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India's evolving relationship to English

by David V. Appleyard

India's 'Taj Mahal'Opinion pieces from the sub-continent suggest some Indian citizens may be trying to Americanize their English in order to make themselves more attractive to U.S. corporations, and to take advantage of new job opportunities created by outsourcing. This especially holds true in the tech field, and is most prevalent among those in their 20s and early 30s — a burgeoning age group keenly concerned about future employment prospects. Some are taking special courses designed to familiarize them with American vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling

This is a significant development because ever since colonial times British English has been the language of officialdom and the elite in India, serving as a lingua franca in a country with no fewer than 17 constitutionally recognized national and regional languages. If we then consider that these 17 mainstream tongues are actually spoken in some 1600 dialects, it is not hard to understand why this vast nation has chosen English as its official working language.

What many don't realize is that, seen in a longer-term perspective, the linguistic influence has not been all one way. Especially UK English has enriched itself with Hindi words such as 'guru' and 'juggernaut', Hindustani words such as 'bungalow' (derived from 'Bengal') and 'gymkhana', Tamil words such as 'mulligatawny', and Urdu words such as 'khaki' and 'pyjamas'. Nowadays, however, if one is to believe these latest trends, ambitious young Indians are probably learning to say 'ranch house' instead of bungalow, or to spell it 'pajamas' instead of pyjamas.

They might also be having to unlearn a host of expressions still commonly used in India but now perceived as quaint or antiquated elsewhere in the English-speaking world — words like 'needful' and 'felicitations', or the 'fooding and lodging' seen on signs outside cheaper hotels.

Indians appear comfortable with the easygoing conversational style of American English and perhaps see it as a welcome departure from the rigid grammar adherence of the British English learned in their schooldays. British English, too, is far from static. Once sacred grammar rules have become less strict, and even die-hard conservatives are having to face up to the challenges posed by ongoing globalization of the language.

Despite the recent flurry of interest in American English, the BBC is still said to attract a larger following in India than any of the U.S. networks, and it is doubtful this will change any time soon.