Is it time to separate the English from the English language? It is a mere prediction that by the next decade Indians will champion the expansion of the English language empire. Statistics show that 150 million Indians of primary school age will change the demographics of the Anglophone world. The reason is that the trajectory of English teaching in India tends to move away from elitist forms of learning and will be a major factor in the spread of the language.
It is often said that a language is a dialect with an army. The English language spread as Britain expanded its colonial empire from the 1600s on and established legal, military, and educational systems in many countries along English lines. It arrived in India with the East India Company and later, came to represent the British Empire. It symbolized the hegemony of the colonizer. When the white rulers left, the brown sahibs took over; the Indian state spoke in English. It still does. However, there has been a change in the character of the language. The English language is slowly being stripped off its class and caste character. What we are witnessing is both the ‘chutneyfication’ and ‘mandalization’ of the language. The polity as well as the market has forced the changes. In the days of the empire, English was not just a language but more a culture. The republic has stripped the language to its bones; it is now just another tool for communication. The market which today endears itself more to the language of image than the world, has also aided the process. The subversion has been subtle, but in true Indian tradition, English has been absorbed as another dialect spoken in the great Indian language bazaar.
The politics of language is an endless process of negotiation. The continuation of English as the language of power long after the last Englishman left for England has been resented all along. It will be foolish to suggest that the matter is now settled. Indeed, we arrived at an uneasy compromise after we realized that English is the gateway to economic prosperity. It is the language of the global migrant and the password to the knowledge economy. Let it not be anything more or less.
At the same time as English became a world language, the number of English speakers learning a second language dropped substantially. Even more disturbingly, English was blamed for the “death” of some minority languages. The English language seems set to dominate world communications for some time to come. Although dominance brings with it a degree of standardization, it is not the case that English is losing its variety, either within countries or across the globe. Current research suggests that, rather than dwindling, differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation continue to allow people to express multiple identities. The fear of some linguists that mass communications would lead to the death of English dialects appears to be unfounded. English, the arithmetic of post-industrial society, will face less opposition from linguistic nationalism than when it is promoted as a culture.
It is true that English is a peculiar language. If you speak English, you have plenty of people to talk to. English is one of the great thieves. It is constantly borrowing. It started out taking words from Latin, Greek, French, and German. The most complete dictionary of the English language contains a whopping 600,000 words. Look at the following examples of its inconsistency. There is neither egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor it is a pig!
Writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham. If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of both beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? Does it not seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annals? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
If teachers taught, why didn’t preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue? In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways? Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.
English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.