Sunday, June 14, 2009

Colonizing English

Perhaps amidst the talk of elections in Iran, the horrific Air France plane crash, and yes the awful, awful news that Miley broke up with Justin (who the heck are these people?) *gasp*, you might be forgiven for not commemorating a truly momentuous occasion. Especially for those of us who love words, more specifically English words.

I spent last week talking with someone about the whole concept of language, and mother-tongues. As someone who grew up totally bilingual, i.e., I thought, wrote, spoke, and understood each language without translating one into the other. So when I wrote Hindi I thought in it. When I wrote English I thought in that.
We spoke both languages at home and sometimes both at once with friends, leading to the once-maligned and now affectionately tolerated Hinglish. This was not a foreign concept for us, this state of duality.

It was only when I moved to points West that people asked questions like: when did you learn to speak/read/write/English? You've only been here for six months, how did you pick up English so fast? Do have problems writing in English because you have to translate everything from Hindi? Why don't you write in Hindi? After the second year the queries ceased being interesting and cute and just became annoying. Sorry, but that's what it is.


For English speakers and writers from India (and I suppose other non-Caucasian countries), the English we speak, write, and think in is uniquely ours. Yes, English was the language of our colonization but at some point along the way, we colonized English. We made it uniquely ours. English is our language as any other of the dozens of languages in India.

We use English words and syntax and grammar but we use the language in a way that is unique to us. A Rushdie or a Vikram Seth uses the language in a way that great writers from non-Indian backgrounds do not and cannot. And vice versa. Perhaps the same applies to writers from Zimbabwe or Pakistan or Kenya or wherever else.

Over the years, English became an Indian language, as much as it is an Australian language, and an American language or an Egyptian one. Yes, Hindi is my mother tongue but English is the language of my writing. It is the language I express myself best in. I was a crap Hindi writer or an Urdu one, though there is writing in both languages that can make me weep with emotion. Unfortunately, my own writing in Hindi (I can't read or write Urdu) is at best mediocre.

And yet the English I write is studded with images mined from Hindi and Urdu. That's what it is. English, as a language flexes to accomodate us all. The purists and language chauvinists among us might decry the spread of English. Some might say it is like a plague that threatens to destroy other languages to leach them of their uniquenss.

But it is the inclusiveness of English that makes it so special. Each country in which it is spoken (and even in those it is not) has contributed to it. Each language has enriched it and English was not too proud to accomodate, not so constricted as to not stretch. Some words were so incorporated their foreign origins were lost, others used with the knowledge that they are foreign words, say guru or karma.

There are Indian words, some totally incorporated: jodhpurs for riding, veranda, pyjama, bungalow, bandanna, chit, chutney, cummerband, jungle, shampoo, etc. There are French words: boutique, bouquet, agent, a la mode, etc. Almost every language in the world has added to the English lexicon, and in doing so we have made it our own. English is the language of the world. Even if it is mangled, spoken badly, or damaged it is becoming (if it is not already) the language of global communication. Mainly because it did not shrink within itself and reject anything impure.

It is estimated (if I'm off by a bit please don't threaten to kill me) that there are about 300,000 words. Spanish word estimates range from 200,000 to about a half million (Spanish also grows by incorporating mostly English words).

And English has just crowned its damp squib of a one millionth word. So I am thrilled and overcome that English--our English--has one million words. But really, language powers-that-be, Web 2.0? That's what you came up with?

For heaven's sake it's not even a word. It's an already existing word and a number, all tied together around a schmucky concept.

Yes, I am being chauvinistic. Damn it, it sucks getting old. These darned kids and their new fangled English words. But it does make sense at a certain level even to me. For this new growth of English is via the language we all speak even if it is without our knowledge, the language of computers. So Web 2.0 it is. I wish it was something more exciting, but there it is.

Here's a toast to the millionth word. Hope the one million and first is a bit more exciting.


Pahalwan said...

I am waiting for the day when "saala" and all the desi galis are in that million word lexicon. It will be so satisfying to curse someone and for them to respond in kind.

KayKap said...

As usual, a well-written piece -what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed - hats off to thee, Jo. When does the famed *Chapter four* come up?

small squirrel said...

brilliant, lovely, just my kind of thing... this post. really loved it, especially since you are spot on. indian english has a life of its own...a glorious, heady life that amuses and amazes me.

sorry people ask you stupid questions. ugh. some people have narrow, narry lives.

Anonymous said...

Or the million and oneth word if you've ever read the last chapter of the 101 Dalmations.
You know this is a great post when I'm reading it with a 4 day old baby in bed and 1 million other things to do!