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 and refrayned from itt ourselves.” Edmund Burke warned that a hybrid language

so foreign from all the ideas and habits…of members of the House [of Lords] has a tendency to disgust them…. They are fatigued into such a despair of ever obtaining a competent knowledge of the transactions in India, that they are easily persuaded to remand them…to obscurity.

Despite such warnings, semantic cross-fertilization spread over the colonial landscape and words like calico, gingham, khaki, chit, pundit, nabob, and maharajah took their place in the Anglo-Indian lexicon, which was codified by Col. Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell in A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive. The book was popularly called “Hobson-Jobson” (echoing the Moharram chant of “Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!”), which the dictionary itself defines as a “tumasha, an entertainment,…a popular excitement.”

Something of a “tumasha” has been created by the recent publication in New Delhi of a special centenary edition of Yule and Burnell’s pioneering work. Part of the controversy arises from Yule’s introductory remarks to the first edition:

In its original conception it was intended to deal with all that class of words which…recur constantly in the daily intercourse of the English in India, either as expressing ideas really not provided for by our mother-tongue, or supposed by the speakers (often quite erroneously) to express something not capable of just denotation by any English term. A certain percentage of such words have been carried to English by the constant reflux to their native shore of Anglo-Indians…insomuch that a considerable number of the expressions in question…have become naturalised in the English language.

The suggestion that such borrowings were, semantically speaking, second-class citizens is echoed by Burnell’s observation that “from the intellectual standpoint” this curry-and-rice hotchpotch was “of no intrinsic value. Nearly all the borrowed words refer to material facts, or to peculiar customs and stages of society, and, though a few of them furnish allusions to the penny-a-liner, they do not represent new ideas.” This below-stairs status is reflected in such Hobson-Jobson classifications as “Babu [Clerk] English,” “Bearer [Servant] English,” “Butler English,” and “Kitchen English.”


Despite this deprecatory tone, however, it is obvious that great care went into the joint work. It began in 1872 when Arthur Burnell, of the Madras Civil Service, wrote to Col. Henry Yule of the Indian Army, whom he had met only once, saying that he was planning to compile an Anglo-Indian dictionary. Coincidentally, yule had been thinking along similar lines and suggested that the two pool their resources, painstakingly gleaned from a variety of records and long exposure to local oral traditions. Thus began a curious collaboration, separated by half the length of the subcontinent and sustained by a common enthusiasm. After Burnell’s death in 1882, Yule continued the work single-handedly, completing it four years later. In the preface to the first edition Yule wrote that though “in bulk, nearly seven-eighths” of the work was his, Burnell had

contributed so much of value,…buying, in the search for illustration, numerous rare and costly books which were not otherwise accessible to him in India; setting me…on lines of research with which I should have else possibly remained unacquainted; writing letters with such fulness, frequency, and interest on the details of the work up to the summer of his death; that the measure of bulk in contribution is no gauge of his share in the result.

The twenty-one-page list of reference works quoted in the dictionary spans over three hundred years of history and a wealth of sources, from Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari to the Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, edited by Rev. H.I. Coleridge. Hobson-Jobson has appropriately been described as “the great language bazaar,” an etymological entrepôt that records the passage of coinages—not only from Indian languages like Hindustani and Tamil, but also from Malay, Burmese, Persian, Arabic, and Portuguese—into the language of the British Raj in India. But the 986-page glossary does much more than merely provide a list of works and their derivations; each entry has copious footnotes, culled from a variety of sources, which provide vivid glimpses of social history, what Anthony Burgess has called “the smell, taste, rustle” of the times.

Thus one learns from the entry for “ayah” or “aya,” “a native lady’s-maid or nurse-maid,” that the word comes not from any of the Indian vernaculars, or even from Malay, but from the Portuguese aia, and as a bonus the reader is given a socioeconomic insight into the colonial household from a reference in the India Gazette, which under “A Table of Wages” lists a Consumah (cook) at ten rupees a month, and an Eyah at five rupees. Writing to the Duke of Wellington, the Viceroy, Lord Ellenborough, recounts the effect that a celebratory cannonade had on the local populace of Simla, causing such consternation that “one Ayah threw herself upon the ground in an agony of despair.”

A random search yields the information that “mango,” “the royal fruit of the Mangifera indica,…one of the richest and best fruits in the world,” sprouts from the Tamil man-kay and its Portuguese transplant, manga; and that “rice,” from the Greek oryza, could have sprung from the Tamil arisi, a supposition that suggests that the cereal’s cultivation originated in South India, from where knowledge of it was borne to the Mediterranean on the ebb tide of Alexander’s conquests. “Bandanna,” we learn, comes from the Gujarati bándhnún, to tie or knot; “compound,” an enclosed ground, from the Malay kampung; “chicanery” from the Persian chaugan, the forerunner of polo; “choky,” or prison, from the Hindi chauki; “juggernaut” from the chariot of Lord Jagannatha, under whose wheels devotees would throw themselves; “sugar” from the Arabic sukkar. Nor was the linguistic traffic one-sided, for English also contributed to the medley as seen from the Indian English “simkin,” which is a backformation from “champagne,” as “petersilly” is from “parsley,” and bilayutee pawnee (literally “English water”) is Hobson-Jobson for “club soda.” The cultural melting pot is perhaps best summed up by the “qui-hi” (old India hand) doggerel: “In vain our hard fate we repine; / In vain on our fortune we rail; / On Mullaghee-tawny [lentil soup] we dine, / Or Congee [rice gruel], in Bangalore Jail.”

As fascinating as the Hobson-Jobson collection is with its “topeewalas” (Europeans) and “rum-johnnies” (dancing girls), “burra-beebees” (great ladies) and “Chuckaroos” (urchins), its charm largely lies in being out of date. Confronted with Indian English today, an old qui-hi might well be constrained to confess that his head was eating circles, a typical transliteration of a Hindustani phrase indicating mental confusion.


In recent years, for example, movies have been a major stimulus to Indian English. Born in the Bombay studios and back lots of the world’s largest film industry, “Hindi Filmi English,” or HFE, has developed from a spoken slang to a printed language that uses Roman script and is finding increasing acceptability in a variety of publications and social milieus. Breezy, pungent, and evocative of the great myth-machine of the Bombay talkie, which arguably is one of contemporary India’s most popular institutions, HFE is now in common use in tenements and luxury apartments and on college campuses.

HFE lends itself well to Indian political life, which, with its “tumashas” and “hangamas” (fracases), is often reminiscent of a Bombay film script. When some time ago Khuswant Singh, writer, columnist, and member of parliament, described himself as a “chamcha” (literally “spoon”; acolyte, sycophant) of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the confession caused a stir not only because of its candor but also because of the choice of the “Indlish” word used. Now, however, such usage has become common, particularly in advertisements, which proclaim the “asli” (real, genuine) qualities of products as against “nakli” (false, spurious) claims of competitors; a brand of cheese is lauded as the “real cheez,” or real thing.

The bastion of Indlish is still the “filmi” press and the Dr. Johnson of the brave new word is “Neetu,” who uses her column “Neetu’s Natter” in a Bombay film magazine to play with Indlish neologisms. Full of “lafdas” (tangles), “kahanis” (stories, lies, gossip), “nakras” (displays of coyness), and “gol-mals” (troubles), her writings are practically incomprehensible to anyone not initiated into such newspeak. However, the growing popularity of Hindi films and film magazines among immigrant Indian communities, as well as Arabs, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalis, could well make Indlish a transnational patois of the future, which doubtless will in time find its own Yule and Burnell.

This Issue

November 19, 1987