My younger colleagues are bemused every time I use words (that I consider fairly normal) such as nefarious, serendipity or argute . They don’t see the point – being understood is more important for them. I belong to another generation -where a better vocabulary, right grammar and good heavens – right spelling were aspired to. The coolest friends were the ones who knew words that nobody else did and dropped ‘ennui’ and ‘pusillanimous’ in the conversation. Being understood was not the purpose, rather the oblique references were a sign of a restricted ‘inner circle’ that alone understood the references.
Language has always been a socio-economic weapon of choice across the world. The wrong accent, usage or vocabulary gives immediate clues to the persons social antecedents. Henry Higgins summed it up with ‘You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. ‘ and a large part of Eliza’s transformation was her enunciation and vocabulary. Indeed, using the right word, and knowing words that were not part of a colloquial parlance were all signs of a higher socio-economic order.
In India, English became synonymous with class – and the ‘vernies’ who studied in vernacular medium were always looked down upon. ‘Convent educated’ empowered socially and English became the adopted language of privileged India. The serious role models of India were the ruling class – the aristocracy, the bureaucracy, the business elite and people of substance looked to them for cues of behaviour and language. That, however, is changing.
Better English is no longer relevant for several reasons:
1. Today’s role models are different. The self taught entrepreneur who came from small town India, the aggressive cricketer who is more comfortable in Hindi or the reality TV star that has taken the country by storm; are all breaking the codes of success that hitherto belonged only to the privileged. In this new world order, language is no longer a barrier.
2. Mobile phones have made the English alphabet accessible to many and their phonetic understanding has resulted in it becoming the script of their own language. It is no longer a distant, unapproachable language – rather it is adopted and adapted to their own use.
3. Popular culture has gone from being the lowest common denominator – the film or the song that has the mass appeal, to reaching out to different audiences. No longer is there the snobbishness of the English-speaking class that denied ever watching Hindi films or listening to Hindi music. Better content in popular culture is proselytising Hindi content and English is becoming less relevant than before as a marker of class. And songs like ‘boys of the naka’ are making it to mainstream.
4. Values of class are irrelevant to a nation hungry to break erstwhile barriers of caste and class – and newer signifiers of success are ‘the look’, the mobile phone, the vehicle, the choice of work, the partying and more. Bad English is the hallmark of authenticity. APJ Kalam endeared himself to a nation precisely due to his humble roots.
5. Speed trumps content. In my haste to respond to a message, or putting up a social media post, I frequently misspell or make grammatical errors. They are no longer mortifying as they once used to be.
Brevity is important. Who reads anymore anyway?
Bad English is no longer a pejorative term, It is a mark of the aspiring global citizen.