Keep your distance, speak English

November 8, 2012

I discovered when I wrote the blog post, “Hindi, Tamil and English: linguistic lessons in pragmatism,” that I am not the only person who thinks languages in India is an interesting topic. The comments that I received in that post, in which former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju wrote about the value of learning communal languages such as Hindi and English, reflected opinions from all over the map, and usually centered on how my language is best vs your language is worst.

Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, made several points in his controversial opinion pieces, but he emphasized that common languages such as English in a country of incredible linguistic diversity is important for people who want to be literate, sophisticated and successful.

Shoba Narayan, writing in Mint, offers a different reason to use English: to keep some distance between you and the person you’re talking to. Here’s an excerpt from Narayan, who caught my attention and affection with her author’s note that she can “swear like a truck driver in multiple languages.” The story concerns a young man who works with her husband, who came to their house to invite them to his wedding. Judging by his name, accent and story, she decided that he was Tamil, and was prepared to speak to him in her language. But she stopped. Read why:

Speaking Tamil to a nervous young man who barricaded himself behind the formality of English would have unnerved him. It would have catapulted me from being the boss-man’s wife to becoming a friend. And while I might have been okay with that, I am not sure he was. Hence English: to maintain a distance.

Narayan writes more broadly about this idea in her essay:

When you meet a stranger and you can tell they share a common language, first of all, do you switch from English to Bengali or Hindi or Telugu? Or do you continue speaking in English? Watch yourself next time and let me know. Some part of it has to do with the circumstance. When you are in a boardroom and are introduced to a fellow Sindhi or Kashmiri, it is unlikely that you will switch to your mother tongue in front of others. But what if you are alone, inside your home?

How do you handle these linguistic differences? Why do you use English in certain situations and not in others? Is it ever OK for me to struggle through Hindi, Urdu or Bengali with you because I’m a student? Or is it artificial and weird to depart from English, the language that we know we both speak? Finally, how much does language reinforce the notion of being separate people — and in a way, separate countries — inside a democracy whose borders were drawn by other people many years ago?

(An Indian Army recruitment sign in Bangalore. The second language is Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka. Photo: Robert MacMillan)

10 comments

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Ms. Narayanan says she used English to maintain a social distance between her, the “boss-mans’ wife”, and her husband’s Tamil-speaking colleague. I submit that her justification for speaking in English to “maintain a distance” is intensively offensive. What was her husband’s colleague’s transgression? He simply wanted to invite her to his wedding! From the way the story is narrated, he has behaved with more class than this Ms. Narayanan. If she knew Tamil, she could have switched to Tamil after a few words in English. This would have made this “nervous young man” feel at ease and would have shown her class. Instead she wields English as a weapon to put this man in his place. To be able to speak fluent English in the Indian context is largely an accident of birth. This requires no great individual accomplishment and does not reflect intellectual or moral superiority.

Posted by KNatarajan | Report as abusive

Thanks for the response. Do you think that she was interested in maintaining the distance, despite her words? And that she projected her desire onto what she imagined his desire would be?
-Robert

I agree with Ms Narayan. English rarely convey intimacy like Indian languages. http://chandugopal.blogspot.in/2005/11/w hen-names-lack-intimacy.html

Posted by Chandugopal | Report as abusive

Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that that is what Narayan was saying. I think that she was trying to say that she used English as a matter of formality, and that the intimacy that Tamil would generate would put off her husband’s colleague. Had he spoken English in a land where everyone spoke Tamil for formal communication, she would have stuck to Tamil. That has nothing to do with the intricacies and subtleties of either language, of which, I suspect, there are many. And after saying all that, how I wish I could speak Tamil! But I will have to wait on that one, I’m afraid. Thanks again for reading!

I agree to it.English is an international language.Now a days there are places where english is prefered langauges like airports,coffee shops,restuarants,pizza shops etc., I always visit coffee shop i have practically learnt how to order a coffee in english with videos like this one http://youtu.be/LyoDt3egGHg

Posted by nikks | Report as abusive

Robierat Wrote: “Justice Markandey Katju wrote about the value of learning communal languages such as Hindi and English”

This statement is ironic because the author has used the word “communal” in reference to something that Katju wrote.

Who said the following?
“80% of Hindus are communal, 80% of Muslims are communal, and 90% of Indians are idiots”

The word “communal” in Indian English is a strongly negative word. It is always used to imply segregation & divisiveness and hatred. For example, an Indian journalist might write, “The BJP’s communal politics has led to an increase in communal violence”. Perhaps the author should brush up on Indian English, lest he go about inadvertently confusing his Indian readers.

Here is Katju’s article in same Newspaper that the author has referred (The Hindu) is which Katju uses the repeatedly uses the word “communal” and always in the negative sense that is standard in Indian English.

http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news  /katju-says-90-indians-are-idiots/artic le4178819.ece

PS: Roubiert, do you have any idea about the communal origins of name “Katju”? For example, MacMillan is a name originating in Alba, so what is the equivalent region of origination for the name Katju? Is that a Kankubhji name? I know it sounds like it has something to do with the practise of circumsion in the Semitic-speaking lands to the west, but I don’t think it is a foreign name. I wondered if you had any insight into its origins? If you hear anything, please let your readers know. Thank you.

Posted by ImamHaq | Report as abusive

I don’t know about the origin. I also appreciate your words regarding “communal.” I’ve learned something now, and will be more careful in the future.

“Robert” wrote: “I don’t know about the origin”

This is the beginning.

“I dont’ know”.

A lifetime of learning.

Is called for.

And yet not enough.

To know.

Even with the internet.

And Google.

Posted by ImamHaq | Report as abusive

How do you handle these linguistic differences?
Never given a thought to it. But I am proud of the diversity. As a kid of course I had some trouble. My mother tongue was Hindi because of which I only knew two languages. But my friends from other states could speak three and even four languages (that is if the parents were from two different states). Naturally, I was jealous.

Why do you use English in certain situations and not in others?

Well now that you brought this to notice I agree that in most formal situations I tend to use English and in informal conversations Hindi. But there is no hard and fast rule. 90% times when I have to discuss my work with the colleagues I have used English and 10% times Hindi, and when I have to discuss work colleagues ( ah! okay gossip) , national politics I will use 80% times Hindi, 20% English.

But this division is not very difficult to understand. English is a second language something we acquire at school and it takes times to be proficient in it. Whereas mother tongue is the first language we learn. All our important demands in the initial years are made in the mother tongue. In fact, some schools had punishments if we were caught talking in the mother tongue. This was to make us proficient in English (draconian I agree). So even as kids while we will tend to have most intimate conversation in the mother tongue, our homework- essay in English, history, science etc. tends to be in English.
May be that’s why English is kind of a work language and mother tongue is for more intimate sort of banter.

Is it ever OK for me to struggle through Hindi, Urdu or Bengali with you because I’m a student? Or is it artificial and weird to depart from English, the language that we know we both speak?
I don’t think it’s a crime.

Finally, how much does language reinforce the notion of being separate people — and in a way, separate countries — inside a democracy whose borders were drawn by other people many years ago?

Good question. It only matters to politicians. See even if we are diverse there is something that unites us. I don’t know what. Indian nationalism has puzzled scholars too. While one may admit British to have brought us together, there are important puzzles. Like British India also had Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar). But somehow these were never assimilated. Whereas right from the start the three presidency- Bombay, Madras, Calcutta had separately formed Indian associations which before the rise of Congress actively participated in protecting Indian rights. They thought they are Indians! I may discuss Tamil question someday, but not today.

Happy Festivities!

Posted by Woman21 | Report as abusive

Thanks for the thoughtful and lovely response!