Indian English

When we think about the English language, we tend to think about varieties such as British English, American English, or Australian English. But what if I told you English was present in India almost 200 years before Australia? 

Indian English Indian English

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Table of contents

    English is an associate official language of India and has an estimated 125 million speakers. In fact, India is now considered the world's second-largest English-speaking country (following the United States).

    In India, English is used as a first, second, and third language and as the country's chosen lingua franca. Of course, the English you hear in India will differ from that in England, the USA, or anywhere for that matter, so let's delve into the world of Indian Englishes, including its unique words, phrases, and accent.

    Challo! (let's go)

    Indian English Definition

    So what is the definition of Indian English? India is a country with a rich linguistic background, home to an estimated 2,000 languages and varieties. The country has no recognized national language, but some of the official languages include Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, Urdu, and English, which is an associate official language (i.e., an official 'foreign' language).

    Unlike the other official languages, which came from the Indo-Aryan or Dravidian language family, English was brought to India due to trade and the establishment of The East India Company in the early 1600s (we'll cover this in detail in the next section). Since then, English in India has spread across the country while being influenced and adapted by its millions of users

    As India has such a diverse and varied linguistic background, English is the predominant lingua franca used to connect all the different language speakers.

    Lingua franca: A common language used as a communication tool between people who do not share the same first language. For example, a Hindi speaker and a Tamil speaker would likely converse in English.

    Indian English, Map of Indian languages, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The languages of India. English is used as a lingua franca to connect all these language speakers.

    Indian English (IE) is an umbrella term for all the varieties of English used across India and by the Indian diaspora. Unlike other English varieties, there is no standard form of Indian English, and it is regarded as a variety of British English. When English is used in an official capacity, e.g., in education, publishing, or government, Standard British English is typically used.

    Diaspora: People who have settled away from their home country. For example, Indian people living in the United Kingdom.

    Arguably one of the most common Indian English varieties is "Hinglish," a mix of Hindi and English primarily used in Northern India.

    Indian English History

    The history of English in India is long, complex, and inexorably intertwined with colonialism and imperialism. It's unlikely we'll be able to cover the subject fully, so we'll take a quick look at the basics.

    English was first brought to India in 1603 when English traders and businessmen set up The East India Company. The East India Company (EIC) was an English (and then British) trade company that oversaw the buying and selling of tea, sugar, spices, cotton, silk, and more between the East Indies (India and Southeast Asia) and the UK and the rest of the world. At its height, the EIC was the biggest company in the world, had an army twice the size of the British army, and eventually became so powerful that it seized and colonized much of India, Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong.

    In 1835, English became the official language of the EIC, replacing Persian. At the time, there was also a big push to promote the use of English in India. The biggest tool for promoting English was education. A British politician named Thomas Macaulay stated that English would be the medium of instruction for Indian schools, began a scheme to train all Indian teachers in English, and opened several universities based on the University of London curriculum. On top of that, English became the official language of government and trade and was the only functional lingua franca in the country.

    In 1858 the British Crown assumed direct control over India and remained in power until 1947. After independence, attempts were made to make Hindi the official language of government; however, this was met with protests from non-Hindi-speaking states. Eventually, the official languages act of 1963 stated that Hindi and British English would both be the official working languages of the government.

    Indian English, The East India Company coat of arms, StudySmarterFig 2. The East India Company coat of arms.

    Although India is now the second-largest English-speaking country in the world, it's important to remember that English has typically been reserved for those with money and privilege, and there are millions of Indian people who do not speak any English.

    Indian English Words

    Much like how certain vocabulary words can differ across Standard British English and Standard American English, the same is true for Indian English. The variety also has some unique vocabulary words that can only be found in Indian English. Many of these are adopted British words or neologisms (newly coined words) created by the Anglo-Indian people (people with British and Indian ancestry).

    Some examples include:

    Indian English word Meaning
    ChappalsSandals
    BrinjalAubergine/Eggplant
    Ladyfingers Okra (vegetable)
    Finger chipsFrench fries
    Picture Movie/film
    Biodata CV/resume
    KindlyPlease
    Mail IDEmail address
    SnapPhotograph
    FreeshipA scholarship
    Prepone To bring something forward. The opposite of postpone.
    Votebank A group of people, usually in the same geographical location, who tend to vote for the same party
    Capsicum A bell pepper
    Hotel A restaurant or cafe

    Indian Loan Words in English

    The English weren't the only ones to leave a linguistic imprint on another country. In fact, there are more than 900 words in the Oxford English dictionary that originated in India and are now used across the UK and other English-speaking countries.

    Here are some examples:

    • Loot

    • Cot

    • Shampoo

    • Jungle

    • Pajamas

    • Candy

    • Bungalow

    • Mango

    • Pepper

    Some of the words made their way into English from Sanskrit via other languages. However, most of the words were borrowed directly from Indian people (predominantly Hindi speakers) by British soldiers in the 19th century. The language used by British soldiers at this time became so full of Indian words and borrowings that it would have been barely recognizable to a Standard British English speaker.

    Indian English, Photograph of a jungle, StudySmarterFig 3. "Jungle" is a Hindi word.

    Indian English Phrases

    "Indianisms" are phrases used in India that are derived from English but are unique to Indian speakers. It's unlikely you would hear an "Indianism" outside of India or the Indian diaspora.

    Whereas some people view these "Indianisms" as mistakes, others say they are valid characteristics of the variety and are an integral part of an Indian English speaker's identity. The view you take on things like "Indianisms" would largely depend on whether you take a prescriptivist or descriptivist view on language.

    Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist: Prescriptivists believe there are set rules to a language that should be followed. On the other hand, descriptivists view and describe the language they see based on how it's used.

    Here are some examples of "Indianisms" and their meanings in Standard British English:

    IndianismMeaning
    Cousin-brother/cousin-sister Used to describe someone very close to you but doesn't have a direct family tie
    Do the needful To do what is deemed necessary at the time
    Eating my brain When something is really bothering you
    Good name Your first name
    Passed out Graduated school, college, or university
    Sleep is coming Going to bed
    Years back Years ago

    Indian English Accent

    To understand the Indian English accent and how it might differ from a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent, we need to look at its prominent phonological features.

    As India is such a huge country (a subcontinent even!) with so many different language varieties, it is not possible to cover all of the different phonological features present in Indian English; instead, we'll discuss some of the most common.

    • Indian English is mainly non-rhotic, meaning the /r/ sound in the middle and at the end of words is not pronounced; this is the same as British English. However, Southern Indian English is typically rhotic, and rhoticity is increasing in Indian English due to the influence of American English present in movies, etc.

    • There is a lack of diphthongs (two vowel sounds in one syllable) in Indian English. Diphthongs are typically replaced with the long vowel sound instead. For example, /əʊ/ would be pronounced as /oː/.
    • Most plosive sounds such as /p/, /t/, and /k/ are typically unaspirated, meaning there is no audible expiration of air when the sounds are produced. This differs from British English.
    • The "th" sounds, e.g., /θ/ and /ð/, are typically non-existent. Instead of placing the tongue between the teeth to create the sound, Indian English speakers may aspirate the /t/ sound instead, i.e., release a pocket of air when pronouncing the /t/.
    • There is often no audible difference between the /w/ and /v/ sounds, meaning words like wet and vet may sound like homonyms.

    A key influencing factor on the Indian English accent is the phonetic spelling of most Indian languages. As most Indian languages are pronounced almost exactly as they are spelled (i.e., vowel sounds are never modified), speakers of Indian English often do the same with the pronunciation of English. This has resulted in several differences in accent compared to Standard British English, including:

    • Pronouncing the full vowel sound rather than the schwa sound /ə/. For example, doctor might sound like /ˈdɒktɔːr/ instead of /ˈdɒktə/.

    • Pronouncing the /d/ sound at the end of a word instead of making a /t/ sound.

    • The pronunciation of typically silent letters, e.g., the /l/ sound in salmon.
    • Pronouncing an /s/ sound at the end of words instead of making a /z/ sound.

    Overuse of the Progressive/ Continuous Aspect

    In Indian English, there is often a noticeable overuse of the progressive/ continuous aspect. This is most notable when the suffix -ing is added to stative verbs, which in Standard British English always remain in their root form and never take a suffix to show aspect. For example, a user of Indian English might say, "She is having brown hair" instead of "She has brown hair."

    There is no absolute reason why this happens, but some theories include:

    • The overteaching of grammatical structures at school.
    • Influence from non-standard British English varieties during colonial times.
    • influence of the direct translation from Tamil and Hindi.

    Indian English vs. British English

    All of the features of Indian English we have looked at so far are the characteristics that make it differ from British English. Let's look at some example sentences highlighting the difference between British and Indian English to finish off.

    Indian English Examples

    Indian English British English
    "My dad is sitting on my head!""My dad is stressing me out!"
    "I belong to Kerala.""I live in Kerala."
    "I did my graduation at the University of Edinburgh.""I did my undergrad degree at the University of Edinburgh."
    "I'm shopping in the departmental store.""I'm shopping in the department store."
    "I need to prepone the meeting.""I need to bring the meeting forward."

    Indian English - Key takeaways

    • India has a rich linguistic background with 22 official languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Bengali, and an official associate language, English.
    • English has been present in India since the early 1600s when it was brought over by the English due to the creation of the East India Company.
    • English is the functioning lingua franca of India.
    • The term Indian English is used as an umbrella term for all the varieties of English used by people from India. Unlike other English varieties, there is no Standard form of Indian English.
    • Indian English is based on British English but can differ in terms of vocabulary and accent.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - The Languages of India (Language region maps of India) by Filpro (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Filpro) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
    2. Fig. 2 - The East India Company coat of arms. (Coat of arms of the East India Company) by TRAJAN_117 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:TRAJAN_117) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Indian English

    Why is Indian English different?

    Indian English is a variety of British English and is largely the same; however, it can differ in terms of vocabulary and accent. These differences will be due to the influence of the language users. 

    What are the features of Indian English?

    Indian English has its own unique words, phrases, and accent.

    Is Indian English the same as British English?

    Indian English is a variety of British English. It is largely the same as British English except it has its own unique vocabulary, phonological features, and number system. 

    What are some Indian English words?

    Some Indian English words include:

    • Brinjal (eggplant)
    • Biodata (resume)
    • Snap (photograph)
    • Prepone (to bring forward)

    Why do Indian people speak good English?

    A likely reason many Indian people can speak good English is because of the impact British colonialism had on the Indian education system. English became the main medium of instruction, teachers were trained in English, and universities were based on the University of London curriculum.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: There is a standard form of Indian English.

    What is the name of the English company that seized control of Indian trade?

    English has been present in which country the longest?

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    Team Indian English Teachers

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