‘Tension mat le yaar’
‘Aaj Middle East mein peace ho yagi’
‘Yeh dil maange more’
‘Zara zara touch me touch me’
Something has happened to English; and something widely spoken across India, need to be understood anew through their ‘hybridization’ into Hinglish- a mixture of Hindi and English that has begun to make itself heard everywhere – from daily conversation to new, films, advertisements and blogs.
How did this popular form of urban communication evolve? Is language the new and trendy idiom of a youthful population no longer competent in either English or Hindi? Or is it an Indianized version of a once colonial language, language, claiming its legitimate place alongside India’s many bhashas?
Chutnefying English: The Phenomenon of Hinglish, the first book on the subject, takes a serious look at this widespread phenomenon of our times which has pervaded every aspect of our daily lives. It addresses the questions that many speakers of both languages ask time and again; should Hinglish be spurned as the bastard offspring of its two parent languages, or welcomed as the natural and legitimate result of their long-term cohabitation? Leading scholars from literature language, cultural studies, translation, cinema and new media come together to offer a collection of essays that is refreshingly new thought and content.
Rita Kothari has been teaching literature and cultural studies for twenty years. Formerly a professor of English at St. Xavier’s College, she currently heads the communications are at the Mudra Institute of communications and is also a columnist with the Ahmedabad Mirror. She is a former Fulbright Lecturer and the recipient of several international awards and fellowships. Her publications include Translating India: The Cultural Politics of English, The Stepchild and The Burden of Refuge: Sindh, Gujarat and Partition.
Rupert Snell teaches Hindi language and literature at the university of Texas at Austin, where he is director of the federal ‘Hindu Urdu Flagship’ intensive study programme. His engagement with pre-modern literature in Braj Bhasha and Awadhi as well as with modern Hindi writing gives him both a nostalgia for the old and a taste for the new; his man interest in both is in the aesthetics and poetics of the written (or sung or recited) word from every period. His translations include in the Afternoon of Time, the autobiography of Harivansh Rai Bachchan, published by Penguin.
This conference on Hinglish is doubly innovative. First, it is to the best of my knowledge, and as indeed it claims to be, ‘India ka pehla conference' on Hinglish (except that my native—speaker UP instinct tells me that should read ‘ki pehli'). It thus focuses in a serious and sustained manner on the coming together of, and the dialogic intercourse between, Hindi and English, the two power languages of India. Second, and no less important, it brings together in terms of participants two distinct and mutually exclusive worlds—that of academic discourse, here represented by the university disciplines of Hindi, English, sociology, anthropology, and perhaps a couple of others, and that of popular and commercial communication, here represented by eminent practitioners of cinema, advertising, and media. This is not to forget, of course, many younger participants’ currently studying media and communication as a discipline at the institution hosting this conference. One set of participants has descended from ivory towers, the other has emerged from golden palaces, and it is only apt that we should meet here in a five-star hotel in the commercial capital of India. To push the stakes, one could suggest that this conference represents a remarkable conjunction of Saraswati and Lakshmi—believed to be goddesses of such opposite domains that no man or woman can hope to be blessed by both! Regardless of whether or not we at this conference are going to be doubly blessed, it is a double pleasure and privilege for me to be here.
To begin with a basic question: What is Hinglish? It is obviously a mixture of Hindi and English—but is it the use of Hindi words and syntactical elements in English, or the use of English words and syntax in Hindi? The name Hinglish sounds far more like English than like Hindi. In terms of orthography, of its eight letters, it has six in common with English and only two with Hindi. In terms of pronunciation, it is just like English (in which word the initial ‘E’ is of course pronounced as ‘I’), with just the H of Hindi prefixed to it. In fact, I suspect that a vast proportion of the population of England, when asked to enunciate Hinglish will probably produce a sound that most Indians would hear as ‘English. Remember the ravishingly lower-class Eliza Doolittle, the eponymous My Fair Lady, whom Professor Henry Higgins (or ‘Enry ‘Iggins as she calls him), assiduously trains to pronounce the initial ‘H’ with the help of a mnemonic drill: ‘In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen.’ In fact in comparison with the comprehensively (h)imitative Hinglish, even an obviously cloned term such as ‘Bollywood’ begins to look good, for the British at least pronounce their Bs, even though they may sound to us (with our fifty-six letters of the Devanagari alphabet) more like Bhs!
In the interest of transparency, this may be the moment to reveal that long before this conference could begin, the organizers and the invited speakers were already sparring over just what Hinglish means. The plot thickened when it was revealed that the two conference coordinators, my old friends Rita Kothari and Rupert Snell, themselves held somewhat divergent views on the question. It began with Professor Snell (or, as we may say in Hinglish, Mr. Rupert) turning out to be the one and only participant to submit his paper by the announced deadline some time before the conference—thus confirming the venerable but also amusing stereotype that the British are pathologically punctual while we Indians live in eternal or, worse, circular time. I promptly read his paper with the vested interest of stealing some ideas front it to kickstart my own
paper but found that it was all about English-in-Hindi and not Hindi-in-English! Thus fortified in my own inclinations on the subject, I wrote off to the two coordinators (as well as about a dozen other participants on that mailing list) to ask: ‘Is our conference going to be on the incursion of English into Hindi, i.e. Beefing Up Hindi, as your [Snell’s] paper suggests, or on the incursion of Hindi into desi English, i.e. “Chutnefying English”, as earlier communications and the posh venue suggest?’
A flurry of emails followed within hours. Rupert replied: ‘My understanding of our forthcoming debate is that we are to discuss the relationship between two (or more?) contending languages and, if this is correct, it would seem legitimate to pick the matter up and look at it from various different angles before putting it down again ... If you feel that these “up” and “down” escalators don’t belong in the same building then what am Ito say? But isn’t it rewarding to watch the snakes turning into ladders and vice versa. Regarding “chutnefy” and “Hinglish”, I feel that neither term helps our discussions much; they are too hip and journalistic to allow for a cool-headed discussion of these interesting matters. But I always was behind the times.’
Whereupon Dr Rita Kothari came in to give a clear, decisive ruling: ‘The debate on Hinglish could be on either end, Hindi mein English or English in Hindi, the two are not mutually exclusive. The idea of naming the conference “Chutnefying” was to suggest a larger framework of hybridization of English worldwide which can provide an overarching context. However this context is not to be viewed without the permeation of English in Indian languages (including Hindi) that takes place at the ground level. Please feel free to make your observations at the conference on any aspect of this language axis, five-star hotel notwithstanding. . As for Rupert’s discomfort with Hinglish, which is both hip and journalistic, I only wish to ask— so? Does that mean it’s not worth discussing or not worth naming that way? If it’s the latter, this is the forum to contest it, hai naa?’
I must confess that now that the conference has got under way, I still have my doubts. Who cares what happens to Hindi except that routinely derided community called the Hindiwallas (and one or two dedicated and stunningly erudite professors of Hindi abroad such as dear Rupert), so this forum here must be all about the state of English. It would have been a very different discourse, it occurs to me, if the host and the venue had been, say, a mofussil university campus in the so-called Hindi belt and we had been seated on creaky chairs under loudly whirring fans, which would have gone off altogether during the frequent power cuts. But let us not anticipate or prejudge, for soon enough, over the next couple of days, we will know which way the tide flows—whether the Ganga flows down to the sea or is made to flow ulti, backwards, to the Himalaya.
Following this preliminary attempt at establishing a semblance of terminological exactitude, it may be best to proceed by asking a set of basic questions about Hinglish.
1. Would the definition of Hinglish and the discourse on it depend on who is asking this question and where the questioner is coming from—as illustrated in the email exchanges cited above?
2. When did Hinglish come into existence? Is it a recent and unprecedented development, quite as exciting and innovative as some of us believe it to be, or can it be seen historically as a part of the larger interaction of languages in modern India?
3. What is the need that Hinglish serves? What are the kinds of effects it produces?
4. Are there several distinct varieties of Hinglish, or is it pretty much the same all over India?
5. In Hinglish, which language has the upper hand? Does not Hinglish constitute a particularly rich site for investigating the state of power relations between our two official languages as they have jostled with each other for public space over the last sixty years?
6. How will the growth of Hinglish impact on the health and future well-being of both Hindi and English in our country, and is it possible to make any projections or predictions in this regard?
7. And finally, the bottom-line question: Is Hinglish a good thing? Where do we stand, each one of us, and for what reasons, on the growth of the phenomenon we have gathered here to expound and debate?
I do not have the time, the competence, or even the ambition to answer all or even most of the questions 1 have listed here but I can perhaps attempt at least to set the ball rolling. Given that I am an academic by profession, perhaps the last thing that most of the younger members of my audience may wish to be, what I am most inclined to do is to take a long look at Hinglish by [1) historicizing it, (2) locating it geographically, culturally, and in terms of social strata or class, (3) by comparing it with similar hybrid linguistic developments in the past such as Urdu, and finally (4) by projecting into the future to speculate what night happen if Hinglish were to grow to become an Indian lingua franca.
On the first question, even if one accepts for the sake of argument that the term Hinglish denotes equally the introduction of Hindi words into English and vice versa, should not one still try and disambiguate these two distinct, indeed opposite, trends in terms of their scale and scope? In my observation and experience, the Hindi we may find in English is peanuts compared with the English we find in Hindi; in the battle for hybridity, Hindi wins hands down. The enormous influence of English, not only in terms of the countless English words used in Hindi but also in terms of the transformation of Hindi syntax, modes of speech, idiom, and indeed sensibility may not be fully apparent to those of us who operate mostly in English but is a matter of the utmost anxiety to all those others of us who regularly speak, read and even write in Hindi. We will in this conference hear more about it from a couple of speakers, including that long-time Hindi-premi Rupert Snell and I shall myself return to this later in this paper.
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