A few days ago, I asked my co-bloggers to comment on an excerpt in the Guardian from Globish, a book by Robert McCrum whose blurb reads:
How English erased its roots to become the global tongue of the 21st century.
'Throw away your dictionaries!' is the battle cry as a simplified global hybrid of English conquers cultures and continents. In this extract from his new book, Globish, Robert McCrum tells the story of a linguistic phenomenon – and its links to big money.
This particular portion of the Guardian piece dealing with Indian English caught author Narayan's attention:
The India of Hobson-Jobson has also found a new global audience. A film such as Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding is typical of the world's new English culture. The Indian bridegroom has a job in Houston. The wedding guests jet in from Melbourne and Dubai and speak in a mishmash of English and Hindi. Writing in the Sunday Times, Dominic Rushe noted that Bollywood English is "hard to reproduce in print, but feels something like this: "Yudhamanyus ca vikranta uttanaujas ca viryanavan: he lives life in the fast lane." Every English-speaking visitor to India watches with fascination the facility with which contemporary Indians switch from Hindi or Gujarati into English, and then back into a mother tongue. In 2009, the film Slumdog Millionaire took this a stage further. Simon Beaufoy's script, a potpourri of languages, adapted from an Indian novel, was shot in Mumbai, with a British and Indian cast, by Scottish director Danny Boyle, but launched worldwide with an eye on Hollywood's Oscars, where it eventually cleaned up.
India illustrates the interplay of British colonialism and a booming multinational economy. Take, for instance, the 2006 Man Booker prize. First, the result was broadcast on the BBC World Service from Delhi to Vancouver. The winner was The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, an Indian-born writer who had attended writing classes in New York. So far removed from any English experience, though steeped in its literary tradition, was The Inheritance of Loss that, finally, the British critic John Sutherland was moved to describe Desai's work as "a globalised novel for a globalised world". The writer herself is emblematic of the world's new culture: educated in Britain and America, she wrote her novel in her mother Anita Desai's house in the foothills of the Himalayas, and boasts on her website of feeling "no alienation or dislocation" in her transmigration between three continents.
The Inheritance of Loss is the literary representation of a contemporary experience. Desai says that her book "tries to capture what it means to live between east and west, and what it means to be an immigrant"; it also explores "what happens when a western element is introduced to a country that is not of the west". She also asks: "How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere over time?" Or, she might have added, in a linguistic and cultural sphere.
Narayan found very little that was enlightening or even particularly clever in McCrum's observations. His response:
If you want the quick and dirty, the Wiki article on Globish should suffice. You may note that the article is heavy in criticisms. You may also wonder how many others will make their globulations by insisting that it is a language as opposed to being just a variety of Pidglish. It will perhaps be the raison d'etre for generations of Englinguists to come. For now we have Robert McCrum's book on the subject to answer all our pressing questions on the subject, dare we read it from cover to cover. Otherwise, we may augment our Wikiknowledge with the excerpt from the book in the Guardian.
Has McCrum got any new and noteworthy ideas about recent developments English? On the strength of his claimed authorship of the famous video history of the language (1980s), I can see that he knows a lot about the European roots of English. However, judging from his paragraphs on Kiran Desai and on a couple of distinctly non-Bollywood Indian movies he may or may not have seen, I suggest that he has been sloppy in researching its non-European influences. What galls me about Western writers who make errors in writing about Indian subjects is that these days they need look no farther than their own noses to find someone who can corroborate or correct their ill-conceived assumptions and pronouncements on phoren. God knows they still look down their noses at us colonials two generations after we last empowered them to do so!
For an Englishman in the writing professions to say that Kiran Desai "had attended writing classes in New York" is to display either ignorance about a Booker winning author or intellectual dishonesty in trying to inveigle the reader. Both possibilities are driven by what I call white-collar racism. "First, the result was broadcast ..." - OK. So what if it was - does it signify anything? And where's the "second" or any additional fact or argument? What for heaven's sake has Desai's book to do with colonialism or a multinational economy? McCrum takes pains to quote a paragraph worth of Desai's own comments; "booming" and "colonial" cannot possibly be inferred from them. To make matters worse, McCrum quotes a reviewer's use of the word "globalised" to draw his own unwarranted inferences. "So far removed from any English experience ..." - what is this boob talking about? Can he not foresee that in the very next sentence he plans to report that Desai was "educated in Britain and America". And why should he characterize Desai as "boasts on her website" when it is merely her assertion of the facts of her life that he cites in sequel: “of feeling 'no alienation or dislocation' in her transmigration between three continents”. How white of McCrum's to suggest that he somehow knows Desai's feelings better that she herself does!
I take issue with "the India of Hobson-Jobson". H-J cannot possibly inform a non-Indian about anything Indian, although an Indian might find much to recognize and marvel at in its pages. Having mentioned H-J gratuitously, McCrum drops the ball and makes an ass of himself by adducing two movies about India to make statements that ring false to an Indian ear. "Monsoon Wedding" - duh? It's dated! Its characters represent the third or fourth generation of phoren, not some recent phenomenon. Far from being "typical of the world's new English culture", they are caricatures of the post-independence Delhi upper crust - Puppies is the term I remember from the 80s. Their language is not some clever melange of two languages; it is an attempt to sound Indian without the vocabulary to match - a handicap, no facility! To his discredit, McCrum is innocent of the knowledge that the youth depicted in the film may be more fluent in English than in any mother-tongue. I will point McCrum to film of that Urdu illiterate Musharraf appealing to the hoi polloi. "Wah, wah, kya facility!" could hardly be the reaction of any Pakistani. That buffoon too didn't have the sense to consult others. And how does "Slumdog Millionaire" support any thesis McCrum could possibly conjure up, desk-bound (as he probably is) in Blighty? The use of an actor with a urban British accent to play the part of a Mumbai slum kid smacks of the same white-collar racism that pervades the sensibilities of lazy white intellectuals - Doyle no better than McCrum.
Lastly, who the heck is Dominic Rushe? Can anyone confirm or deny that “Yudhamanyus ca vikranta uttanaujas ca viryanavan” makes any sense at all in Hindi, even assuming the widest latitude in interpreting the Romanization? Does it in any way illustrate what either McCrum or Rushe is trying to say about Bollylish? Do either of them want us to feel the quote or hear it? Are there any Hinglish words or sounds in it? Or for that matter does it signify anything in any Indian language? Or in any language?
If this excerpt is any sign of McCrum's scholarship, then I'm afraid I conclude that he has nothing at all to say.
The problem of English is that there is no body to mandate what is acceptable and what isn't. Some languages, French, Spanish and Portuguese for example, defer to such authority. American and British dictionaries regularly sanctify neologisms derived from other languages and that's fine by me. But isn't it time we quit screwing around with grammar and idiom? I find it significant that 'idioma' in Spanish and Portuguese is completely synonymous with language. More tellingly, the first equivalent for the English word 'idiom' is given in my Spanish dictionary as 'idiotismo' – followed by 'modismo' and 'locución'. Stick that in your portmanteau!