Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive
Of the many cultural by-blows spawned by the British empire none has proved more enduring or controversial than the global tribe of dialects that can trace their genealogy, however tenuously, to the English language. While the uncontested first among unequals in this motley clan is American English (which today can lay claim to being the real head of the family), Indian English is the gawky but up-and-coming country cousin. It is estimated that India currently has some seventy million speakers of English, in some form or other, which is more than Britain can lay claim to. Of India’s 20,758 registered newspapers in 217 languages, 3,840 are in English, which is second only to Hindi, the official national language.
The colonial pedigree of English, which occasions periodic outbursts against its use in independent India, also continues to invest it with social cachet; often those who publicly decry it use it in private, and education in English is said to be among the fastest growing industries in the country. That English is the commercial and technological language of the world only partly explains its popularity in India. In many ways its success parallels that of cricket, that other bridgehead and exotic transplant of empire. Like the game, which is played with equal enthusiasm on the well-groomed grounds of exclusive clubs and in urban back lanes where neighborhood urchins improvise a roadside match with make-shift ingenuity, English too finds its own level, from the offices of corporate and political power to the daily bazaar. Cricket has produced its Indian greats: from the “Oriental wizard” Ranjitsinhji to Sunil Gavaskar, the country’s first acknowledged cricket millionaire and one of the greatest bats in the history of the sport.
In the process, both cricket and English have become Indianized. Ranji confounded his opponents by never playing “a Christian stroke in his life,” and although for many Indian liberals English became a voice against both colonial oppression and the age-old specter of superstition and discrimination haunting India’s caste-ridden society, they felt that English had to have an Indian face. Mulk Raj Anand recalls that when he showed Mahatma Gandhi the draft of his first novel, the latter cut out 150 of the 200 pages, saying, “This is Bloomsbury, not an untouchable talking; you must learn to tell the truth at all levels.” The young writer went back to his task, evolved a new idiom, and in 1933 published Untouchable, with a preface by E.M. Forster, which was to be translated into twenty-eight languages.
Linguists have pointed out that, born in the common cradle of Indo-European languages, Hindi and English are “distant, long lost cousins” who have been in sporadic contact over the centuries. Via Arabia and Greece and Rome, Sanskrit words like musk and opal infiltrated Middle English. Growing British trade interests in India increased these linguistic imports, though initially the East India Company, with typical English insularity, issued directives forbidding “the several Factoryes from wrighting words in this [Indian] language …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.