Introduction to Indian English
In less than 200 years since its formal introduction as part of a nascent and westernized education system, English has grown to be the medium through which the people of India communicate with the world, and often with one another. In large parts of a country with several major languages, it vies with Hindi—the most commonly used Indian language—as the spoken language of choice. There is a range of ability from a mere smattering of words, to some amount of rudimentary communication, to highly proficient use of the language. Arguably, the number of Indians speaking at least a few words of English, and the contexts in which they do so, continue to grow by the day. The language has a large presence in governance, education, media, and the publishing industry. For instance, the number of English language newspapers registered in India and their circulation figures are second only to those in Hindi. India produces the third largest number of English books in the world, after the USA and UK.
The link between Britain and India is an old one, starting around the time of the formation of the East India Company in 1600. The British came initially seeking business opportunities in a wealthy country. Later, they gained control of different regions through alliances, battles, and treaties. Educational efforts commenced with setting up individual schools and progressed to actually implementing formal policies. This was a process that evolved over a period of 150 years. Necessarily, though not without resistance, this involved the spread and growth of English in a territory that had a vast population speaking hundreds of languages, with many having a formal history of at least two thousand years.
The most significant linguistic policy initiative of the British was Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute of 1835, which led to the establishment of English as the language of instruction for higher education. This momentous decision paved the way for the eventual entrenchment of English in the country. The proposal met with fierce opposition from a group of highly-placed British officials and Indians. In the end, though, Macaulay prevailed. As a consequence, Indians were rapidly exposed to western ideas, science, law, governance, and, of course, English. By 1857, universities were being set up in the three Presidencies: Bengal, Bombay, and Madras. In 1854, with Sir Charles Wood’s Despatch, school education also benefitted, although the focus was not only on English; the local languages were also given due importance. Macaulay created a job market for people who learned English, with the aim of meeting the administrative needs of the British; this same skill is now the gateway for Indians to compete for the best jobs, globally.
English and the struggle for freedom
When the Indian National Congress was formed in 1885 to fight for India’s freedom preference for membership was initially, and perhaps ironically, given to those who spoke English. By 1920, however, Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership ensured that Indian languages were given primacy; this coincided with the British government handing over the Education Department to be managed by Indian officials. The debate over abandoning English altogether, and replacing it with Hindi/Hindustani, was a low-key, parallel narrative to the struggle for freedom. As independence drew closer, there was an attempt to have Hindi declared as the national language, while the Constituent Assembly was holding deliberations to frame the Constitution. The proposal was watered down to official language status in the Constitution of India which was adopted in 1950, three years after independence in 1947.
Official status and usage
Under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, English gets the status of an associate official language, the official language being Hindi. However, the higher legal system, federal legislative processes, and the bulk of higher education are all still carried out in English. This dichotomy of preference vis-à-vis the language has never gone away. The first generation of Indians who were formally educated in English also became the standard bearers of the independence movement. Even before independence was achieved, the next generation was deeply involved in the creation of the United Nations and various global institutions.
English has always been an aspirational language, with a great deal of material progress and prestige associated with it. The status accorded to English in education and governance has however remained uncertain. Several commissions have been set up to study this matter and attempts to dilute the pre-eminence of English have occurred in various regions. It is, by and large, a second language to most of its users. However, for those in the cities and in the professions, it is the language of choice for commerce, for education, and for social interaction. The underprivileged and the lower classes see it as the language of emancipation and often invest in getting an English education. From the middle of the 19th century, India and Indians first accessed the knowledge base of the West, especially in the sciences, through English. Today, India is known as the world’s back-office in information technology and is an integral part of the global knowledge economy.
There are five major types of words in Indian English that are distinct from words seen across other varieties of English: borrowings from Indian languages; novel constructions through processes of affixation and compounding; hybrid constructions which bring together English and Indian languages; loan translations or calques; and, finally, words that are used with different meanings from those one finds in other varieties.
Borrowings from Indian languages
Many words that are specific to the culture, food, dress, flora and fauna, religion and philosophy of India are part of the English used by Indians. The words come from different languages but eventually become pan-Indian (though some words remain region-specific).
Some pan-Indian words pertaining to food are:
- biryani, n. (first attested 1932) – a highly-spiced Indian dish made of meat or vegetables cooked with rice, saffron, and usually brown lentils.
- gosht, n. (1982) – red meat; beef, lamb, mutton, or goat; also (and in earliest use) a dish containing this.
- namkeen, n. (1942) – any salty or savoury snack.
- raita, n. (1832) – a cold side dish consisting of yogurt or (esp. formerly) curds with herbs or spices (traditionally including mustard seed), and typically also containing finely chopped vegetables or fruit.
Words referring to clothing include:
- dhoti (1622) – a long narrow cloth which is wound round the body, passed between the thighs, and tucked in under the waist-band behind.
- dupatta, n. (1615) – a doubled or two-layered length of cloth worn by women as a scarf, veil, or shoulder wrap.
- kurta (1913) – a loose shirt or tunic worn by men and women.
Some words from the realm of flora and fauna are:
- nilgai, n. (1871) – a large Indian antelope, Boselaphus tragocamelus, the male of which is blue-grey with white markings and short straight horns, the female tawny and without horns.
- neem, n. – a tree, Azadirachta indica (family Meliaceae), widely found in South Asia, where it is valued for its leaves and bitter bark which are used medicinally, and for the oil of its seeds which is used in soaps.
- tulsi, n. –A species of basil (Ocimum sanctum), sacred to Vishnu, cultivated by the Hindus as a sacred plant.
Words from the contexts of religion, philosophy, and culture include:
- bhajan, n. (1914) – a devotional song.
- bhakti, n. (1832) – religious devotion, piety, or devoted faith, as a means of salvation.
- jnana (1827) – spiritual knowledge, as a means of salvation.karma, n. (1785) – the sum of a person’s actions, esp. intentional actions, in this and previous states of existence, regarded as determining that person’s fate in future states of existence.
- kumkum, n. (1938) – a red powder used ceremonially, and by Hindu women to make a small distinctive spot on the forehead; the spot so made.
- sadhana, n. (1898) – dedicated practice or learning to achieve an (esp. spiritual) goal.
- tala, n. (1891) – musical time or rhythm; one of a series of traditional metrical patterns.
Novel constructions through processes of affixation and compounding
Many new words constructed in Indian English that are not seen in other varieties of English. There is a general tendency in Indian English to create new compound words. For example:
- kitty party, n. (1991) – a social lunch at which those attending contribute money to a central pool and draw lots, the winner receiving the money and hosting the next lunch.
- lunch home, n. (1939) – a small restaurant or other eatery.
- speed breaker, n. (1940) – a ridge set in a road surface to encourage drivers to reduce their speed; a speed bump.
Words created by processes of affixation include:
- shuttler, n. (1934) – a badminton player.
- wheatish, adj. (1950) – of the complexion, etc.: that is (or is held to be) of the pale golden colour of ripe wheat; light brown, pale-skinned.
Hybrid constructions combine two languages, usually an Indian language and English. They can be either compounds or affixed words. Some examples are:
- ashramite, n. (1933) – an occupant of an ashram.
- chakka jam, n. (1972) – the blocking of a road or the deliberate creation of a traffic jam as a form of civilian protest; a blockade.
- gully cricket, n. (1980) – an informal variety of cricket played on the street.
Loan translations and calques
Idioms and some other expressions are typically translations from local languages. Some examples are your head ‘an exclamation meaning nonsense’, eat/chew my/your brains ‘pester someone’, and sitting on my/your head ‘put pressure on someone’.
Some examples of this type include mutton ‘lamb (cooked and uncooked)’, flick ‘steal’, and shift ‘move house or office’. The meaning conveyed by these (and some other words) is different from that in other varieties of English.
A number of syntactic features are unique to—or particularly common in—Indian English. Many of these features are likely to be unacceptable in formal contexts; that is, they would not be considered ‘standard’. However, there are still many features that are acceptable in formal and standard contexts. Some of these are illustrated in this article.
In order to express scale or emphasis, words in adjectival positions can be reduplicated in Indian English. Some examples are:
- little-little things ‘many things that are little’,
- big-big problems ‘several sizeable problems’
- chubby-chubby cheeks ‘very chubby cheeks’
Some verbs are used in a manner that is typical to Indian English. The verb gift is used with two objects as in ‘Her children gifted her [first object] a new oven [second object]’ rather than ‘Her children gifted her with a new oven’ as would be seen in other varieties of English. Many speakers of Indian English, though not all, are also likely to say, ‘They provided us the necessary equipment’ and ‘They supplied us blankets’. Some verbs that would typically be used as part of a phrasal verb in most varieties of English are more commonly used without particles (prepositions used with verbs to make phrasal verbs) in Indian English, e.g. the word bunk in the sense of ‘skip’: ‘I am bunking college today’ is thus the more common construction in Indian English, while ‘I am bunking off college today’ (with the particle off) is more common in British English. Some other verbs can be used intransitively in Indian English; a good example is enjoy: ‘We enjoyed very much’. This structure would not necessarily be considered acceptable by all.
Many verbs can take the particle off to give some emphasis or add a negative meaning, e.g. ‘Let’s finish it off’. The intended meaning is ‘Let’s finish it and be done with it’. ‘Let’s hide it off’ carries the extra meaning of conspiracy among the interlocutors.
When referring to or addressing people using a word that establishes the relationship, the sequence is as follows: Vidya aunty and Mangesh uncle, in contrast to the sequence Aunty Vidya and Uncle Mangesh that is more typical of speakers of English from other parts of the world. This extends to teachers as well, in forms such as Vimala ma’am and Krishna sir.
There is a tendency in Indian English to bring words, especially adverbials, to the beginning of sentences: ‘Tomorrow, we can have a meeting’; ‘Surprisingly, he was very nice’; ‘Ten years back, life was very different’. Though this also occurs in other varieties, it is more prevalent in Indian English use.
Although questions are used in a manner similar to other varieties, for yes-no questions there is less use of the structure of a question and more use of statements in the form of questions with a rising intonation. One is therefore more likely to hear, ‘You will make the presentation?’ rather than, ‘Will you make the presentation?’.
One rhetorical device in Indian English is to answer questions with the word where to indicate the impossibility of a situation or event. For example:
A: Why didn’t you call me when in trouble?
The response where in the above indicates that it was impossible to call when in trouble. Similarly, ‘Where are you doing any work?’ means ‘You are not doing any work’.
Indian English is known for its use of the tag isn’t it?, which can be used in a broader range of contexts than in other varieties of English. For example,‘This needs to be re-written, isn’t it?’ or ‘You can come tomorrow, isn’t it?’ rather than ‘This needs to be rewritten, doesn’t it?’ and ‘You can come tomorrow, can’t you?’. Additionally, the tag no is also often used, especially in informal contexts, e.g. ‘You can come tomorrow, no?’.
The OED’s pronunciation team are developing a model for the transcription of Indian English, which we plan to publish in 2022.
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.