Wednesday, April 24, 2024
HomeNewsEducationA story of English (of all things!)

A story of English (of all things!)

As for stories about someone or something,there can be as many stories, in principle, as there are story-tellers. This is just one story of English in post-Independence India.Now, if sages and scoundrels and their doings, despicable as well as virtuous, can be the subject matter of stories, then why not a language? Now, some stories are good, some lousy – I’m afraid this one is. But you see, not every grandmother is a good story-teller, not every gossiper tells memorable gossip. But every grandmother wants to tell stories and every gossiper dishes out tales, whatever be the quality.So, friends, have a heart and bear with this story.

English is the only non-native language against the continuance of which there have been agitations from time to time in post-independence India, till the nineteen nineties, when the IT-revolution reached India. But its existence in the country has not really been under real threat at any time. It may not be an Indian language but as Pandit Nehru said, it is a “language of importance to India”. It is the Associate Official language of the Indian State. Although it was not included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, it was not excluded from the Sahitya Akademi list of languages. Before the Central Institute of Hindi (1961) and the Central Institute of Indian Languages (1969) were set up, the Central Institute of English (CIE) was set up (1958).

The objective of this Institute was to improve the quality of the teaching of English in the country. Pandit Nehru is said to have specified even the variety of English to be taught at CIE, and by implication, to be promoted in the country – it was British English. What he did not say explicitly but meant undoubtedly was that American English must not be taught at the Institute. In 1960, when I was doing my B.A., my Political Science teacher at Ravenshaw College, who was sceptical about the Indian policy of non-alignment, told us that if Nehru was inclined towards the Soviet Union, because he never really trusted the USA. Now, I am inclined to think that Nehru’s choice of British English for CIE had nothing to do with politics. By the way, the situation isn’t very different even today. American literature is being taught at many universities in our country but there is no university or institute of higher education in our country, to the best of my knowledge, where American English is being taught as a matter of policy.

In the early nineteen sixties, English was accorded the status of a “library language” in India. It’s a curious phrase and meant very little. When some senior professors of English lectured at many universities trying to promote the term on behalf of UGC, many of their colleagues, who took it literally, found it hilarious. “So, by ‘library language’, you mean the language of the library premises to be shunned once you get out of the library, right?”, they said with a mischievous grin on their face.Despiteconsiderable effort by UGC to popularize the term, it soon went into disuse and no one regretted its obsolescence, including the UGC, as some say. Come to think of it, it was a rather opaque term; it tried to concealwhat UGC knew but did not like to say explicitly for reasons of political correctness, namely that in the near future there was not going to be a substitute for English in the field of higher education.

In the nineteen sixties, quite a few academics and intellectuals in the country, themselves privileged people, who had benefited from their English language competence, damned it in public as the language of the privileged in the country, suggesting that the government should do something about it. By the mid-nineties, with liberalization of the economy, the arrival of IT, and the call centres, new and attractive jobs had come up and such talk on the status of English in India had lost its relevance.This situation resulted in the setting up of many English medium schools. They were to be foundin the by-lanes of the cities, and in small towns, where more often than not, not only was English badly taught but also was bad English taught.

Till even the late sixties of the twentieth century, English carried the “colonizerstag’ but the thread was wearing off. The much-criticized three language formula had made the young of India, who went to school, multi-lingual, and one of the languages they studied at school was English. The language of higher education, especially technical education, continued to be English. The increase in number of the Indians who went for studies or jobs in the English-speaking world was conspicuous.More and more parents in, not just the urban but the rural areas as well, wanted their children to learn English well. These apart, those who were born in the fifties, did not relate to the idea of a colonized India and the colonial tag for English made little sense to them. By the mid-seventies, the tag had disappeared.

In fact, quite a few in the academic community had started saying that English had become almost an Indian language. It had already become the main link language of India among the educated. It had even become the main link language in multi-cultural India. A number of newspapers and news magazines and periodicals in English had appeared and they had a large readership. The writings in English by Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, among others, had been well received in the English-speaking world.The educated people were more at ease with the language than ever before.

In 1973, CIE became CIEFL – Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages. One would think it’san entirely inconsequential matter to deserve mention in any discourse relating to English in India, but it is not really so. The Institute was under the Central Government then, which means that the government had approved its renaming. That means that in the Central Government’s view about English at that time was that this language, in the Indian context, wasbest considered as different fromforeign languages like French, German, Russian and Persian and that English had become an integral part of the linguistic communication system in the county. The time for ambivalence and being apologetic about English was over.The same was true of “Indian English” for many academics. Many reputed teachers of English encouraged their students not to be apologetic about the fact that they didn’t speak like the educated Londoner or that they “spoke like a book”.

Or feel terribly guiltyabout using expressions such as these: “where are you coming from”, “what’s your good name?”,“I am having a headache”, “in your city, eggs are cheap, isn’t it?”, “there was pin-drop silence in the room”, etc. These were condemned as “Indianisms” – the Londoner would not use these. Four O’clock is not “evening” for us, it is “afternoon”. Two A.M. isn’t morning for us (“it’s 2 in the morning”, our Londoner would say), it’s “night”. What we call soup is something that one can drink, not “eat”. If the English use “eat” in the context of “soup’, it has to do with their kind of soup. In the eateries in our country, we get the soup that is liquid.

To make it more friendly to the foreigners’ palate, many luxury restaurants in our country these days are making soup for the consumption of which the contribution of teeth is necessary but it still has considerable liquid content. The weather being more friendly in this part of the world, we need not use the subject of weather as a facilitator for conversation. Years ago, one Gordon Bottomley described “Indian writing in English” as “Matthew Arnold in a sari”. That was much before Raja Ro, R K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand. Today we can dismiss a pejorative comment on “Indian English” as the arrogance and the ignorance of those who look down upon language varieties as substandard dialects.

English was deified in India when, in 2010, a temple for Angrezi Devi was built in the village Banka in Uttar Pradesh. Her Indianization was complete.

This story of English ends here.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

- Advertisment -

Most Popular