What's wrong with correct English?
With the Indianisation of English, the new breed of speakers and writers is creating its own version of the language; sans elegance, sans structure, sans finer nuances.
Photo: Special Arrangement
The right words?...
In his book, The Fight for English, David Crystal says, “To many people in the middle decades of the 18th century, the language was seriously unwell. It was suffering from a raging disease of uncontrolled usage.”
Crystal is not really arguing for ‘standard' English or the ‘prescriptive' rules that, he says, a bunch of pedants laid for the usage of the language. Rather, he is arguing for the several languages English becomes in the hands of different people in different cultures.
However, the new generation of Indians speaking and writing in English today seems to have taken those words quite literally, leading to a complete deterioration of the art of speaking and writing. Why is it that if you speak about correct English today, you're immediately branded as an ‘elitist'?
English is no longer respected for its fluidity or nuances. If you belong to the ‘elitist' group of Indians, (i.e., you're particular about correct usage and grammar), you can send your child to a board that does teach them. Otherwise you have a problem with Indian English, not the rest of the country.
Does the problem lie right at school-level teaching? Over the years, English has been stripped to its skeleton, focusing more and more on function, and less and less on the finer points that exercise the intellect and enhance creativity.
It's a debatable issue whether the switch over from the structural approach to communicative has played villain, but most people agree that little attention is given to the art of creative writing these days.
Ever since the functional approach has taken over, thumbing its nose at grammar, syntax and structure are no longer vital. Worse, we encourage redundancies such as pleonasms and tautology, and lock essentials like sentence construction and punctuation into oblivion. It's a different matter when learners learn the rules first and then break them with their skill, creating something new and artistic.
“I don't think languages are given importance in our schools, which is a pity. It is made to seem as if information is all, and language isn't important to convey or learn it,” says Dr. G.J.V. Prasad, Chairperson, Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “There can be no education without a strong basis in language.”
The schools go easy on English due to the heavy syllabus. Is it surprising that we eventually manufacture unthinking semi-automatons, who can only react arrogantly to what they do not know and haven't learnt to value?
Dorothy Tressler, director, Somerville schools, says, “We teach classes consisting of more than 40 students. The traditional methods worked well for large classes.”
Vivek Govil, president, Pearson Education, India, says, “My concern is that we are teaching the same courses to children regardless of whether English is a native language, second language, or a foreign language. This will be an even larger issue when the Right to Education Act comes into play, and you have less homogeneous groups in school.”
English is suffering at various levels and this is, perhaps, the first casualty.
Dr. Mita Bose, professor of English, Delhi University, believes that English cannot be taught either by trying to drill rules into the students, or by switching over to functional English. “Once you've explained the rules, you need to teach them to look out for them while they read, speak, or hear the language.”
The functional approach is, perhaps, also responsible for the ‘Indianisation' of English. It justifies all the errors that these speakers or writers in English make. Instead of accepting a mistake and correcting it, they brazenly defend themselves using ‘Indian English' as their breastplate.
In the long term this may hamper professional development, regardless of whether one is looking for a career in writing or not. That's why the top MBA courses in Ivy League often have refresher courses in the liberal arts; both for free thinking and exposure to quality language, which, in turn, is an exposure to quality minds.
Mediocrity has become the latest status symbol. Courtesy: the free-for-all, the new breed of speakers and writers is creating its own version of English; sans elegance, sans structure, sans finer nuances.
Correct English isn't simply about avoiding splitting infinitives ending a sentence with a preposition. It's about eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and beauty. Sometimes these young authors do have stories to tell, but lack the requisite skills. Yet, they get published. Yet, they sell. This happens to be another ‘casualty' for the English language.
“Most readers have always read pulp, but there's disrespect for the written language now that I think is new,” says Udayan Mitra, publishing director, Penguin Books India. “A lot of people send in manuscripts now, who would not even have thought of writing some years ago.”
These changing trends now seem to be riding roughshod over the publishing industry that initially welcomed the boom (of pulp fiction) from college-going writers. Many such authors are now using this mongrel language in their books without restraint. Their writing supposedly helps ‘bridge the gap' between the literary elite and the general masses.
The question is: are they really bridging the gap by pandering to the latter in this manner? Is it a good enough rationale for the dumbing down of Indian writing in English at international level?
Ironically, this trend, rather than bridging the gap between the ‘elite' and the ‘masses', is widening it instead. The readers for whom English is a second language, or a foreign language, will never acquire the skills or the finesse of the ‘elite' (first-language learners) if they never strive to learn the correct language. The gap will never be bridged.
Publishers are not against the genre of non-serious/pulp fiction per se. In fact, that is crucial for the development of the larger reading habit. But they're concerned about the way this genre is being dealt with today.
“There is obviously a demand for these books,” says Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India. “There's both a plus and a minus to this. The plus was that there was, at least in the beginning a sense of liberation, with promise of a new genre of commercial writing that one thought would emerge – vibrant, innovative, contemporary. The minus is that this has not happened.”
Most publishers agree that, of late, the quality of submissions from young writers has been steadily sliding downhill. “Despite the much touted fact that English is dynamic and constantly evolving, there are still standards of correct grammar and syntax whether you are a believer in Wren & Martin or Noam Chomsky. However, a lot of today's writing seems to eschew the need for correct English completely,” adds Abraham.
“I am simply disappointed. As a publisher it hurts to see such books,” says Saugata Mukherjee, managing editor and rights manager, HarperCollins India. “I am all for mass market books, but can't believe there are only badly written ones.”
From feather quills to ball points, from Remingtons to VAIOs, writers have woven rich word tapestries, using different forms of English. Where has the craft disappeared today?
It's a disconcerting thought that tomorrow, some of these very people might land up in positions of authority – as English teachers, or editors – judging other people's language skills, or writing our editorials.
It is not merely idle whining by another bunch of snobbish linguistic fundamentalists, but a genuine concern of a handful of those who still love the language for its grace. The industry-wallas will surely be watching, wary of “bowing to the ineluctable pressures of what-happens-nextism”.
The writer is the Publisher of Gyaana Books, Delhi.
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