe. My long association with learners of English as a second language (ESL) and foreign language (EFL) at the school and higher education level in different regions of India as well in the Middle East has helped me to get a first-hand exposure to interesting variations or deviations from standard British English, also called the Queen’s English.

Some of these variations do not create barriers to comprehension or communication, but others may result in serious mis-communication. Hence, we need to make a selective evaluation. We need not label every variation as a gross and unacceptable blunder. We need to handle these with a velvet glove and some of the variations could be accepted into the body of language that would evolve into a standard Indian English.

As language teachers, we come across plenty of variations (aberrations?) in terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax and of course pronunciation. Let me share a few of these interesting nuggets gathered over decades of my stint as an English Language professional.

Let me take up the vocabulary component first. The deviant use could be due to ignorance of the nuances of language or a slip of the tongue (SOT) or the slip of the pen (SOP).

We keep hearing expressions like ATM [machine], PAN [number], return [back], repeat [again], and discuss/describe [about].

The words in brackets are obviously redundant and hence to be avoided. However, many Indian users seem to be quite comfortable with such non-standard use of the language. While these would be avoided by anyone who claims decent proficiency in English, we would grudgingly admit that these deviations do not interfere with normal communication.

The overwhelming influence of the learner’s mother tongue or first language (L1) makes its presence felt in English in the form of quaint and interesting expressions when ideas are directly translated into English. The use of phrases like slowly, slowly, big, big problems, fast, fast are just a few ready examples. Such doubling is a common and natural feature of many Indian languages.

The use of prepone as the antonym of postpone is a frequent and natural use by many Indian speakers, though not acceptable in Queen’s English. But I have often wondered why this word should not be accepted as a good contribution from India to global English!

The use of plural forms of some uncountable nouns is another common area of deviation. Many average users of English do not find anything amiss in talking about equipments or furnitures.

I have heard many colleagues from the northern states cheerfully enquiring: ‘What’s your good name? I believe it is an apt and polite question when conveyed in the vernacular.

I have always wondered if the excessive and misplaced use of ‘only’ is again an illustration of the L1 effect. I saw this sentence years ago on the packing of a gadget.

‘For indoor or outdoor use only.’

Where else do you think it can be used?

‘Necessity, they say ‘is the mother of invention’. Let me narrate a small anecdote from my teaching days in Guwahati, Assam. The physical education teacher had the privilege of making general announcements during the morning school assembly. He relished the job and prided in his great love for English vocabulary. At times, though, words failed him. Here are just a couple of samples:

• Those who come regularly late to school will have to rotate the playground twice.

• Students who travel by school bus are strictly instructed not to stand on the veranda of the bus.

I have also found among my learners a tendency to mix up, while writing, pairs of homophones like– stationary and stationery, lose and loose.

• Pronunciation is, of course, a major bugbear for Indian learners. There are genuine difficulties since Indian languages have letters and sounds missing in English and vice versa. This can lead to deviant substitution. We tend to substitute diphthongs like /eɪ / as in gate /ˈɡeɪt/ or /əʊ/ as in open /ˈəʊpən/ with vowels. Consonant clusters like /sk/ and /str/ and /cl/ create no end of trouble for learners. The stress pattern in English is also a tricky one for most users. Such variations could create embarrassing (embracing?!) moments in our efforts to communicate especially with non-Indian speakers.

At times I have taken up sentence correction exercise with my students with examples like:

• I saw the setting sun, walking alone along the beach. (Who was walking?!)

• Hanging from the branch, I saw a monkey. (Who was hanging from the branch?!)

Most of them see nothing amiss, till I point out the error due to wrong positioning of the phrases.

When we take an objective overview of the whole situation, we would realise that there are deviations in Indian English that are to be avoided to prevent mis-communication and add elegance to our language. But there are certainly elements of Indian English that can be incorporated into what we label as global English, and thereby enhance its splendour and diversity.

Today, American English is definitely an accepted variety of English, well entrenched, due to the impact of the Internet age. That was not so in its early days. British writers and linguists were not impressed. George Bernard Shaw once wittily remarked: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” You can draw your own conclusions.

I believe that the day is not far off when a generally acceptable standard Indian English will evolve and be recognised as a variety of English in its own right, on par with American English or Australian English.


Dr. Rajan Philips has been an ELT Professional for 35+ years in India and abroad and a regular academic presenter. He is a currently a Guest Faculty at NUALS, Cochin. His special interests are public speaking, quizzing and freelance writing.

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