Sunday, April 06, 2014

On the Many Englishes We Speak: In Filter Coffee Column This Month

This month's Kindle magazine is a language special. It was a revelation of sorts, apart from great fun, writing my Filter Coffee column on the various Englishes we speak and the politics we attach to each. 

Read that here or see below.


How many Englishes? Three hundred? Three thousand?

Was it the Queen’s English we started the ABCs in? Americanese doesn’t like ‘colour’ with a ‘u’. I won’t call ‘z’ ‘zee’, however foreign-returned it might imply. A girl in ninth grade, in the corridors of the hostel, chanted the word ‘sex’ for days, naughty seniors had taught her the word, not its meaning. She was from a village in the interiors; we all had had a laugh at the simpleton. The snobbery of KV-ites, the posh school in town, extended to and ended with how accent-less your English was, how fast you spoke, how flawless. The girls from the Convent, our traditional rivals, had better handwriting, round cursive, but they didn’t have our English. So we thought. Thus we had sniggered.

If the ‘purity’ of various Englishes in high school defined our local pedigree in a cosmopolitan small town (contradictory as that should sound), years of college, a broadening of minds and geographies perhaps took the sheen off the edge of the judgment sword. It lies dormant though, I want to not admit this, but it is what it is. For generations that were brought up to think English is the pinnacle they ought to touch and hold on to and not slip away from, how and where and in what manner someone speaks English is the scale for judging them, though not necessarily for passing judgment on their histories.

English is no longer a language. Was it ever one? Were we bequeathed it to hold at arm’s length, to view it casually, to place it alongside the thousand languages this big country speaks? Can something so political ever be just a language? Was the English leaving, leaving behind English, a parting attempt at unifying the scattered threads of this country? I wonder if it will make me un-Indian to say English has perhaps done more to make people love (and hate) each other than any other defining factor in their demography.

I realize I write these words in the very language I politicize. You can call me a hypocrite of sorts, I won’t mind. English has allowed for much worse.

A few days ago, a piece of writing somewhere led me to I Am 20, a documentary filmed by SNS Sastry for the Films Division. It interviews young men and women from all over India born on August 15, 1947; they talk of their hopes for the country and themselves, their dreams, complain of corruption and giggle when asked about girl/boyfriends. In that sense, the film could be timeless. Most of those interviewed speak in English, theirs is the diction, the tone that today I’d associate with people in their 60s who sit facing the mountain ranges in the town park, shake their heads sadly and talk of how the ‘country has gaan to the daags.’ That perhaps too lends the film a sense of timelessness, for as of then, as it remains now, there is little that we have in common except for the language we have collectively inherited. Leaving aside the common history of having been under white man’s rule.

Were we all taught that Hindi was the national language? At least I was, and so we learnt it in school, aided comfortably by the 4pm Bollywood film every Sunday on Doordarshan. In those days of the 80s. It was only recently that it began to emerge Hindi is nowhere mentioned as the ‘national language’. At least the last time I heard, there was plenty of confusion on the matter. Makes sense perhaps, the sometimes-derision, sometimes-contempt, sometimes-ignorance Hindi elicits in some states, for that seems to me one language far more political than English, which is seemingly more neutral, more inclusive a tool. Speaking Hindi (or not) is a political statement for some, English, that way, is safer. You don’t betray your allegiance to the cause of the mother tongue if you speak English, it is only what you employ to further the bid to ‘save your culture’.

Interestingly, even as English has become neutral, it is also the whipping horse for everything contradictory. It is everything that the fundamentalist finds wrong, it is all things evil-West, it is all that takes India away from the mythical utopia it was once supposed to have been. It binds and unifies, yet draws, often stark lines, of difference and discrimination between peoples.

I cannot help thinking it’s somewhat like caste in modern India. It is there just below the surface, yet, in a globalized world, it is vulgar to bring it up and talk about it. Just like asking after your caste in the urban workplace. The prejudices remain though, wouldn’t you say? The three hundred and more different Englishes that we speak is the modern caste marker, for it is possible to make many assumptions about you and react to your actions and words accordingly. With the diction, the accent, the tone, the lilt and the body language of the other, it is possible to list down, with a high degree of accuracy, if the other person learnt the language in school, as the main medium of instruction, or at work, or at an English learning institute, from films like Die Hard, if that person is from the south or the west or this state or that.

If that is one layer of Englishes we employ as modern day identity markers, the other part, spun from the inferences we derive, is the manner we use the larger construct of English to communicate with these different interest groups. One English for friends (further classified into very close and casual). One English with the storekeeper in the mall. One English with the partner. One English with family in America. One English for the workplace, work emails. One English for Kindle. One English even for those with a shared common language, for their dialects, their words are rooted in a geography wholly different. Thus, how many Englishes? Three hundred? More?

From an anthropological angle, it does make for a compelling study, this role of a language that has outgrown its limiting description and become more an idea, more a lot else than a mere tool of communication. I can only touch and go, if I am to apply the construct to the entire world, if I am to suggest that English is as much a universal currency for merging borders as is the US Dollar for the world’s businesses. But remaining within India’s official borders isn’t too small a sample either. Each state could well be a different country, for its differences in everything. But English, however few Indians might actually speak it, has probably become the more accepted ‘unifier’ than the concept of the nation state, in the backdrop of ongoing and past separatist movements.

Deriving a thought process from Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and the Saint, the word English to describe the language we speak and write with has less to do with it being a ‘language’ than with “trying to forge a unified political constitution out of a divided people.” As with religion, as with caste, English long lost the luxury of being just what it is, a language. Instead, it morphed, after the I Am 20 years, after the liberation years, after the urbanization years, to be a national idea, a political ally or an opponent (depending on how you see it), a contradiction. Like India itself, in many ways.

There used to be a temple in Uttar Pradesh for the Goddess of English. I wonder if it still stands.

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