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Hinglish, Inglish: An Indian story

The synthesis of English with regional languages in the country signals its comfort and acceptance among Indians

‘English Vinglish’, starring Sridevi, highlights a Hindi-speaking woman’s struggle to learn English.
‘English Vinglish’, starring Sridevi, highlights a Hindi-speaking woman’s struggle to learn English.

It is tempting at first to think of Hinglish as a fairly recent phenomenon. Its widespread use in advertising jingles in the recent past—“Yeh hi hai right choice, baby", “Hungry kya?", “What your bahana is?"—does contribute to creating that impression. Equally, its wide use in Bollywood movie titles in the last decade and a half or thereabouts—Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal, Pyaar Mein Twist and in lyrics—Kaisa yeh ishq hai, ajab sa risk hai, Pappu can’t dance, sala—further strengthens that impression. But what then is one to make of lines such as these, dating back to 1827, from the poem Ode—From The Persian Of Half’ Queez by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809 -31), India’s first English poet: Without thy dreams, dear opium,/ Without a single hope I am,/ Spicy scent, delusive joy;/Chillum hither lao, my boy!

As if to dispel the impression that Derozio’s lines were merely a ploy of the deracinated English speaker to exoticise his offerings with a sprinkling of “native" flavours, we have these lines written in 1887 by Ayodhya Prasad Khatri (1857-1905), arguably, Khariboli Hindi’s first poet: Rent Law ka gham karen ya Bill of Income Tax ka?/ Kya karen apna nahin hai sense right now-a-days./ Darkness chhaaya hua hai Hind mein chaaro taraf/ Naam ki bhi hai nahin baaqi na light now-a-days.

What Derozio’s lines prove beyond argument is that the use of Hinglish is older than most people think it is. Khatri’s ghazal on the other hand seems to indicate that its use is not particular to any specific class of people. Hinglish has history, has travelled down to the grass roots and is widely used and understood.

Still, questions persist: What is Hinglish, really? Is it English with a sprinkling of Hindi words, à la Derozio? Or is it Hindi with a few English words or phrases thrown in, in the manner of Khatri? Also, is it only this hybrid of English and Hindi that needs to be looked at closely? What about the fact that English has also made its way into the other languages of India and that other hybrids have emerged as a result: Tanglish (Tamil and English), Kanglish (Kannada and English), Bonglish (Bengali and English), Punglish (Punjabi and English), and so on. All of these could surely also claim their own place in the Hinglish universe, if one alters the nomenclature of Hinglish to the more precise “Inglish"?

Linguists call this phenomenon of multilingual speakers alternating between two or more languages in the course of a single conversation “code-switching" or “code-mixing". They also distinguish code-switching from the other generally observed phenomenon of “borrowing", when a word from one language is borrowed from one language and incorporated into another without translation, as in the case of kindergarten (German for children’s garden), bazaar (Persian for market) and ballet (from French). Code-mixing in the linguist’s reckoning goes beyond borrowing. It is to actually think and articulate in two or more languages for reasons of comprehension and comprehensibility and the limitations of one’s own vocabulary in one or the other language. Or, to put it more plainly, to be understood better and to speak better. This khichdi of English and a local language is not an exclusively Indian phenomenon, though. Other varieties of this sort exist—Spanglish (Spanish and English) has been observed in many parts of the US, and Taglish (Tagalog and English) is spoken in the Philippines.

In the foreword to the book Chutnefying English: The Phenomenon Of Hinglish (2011), edited by Rita Kothari and Rupert Snell, the renowned academic, Harish Trivedi, after his initial reference to the Khatri ghazal as an early example of Hinglish, goes on to mention Nissim Ezekiel and Shobhaa De as others who have contributed to the making of Hinglish. Ezekiel’s contribution may not be strictly speaking Hinglish, as we understand it today, since he doesn’t use Hindi words. Still, his Very Indian Poems In Indian English do incorporate something of the Hindi rhythm and manner.

As for De, undoubtedly, her widespread use of Hinglish in her column “Neeta’s Natter" in Stardust did contribute to normalizing this new tongue. Trivedi even goes on to speculate why she chose to write in that style. Stardust, he says, was an English magazine that covered the Hindi film industry and given this contradiction, De’s column, he believes, tried to “resolve this linguistic alliance". And so, given that her column was all about gossip, “only Hindi words would convey the zing and sting", is Trivedi’s conclusion.

Another poet in the Ezekiel vein was Arun Kolatkar, whose work Three Cups Of Tea was authored in the very specific idiom of Bambaiyya or Bombay Hindi, to begin with, and then translated into English by the poet himself. Bambaiyya is, of course, something of an independent entity, separate from the Hindi spoken in north India and this short work, in a sense, queered the Hinglish pitch even further.

But apart from these examples from media and literature, one is tempted to posit another likelihood that perhaps kick-started this hybrid. It would be interesting to try discover when the sentence “I love you" was used in a Hindi movie for the first time. Given that from very early on, after its initial forays into history and mythology, Indian movies were made largely around themes of boy-meets-girl, could it be that it was this succinctly direct English phrase that really gave Hinglish (Inglish) its first real push? The extensive use of this phrase across many Indian languages does seem to point towards this being a possibility. From the initial, awkward “I love you" to a Hindi film title like CID (1956) to lyrics like C-A-T, cat maane billi from Dilli Ka Thug (1958) would then have been only a short leap.

It is difficult to say when Inglish become a widely used tongue. But it is perhaps easier to identify the reasons for English to invade Indian language spaces in the first instance and also the reasons why in the last two and a half decades, Inglish has become more widespread and accepted.

Post-independence, efforts by a section of politicians to institute Hindi as the “national language" did not make much headway owing to resistance from non-Hindi speakers and also because English was the de facto language of higher education, law and trade. For a time, English and Hindi were in competition, with Hindi clearly ruling the heart (Hindi films became popular nationally during this time) and English the head (as the language of education and “sophistication"). It might be fair to say that Hinglish or, in some cases, Inglish, where the local language was more dominant than Hindi, evolved as a reflection of this split in the national psyche. But post-liberalization dynamics resulted in a new reality. Knowing English clearly wasn’t an option anymore. It became almost a necessity and it has come to be seen as a symbol of modernity and aspiration. And yet forsaking Hindi (or local languages) is not an option either. Hinglish and Inglish, therefore, fit that interstice.

More than anything else, Inglish is perhaps proof that English is now an Indian tongue and has finally found comfort and acceptance.

This is the last in a series on hybrid languages. Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm based in Bengaluru.

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