THE ENGLISH PROJECT AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN INDIABy confluence | December 2nd, 2008 | Category: The Arts |
English belongs to the people who speak it. It’s not the dictionary-makers or academics who own the language, but the people like you who are on the front line day-in, day-out using and extending it. English is a great, inclusive inheritance that all of us can enjoy
David Crystal’s Stories of English tells us that to tell the whole story of the English language is to tell many stories since every one of the hundred or more countries in which the English language now has a substantial presence has a particular story to tell. If there is a single story of English, it is like the story of a river, and in India when we think of rivers we think of the Ganges. The Ganges does not become the Ganges until six streams have become one but before the Ganges reaches the sea it divides into the unnumbered waterways of its great delta. The great flow of the Ganges provides an image of the great flow of the English language, and I want to focus on two streams. They are the ones that end in present-day England and present-day India. Legend tells us that the story of English in England began in 449 in a place then called Britannia with the landing of a band of warriors led by Hengst and Horsa coming from across the North Sea. However, it seems that Saxon people had been arriving in Britannia from at least 400, so Hengst and Horsa may have found a welcoming party who understood fairly well what they were saying. The story of English in India can be given an even more precise date, 31 December 1600. On that day, Queen Elizabeth I signed a charter creating the Company of Merchants of London Trading to the East Indies. (Port Cities) However, we can guess that, when those London traders reached the East Indies, they met Englishmen who were there before them. The upshot four hundred years later is that the language that people speak in London is now widely spoken in the city of Delhi.
It is a remarkable fact of language that the sacred River Thames that flows into the North Sea has the same name as the sacred River Tamesa that flows into the Ganges. The Celtic word ‘Thames’ is derived from the same root as the Sanskrit word ‘Tamasa’, and both mean ‘dark river’. (Ellis, Hart) Celtic and Sanskrit like English are but three of the many ancient and modern languages that derive from that great mother of tongues, Indo-European. Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Pali and Punjabi are all tributaries with English, all owing their origins to the same source. The living Thames does not flow into the Ganges, but the linguistic Thames most certainly does, and English has been flowing into India for four hundred years. The English of India should not be thought to start around 1600. The English of India is as old as the English of England itself. A history of Indian English must start with the story of Germanic peoples crossing the North Sea to make their homes in Britannia in the fifth century. I am not going to be able to tell the whole of that story, but I can discuss some salient points.
For five hundred years in England, English evolved in a commonplace way. The main change was the uptake of Latin terms required by the conversion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to Christianity. That was not the first time that they had borrowed from Latin. They had arrived in England with many words learned from the soldiers of the Roman frontier. Butter, chalk, cheese, kettle, kitchen, mile, pepper, wall, and wine are just some of them. (Kemmer). The next change came from the influence of the Norse language spoken by Danish invaders in the eighth and ninth centuries, but the Danes settled down and became North Country men and women. Theirs was a Germanic language, and it blended nicely with the now fully merged speech of the former Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
It was in 1066 that something linguistically profound began to take place. Invaders arrived in sufficient numbers with sufficient military power and they stayed for a sufficiently long time to bring about major changes in the grammar of English. These invaders produced a blend of Old English with Norman French. Grammatical gender was replaced by logical gender; most noun endings were lost; word order was affected. English ceased to be a normal Germanic language. The overall change was so great that ‘English first came into existence in roughly the form in which we know it today around 1350, when the influence of 300 years of Norman French occupation had been assimilated into a basis of Germanic dialects.’ (Strevens 29) That level of impact of one language upon another is a linguistically rare event. Languages change their vocabularies easily; they change their pronunciations slowly; they change their grammars grudgingly. Remarkably, English having changed its grammar hugely by 1350 went on to change its pronunciation so that by 1450 English ceased to sound like a Germanic language. Within a hundred years, English acquired the range of diphthongs and strangulated vowels that make the language sound strange to speakers of both modern Italian and German. The change is called the Great Vowel Shift. Why it took place is not clear though it might be related to the great grammar shift of the previous three hundred years.
By 1500, English had settled into its modern form. After that, the major change has been a vast increase in vocabulary. This, the lexicon of the language, began expanding in the Renaissance and has continued to do so ever since. The Oxford English Dictionary has over 500,000 head words (OED Online). The language is said to contain one million words, vastly more than anyone person can ever use or even know. However, the most commonly used words are still Germanic. The commonest of all is the word the, and most everyday words are Germanic - mother, father, love, food, drink, god (Using English) - the words for the things that matter.
The year 1600, when English began to flow into the subcontinent of India, saw the beginnings of new forms of the language and Indian English is the oldest World English after those of the British Isles. (Crystal, Guardian) Influences were two-way. English English began to take words from the languages of the subcontinent, and those old languages began the subtle transformation of the new language. In less than two hundred, English was beginning to compete with local languages. Anthea Gupta identifies 1774 as a key date because it was then that English became ‘the language of the Supreme Court in Calcutta’. (Gupta 189)
Crucial as that date proved to be, the traders of the East India Company were by no means settled on the wisdom of using English in India. ‘Support was given to developing education in India in the Indian tradition. [The Company] established schools teaching Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. Some of these schools were for Indians, while others [. . .] were for East India Company officers.’ (Gupta 188) Nonetheless, the fact that a trading company was concerning itself with education meant that it was having to involve itself with governing. So it was that in 1835, what Andrea Gupta calls ‘the infamous Minute of Lord Macaulay’ set English as the language of higher education, law and administration. (Gupta 190) It was not be until 1857 that Company rule was ended altogether, but only because the British East India Company became the Indian Civil Service. The Company became the Raj. And, for good and for ill, the language of the Raj was English.
Today, there are, as a result of Macaulay’s Minute, 350,000,000 English speakers in India, making it the world’s greatest English-speaking nation. (Crystal, Guardian), outnumbering the English-speakers of the United Kingdom and the United States combined. So what kind of English are these 350,000,000 speakers speaking? What, to be local, is this Delhi English? Well, it seems that it is not the English of London or Washington. According to Jason Baldridge, it differs in phonology, morphology, lexicon, and syntax. Indian sounds different from British and American. It constructs its words differently. It has its own vocabulary. It has its own sentence structures. Baldridge tells us that Indians ‘shorten many words to create commonly used terms’ and from there they go on to make several changes and developments. The results can be strange for some one from London or Washington. In Indian English ‘enthusiasm is called enthu; as such, it can be used in new ways. One can say, “That guy has a lot of enthu.” While this is simply an abbreviation, enthu can also be used as an adjective where enthusiasm cannot, as in “He’s a real enthu guy.” The same applies for fundamentals, which is shortened as fundas. “She knows her fundas.”’ In short, ‘the English which is spoken in India is different from that spoken in other regions of the world.’ (Baldridge) If Delhi’s English is different from the English of London and Washington, what are we to make of it? Can it be proper English? The first answer to that question is to note that the English of London and Washington differ in all the ways that Delhi English differs from both. The phonology, morphology, lexicon, and syntax of London and Washington are distinct. The second answer must come in the form of an American-style question: Can 350,000,000 Indian-English speakers be wrong?
The best answer is given by India’s leading English-language scholar, Braj B. Kachru. In an article called ‘Models for Non-Native Englishes’, Kachru argues that speakers of Indian English must ‘develop an identity with the local model of English without feeling that it is a “deficient” model.’ (Kachru, ‘Models’ 67-68) Of course, English speakers in London and Washington should come to the same conclusion, but it is more important that the English-speakers in Delhi believe that they have their own valid norm for the speaking of English whatever Londoners and Washingtonians might think. After all, that is what the Americans have done. They have not looked to England for a norm since 1828 when Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language. As Kachru says no Webster has ‘come forward to defend a non-native model’. (Kachru, ‘Models’ 53). Kachru himself may yet prove to be the Noah Webster of Indian English since he has written innumerable books and articles on the subject.
I have sketched two stories of the English language and similar stories could be told of the Englishes from Australia to Zimbabwe. Stories exist in time. Linguists call that the diachronic dimension of language. Linguists also talk about the extension of language through space. That is called the synchronic dimension. I have been talking about English English and Indian English as if they were single entities because it is easier to tell their stories that way. But, if we stop at any point in the last sixteen hundred years, we can see that it is not a story that we need but a survey, a survey of the forms a language takes at a given date. If we take only the aspect called dialect, we find that British English, that is the English spoken in the United Kingdom, comes in over 500 versions. A remarkable variety within such a small geographical space. But then dialects are generated by time and isolation, and English speakers have been in the United Kingdom for a long time and in isolated places. These accents vary socially as well as geographically, and class dialects are pronounced in England. I think they are very probably quite pronounced in India. By contrast, they are less significant in the United States, a country that despite its size and numbers demonstrates less regional variation than the United Kingdom. The American Mid-West was populated so rapidly, in a time of railroads and increasing communication, that the great majority of American people now speak the dialect known as General American - the dominant norm of the English language.
A synchronic survey of the English language could be made at any point in its history, but it is perhaps most interesting to make it at the present. The spread of the language is a continuum so great that it might be that at its extremes it is becoming different languages. The creoles of Africa, the West Indies and the Pacific are at one extreme. Aukan, Bajan, Creola, Krio, Kwinti, Pijin, and Patwa (Ethnologue) are just some of the many versions of English that are so blended with elements of another language that many English speakers find them difficult to understand. But if on first encounter they are unintelligible, a little book study shows their relation to English, and written forms rapidly reveal meanings. You could pick them up readily enough if you were to find yourself talking exclusively with Bajan or Creola speakers for a month.
I have spoken of two stories, English English and Indian English; I have spoken of two dimensions, diachronic English and synchronic English; I need now speak of two forms, spoken and written English. They are profoundly different. The one is no more important than the other though linguists give the primacy to the spoken language. Usually, the written language leads people to talk first about literature. English literature begins in the seventh and eight centuries with the hymns of Caedmon and the epic of Beowulf. I count these poems as the beginning of the literature of Indian English as well as the beginning of the literature of English English. The two literatures are distinct enough today although they are richly overlapped by writers of both countries. And they merge with writers like Rudyard Kipling and Salman Rusdie.
But if literature comes first to mind when we talk about written English, we are all aware that the bulk of what is written is not literature and that has been true from the beginning since most ancient records have to do with butcher’s bills and laundry lists. The first evidence of written English appears on a thin medallion, found in Suffolk and dated to about 450. It has the words: ‘gægogæ mægæ medu’ inscribed upon it. They may mean ‘This she wolf is a reward to my kinsman.’ (Crystal, English Language 163-64) Part of the difficulty in reading the medallion lies in its battered condition; part in the fact that it is engraved in runic script. ‘Gægogæ mægæ medu’ is one of those extremes of English that captures the mystery of language; another extreme is the written language of today’s mobile phone, not a language with which I have any skill, but it is a recent manifestation of an extreme English.
Let me try to speak to you for a while in mobile text language, sometimes called ‘Lingo’ or simple ‘txt’: ‘d gr8st booty of r heritage S d en lang, n itz r gr8st gft 2 d wrld. itz d lang of Shakespeare n d rap Rtst. itz d pasport 2 evry cn10nt.’ (Txt courtesy of Nigel Hazelwood) It is rather too difficult to go on. Let me translate into a plainer English and extend the statement: ‘The greatest treasure of our heritage is the English language, and it is our greatest gift to the World. It is the language of Shakespeare and the rap artist. It is the passport to every continent. Many countries are already setting up treasure houses to display their languages, but there is no place where the English language is fully presented to the public. English used to reach very few people at the beginning but 1600 years later it is reaching the world. Winchester will be the place to see that global story.’ That is a quotation from a press release of a charity called the English Project.
I am a trustee of the English Project, and we have a mission to deepen people’s understanding and knowledge of English, its history and continuing development so that English speakers of all kinds can better appreciate, use and enjoy the language. To do this we are setting up a living exhibition, an online world, an educational centre and a research foundation.
The English Project will tell the story of how the tongue of those three ancient tribes is becoming the language of two billion people. Our virtual site will be everywhere and our concrete site will be at Winchester, the ancient capital of England, one hundred kilometres from London. Winchester is the city of King Alfred the Great, the patron of English scholarship (Ackroyd 1.3.5). He is the first person we know to call the language ‘English’. (OED) He ordered his clerks to translate major Latin texts into English. As a result, Winchester is the first place at which our language achieved a standard written form. (Crystal, Stories 52, 82).
The project has the whole-hearted support of the BBC, the British Council, the British Library, the English-Speaking Union, and of my own university, that of Winchester. Much as I have spoken about the histories of World English, our exhibition will more concerned with the Englishes of the present day and indeed of the future.
The Trustees of the English Project see the English language as one of the greatest contributions of the British Isles to world culture. It is providing the medium of communication globally for politics, science, literature and commerce. The unfolding story of English is one of the most compelling narratives of our time, helping to shape the lives of some two billion people. The English Project’s reach is global; its artefacts are sounds; its focus is language; its target is the non-reader as well as the bibliophile; its audiences must be immersed, engaged and empowered; its scholarship must be the best.
Our first production is a book that we are launching on 16 October. It is Kitchen Table Lingo by the English Project: a book of home-made words. Written and edited by us it has a Foreword by Melvyn Bragg and an Afterword by David Crystal. It introduces the English Project to the world: ‘Our aim,’ we say in the Introduction, is to help English speakers across the globe become more aware of where the language has come from and how it continues to develop. Underlying that mission is a strong belief that English belongs to the people who speak it. It’s not the dictionary-makers or academics who own the language, but the people like you who are on the front line day-in, day-out using and extending it. English is a great, inclusive inheritance that all of us can enjoy. And Kitchen Table Lingo is a way of acknowledging publicly the fundamental contribution made by individuals who shape the language in their homes and workplaces to express new ideas and change the language so it works better (and more amusingly) for them. You can help the English Project in a very material way. Please go today to Amazon.co.uk and pre-order Kitchen Table Lingo. It only costs £5.99, and it will make us very happy. First, we will be happy because you will have such a good time reading it. Second, we will be happy because it will lead you to our website where you can make your own contribution to the next edition of Kitchen Table Lingo. Third, we will be happy because the more you buy the book, the further Kitchen Table Lingo gets bump up the Amazon charts. Finally, we will be happy because the more books we will sell the sooner the English Project will go forward.
The English Project has a mission, as I have already said, ‘to deepen people’s understanding and knowledge of English’. We believe that everyone can and should enjoy the riches of language and that the more people know about this language the more they will be empowered in their personal, social and productive lives. The English Project is new, but it is making its impact through its fresh and imaginative ideas.
We are exploring new areas by engaging with ordinary English speakers across divides of education, geography and social background. The timing now is good; it is in fact ripe. The English Project will not be the first language museum. I have been to the Museum of the Portuguese Language in San Paolo, and it is marvellous. Language as a visitor attraction has already been tested in this world leader. The Germans, the Danes, and the Hungarians are all planning similar ventures.
I should say that the English Project is highly entrepreneurial; we don’t expect to subsist on public funds. However, for our larger ambitions we do need significant pump-priming financial support. If the full potential of English Project is to be achieved then we need a major donor for our principal visitor centre in Winchester which we then want to see franchised around the English speaking world. Are you that donor?
Isn’t it time that English was properly recognised and enjoyed to the full? How can you help that happen? Please visit the English Project Website at www.englishproject.org and register yourself as a supporter, and put in an Amazon advanced order for Kitchen Table Lingo today. Please help us with our fundraising and make the English Project known in India and become the Project’s ambassador there.
Christopher Mulvey is Emeritus Professor of English, at the University of Winchester. and Director, The English Project
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