The Rise of Local Languages in India.

India After English?” is the misleading title of Samanth Subramanian’s very interesting piece for NYRBlog; English, the only national language India has, isn’t going anywhere, but the economic boom the country has been experiencing means that the local languages are becoming much more prominent in print:

For a couple of decades now, the rise of English-language journalism was assumed to be a natural consequence of India’s steady gains in literacy and rapidly growing middle class, which now includes more than 200 million people. In 1990, India had 209 English dailies; two decades later, the number had increased nearly seven-fold, to 1,406. [...]

Most recently, though, India’s major newspapers have been expanding in a different direction. In 2012, Bennett Coleman, the publisher of The Times of India, the world’s largest English daily, started a Bengali newspaper and poured fresh resources into its older Hindi and Marathi papers. Last October, the publisher of The Hindu, a 135-year-old English paper, launched a Tamil edition. Another leading English daily, The Hindustan Times, has enlarged the staff and budgets of its Hindi sibling Hindustan. And this past winter, a few months before the election, The Times of India launched NavGujarat Samay, a Gujarati paper for Modi’s home turf.

In nearly every case, the publishers of these new papers aim to be more sophisticated than the existing vernacular press. Editors are asked to court the young and the middle class by covering technology, world news, and business, so that the Ukrainian revolution or the launch of a new iPhone, for example, gets as much serious play as in an English daily. The tone is less partisan, the style less tabloid. These papers are finding exceptionally diverse audiences: youngsters buying their first paper, older adults to whom a paper has never been marketed before, people who are the first readers in their families, and urban subscribers who purchase The Hindu in Tamil or Bennett Coleman’s Bengali paper alongside their regular English daily.

A decade or more ago, the publishers of English newspapers scorned Indian language readers, assuming that, as hundreds of millions more Indians became literate, they would turn automatically into consumers of English papers. But the steady rise in literacy rates—from 64.8 percent of the population in 2001 to 73 percent in 2011—has had unexpected consequences. The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English. Meanwhile, major media houses have discovered that English readership is declining or stagnant, and that advertising rates in English papers cannot be pushed much higher. Along with an influx of politicians from non-elite backgrounds and the growing importance of regional and state-level politics, these developments have begun to challenge the assumption that English is the default medium of Indian public life. By putting more energy into regional languages, said Ravi Dhariwal, the chief executive of Bennett Coleman, “We’re just adapting to the way our country is changing.”

You can read more about this heartening development, including further analysis of the causes (as well as a great deal about politics), at the link.

Comments

  1. I’m only very slightly familiar with Indian journalism, in English. But I find the style, which is relentlessly confrontational, to be wonderful. I don’t know what the vernacular press is like, but I hope that “the tone is less partisan, the style less tabloid” doesn’t mean a shift to American-style fluff.

  2. I guess this is one of those national differences. As a fluffy American, I can enjoy relentlessly confrontational journalism as a side dish (I love Matt Taibbi, for example), but I prefer my news straight.

  3. Bathrobe says:

    I have occasion to read Indian newspapers in English for business news. I would describe the style as anything but pungent or hard-hitting. There is quite a lot of verbiage and important points are hedged in with the stuff. You come away with little more than a general impression of what was discussed and the writer’s viewpoint.

    I am rather curious what kind of style Indian newspapers use. Presumably there is already some kind of journalistic tradition in vernacular languages, but it doesn’t sound very sophisticated. I vaguely wonder to what extent they have had to create their own upmarket journalistic style.

  4. At the very least this may kill that awful faux-Raj poncy style of English that has passed as English in India for so long. The rise of software millionaires with Silicon Valley accents and less than UC caste backgrounds will help there too.

    The big question is the possible replacement. The only indigenous language that whole civilization has in common is Sanskrit.

  5. that awful faux-Raj poncy style of English that has passed as English in India for so long

    You might as well describe American English as “that awful faux-18C style of English.” As I noted on another thread, Indian Standard English is mostly an L2, but it’s a stabilized L2. Like other Englishes, it has both survivals and innovations when compared to BrE.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    that awful faux-Raj poncy style of English

    I think that the writer referred to the written style of the newspapers in question, not to everyday speech. The little I have seen of such newspapers struck me as rather old-fashioned, almost Victorian-type English. American papers do not read as if written in the 18C.

  7. Like other Englishes, it has both survivals and innovations when compared to BrE.

    Yet being perceived as poncy (which is my perception too) is only marginally about the vocabulary, or stability of L2. It must be at least as much a question of style, culture, and cultural expectations, and it is the shifts in style within (broadly the same) culture which make this whole phenomenon of rise of local languages in serious reporting most fascinating to me.

    I may be dead wrong but I must admit that too often, the English Indian media style makes me think that the journalists pretended to be seriously worked up about some issues which, in truth, didn’t bother them all that much; and, occasionally, makes me wonder what sort of elitist upbringing might have caused it. Both perceptions – of insincere adversity and of elitism – may be false, but that’s how it comes across.

  8. Victorian-type English

    This is what I mean by survivals. Some of this has to do with parts of Indian culture being more aligned with the mid-19C West than the 21C West. But a lot of it is just plain unmarked Indian English such as I hear from my colleagues regularly. The fact that it is very marked from a British or American or Canadian point of view is neither here nor there.

    When Tolkien makes various characters in The Lord of the Rings say I guess for I suppose, he is employing a marked archaism. To a North American ear, however, it passes completely unnoticed. By the same token, the ordinary British expression I reckon, with the same meaning, sounds to an American like a regionalism, vulgarism, or archaism.

  9. a lot of it is just plain unmarked Indian English such as I hear from my colleagues regularly.

    It still seems to me that the most striking bits of style / archaism are distinct from the plain unmarked local use. They aren’t something which I remember hearing in the everyday speech of the colleagues. I just had to click on the national news section of the India edition of Google News:

    Someone was “found to have used “objectionable and unsavoury” language against [PM] Modi, garbed in the guise of a cross-word puzzle”. Someone questions “a ban on dancing in bars by girls in the name of ensuring safety of women and curbing obscenity”. And a state is said to have “raised the pitch for [river] Cauvery Management Board”.

    These garbed guises, bans in the name of, or increasing pitches are pretty hard to perceive as unmarked language, but easy to explain away as devices of poncy style? Am I missing something here?

  10. They just sound like journalistic style to me — not the words I’m used to from US papers, but the same kind of style, if that makes any sense. Doesn’t sound especially poncy to me, not that I’m very sure what exactly that term encompasses, since it’s not part of my active vocabulary.

  11. What’s heartening to me more than the rise of local languages is the rise in numbers of newspapers and in newspaper readership.

    The Toronto Sun began publishing in late 1971 with the demise of the Telegram. The latter had been a broadsheet aimed squarely at the middle class but was bested by the Star, which aimed at the same demographic. The Globe and Mail was the newspaper of record, with more business news, and much grayer than either the Telegram or the Star.

    The Sun was a tabloid with screaming headlines, a Sunshine Girl on Page 3 (topped, not topless; I doubt, though don’t know, whether she’s still called a ‘girl’), lots of crime, folly and disaster — a near copy of the downmarket British rags.

    It was an instant hit. The, uh, thinking classes were horrified. Yet surveys showed that total newspaper circulation in Toronto had risen. Most of the Telegram’s readers had drifted to the Star or the Mop and Pail. A huge whack of the Sun’s circulation could be attributed only to people who had not read newspapers before. And that’s a Good Thing.

  12. not the words I’m used to from US papers, but the same kind of style, if that makes any sense

    You mean, a style you wouldn’t expect from people of Intelligence, Integrity, and Knowledge, but which is sort of expected from the journalistic bunch :) :) :) ? Sure, it makes sense.

    But between the regional specifics of an unmarked everyday language, and the weird conventions of the media style which often come across as silly in any country, we are still missing the most distinctive feature of the phrases I sampled:

    They sound unusually pompous and unusually archaic.

    We don’t have the luxury of Ngram for the multi-word expressions, to gauge their archaicism. But just for argument’s sake, I ran Google book search for one of these expressions, “garbed in the guise”. On the first page of the hits, 5 books were published in the 1800s, and 2 more, before 1920. I think it supports my contention that the journalistic style in question uses constructs which aren’t a part of unmarked speech at home, and which have gone out of vogue a century ago in the rest of the world?

  13. How do you know that garbed in the guise and the like are not used in Indian English writing that is not journalism, particularly that meant for the home market?

  14. How do you know that garbed in the guise and the like are not used in Indian English writing that is not journalism, particularly that meant for the home market?

    It’s an interesting question, and I’d appreciate technical suggestions for approaching it. Written Indian English accounts for a relatively minor slice of the Internet English, and some influential parts of the Indian English written word corpus may be underrepresented online (like textbooks, instructional, motivational materials). How do you narrow your search to written Indian English & get representative results? There must be a way, but I don’t see it at the moment.

    If you’re correct though, and if these stylistic embellishments are indeed relatively typical in the domestic-consumption written English in India both in the media and outside … then wouldn’t we be still justified in the same perception, that this style was elitist and obsolete? Since it differs so much from the contemporary colloquial speech in India, but hews close to the British high style of the centuries past?

    I re-read again Samanth Subramanian’s piece, and it in fact addresses elitism and obsolescence of English “higher” style in India as a known fact. In the opening paragraph, the “proper” Indian English is even characterized as “plummy”, another Britishism I didn’t know which apparently stands for “imitating the manners of speech of the British upper crust of the past”! Condescension towards people who don’t have English proficiency, and the feeling of entitlement shared by English-speakers, are repeatedly mentioned in the NYRB piece. This combination of entitlement / privilege and imitation of the foreign past is pretty much what naive observers like myself feel, too – what comes across as both pompous and outdated, and apparently not accidentally?

  15. Indian journalism reminds me of the scandal sheets in Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr Biswas. I love the muckraking. Presumably, real scandals are sought after and publicized, too.

  16. If you’re correct though, and if these stylistic embellishments are indeed relatively typical in the domestic-consumption written English in India both in the media and outside … then wouldn’t we be still justified in the same perception, that this style was elitist and obsolete?

    I don’t see how. Granted, English is an elite language to start with, but if this is how Indian English is customarily written, how can it be called either elitist or obsolete, unless we are to say the same of any modest diglossia? Is Russian writing elitist and obsolete because it is not quite equivalent to Russian speech?

  17. “These garbed guises, bans in the name of, or increasing pitches are pretty hard to perceive as unmarked language”

    Even as a BrE speaker, I find only the first of those to be vaguely marked, and for that one I would have assumed the slightly unusual turn of phrase was there just to get the alliteration in. The other two examples I find completely unremarkable.

    That said, I agree in general that the style of journalism I encounter when I read Indian newspapers does strike me as fairly flowery and archaic. But I have the same feeling when I speak to a lot of Indian tourists or recent immigrants from there too sometimes – the use of old-fashioned or formal turns of phrase which you usually wouldn’t hear (unironically) from a native BrE speaker in the 21st century, and as these are casual conversations where the speaker has no intention of being pretentious, I’ve been inclined to think it’s just idiomatic Indian English. Which is fair enough, they can preserve or change what they like really…

  18. I have pretty much the same impression as mallie.

  19. English is an elite language

    That is to say, in India.

  20. That is to say, in India.

    It’s for sure an elite language in Israel, and I’ll bet in big swaths of other parts of Asia and Africa too. And now that I think about, Latin America as well.

  21. I have never understood how English works in Isreal. I mean, the English-language Israeli papers are simply fabulous. You can’t find the parallel in any non-English-speaking country. Yet Israelis don’t need English to speak with each other. The Arabs and the Yiddish-speaking people, I think, speak excellent Hebrew too.

  22. It’s for sure an elite language in Israel, and I’ll bet in big swaths of other parts of Asia and Africa too. And now that I think about, Latin America as well.

    Not in a sense implied by the NYRB piece, which tells that in India mere knowledge of English was sufficient for career and very secure economic status, and that conversely, not knowing English meant such an economic disadvantage that advertisers simply ignored non-English media for the lack of potential customers among their readership.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    This is a pretty long thread on the distinctive character of IndEng for no one to have yet used the adjective “Wodehousian.”

  24. A seriously competent speaker and reader of the languages where they are spoken and written – here “Indian English” – may judge that they sound poncy and plummy. Such judgements deserve to be taken seriously, especially when you are yourself not so competent. This is so despite the fact that judgments may differ.

    Yet impressions (call them judgements, if you will) gained by not so competent speakers and reader are not automatically inaccurate. Impressions change over time, meaning that you change your mind as competence increases, or that you find the initial impressions confirmed.

    Back in the 70s, when I was still a ball boy on the German playing courts, I found the prose style of East German newspapers to be mind-deadening, almost without exception. I wondered at the time whether it was just me – after all, millions of East Germans read that stuff (or did they ?). Ten years later, I was sure – the prose was indeed mind-deadening, and those who wrote it were zombies.

    I used to think that the French couldn’t think or write straight, and used words in a strange way. It took twenty years for me to divest myself of that impression. It only happened because I got tired of fighting the current, and allowed myself to be pulled under. Surprise ! You only have to wriggle your tail to keep going.

    As to Indian newspaper English – I have always felt that much of it was precious and peacocked. If I were to become more familiar with India and its ways, I might change my mind, and I might not.

  25. I have never understood how English works in Isreal. I mean, the English-language Israeli papers are simply fabulous. You can’t find the parallel in any non-English-speaking country. Yet Israelis don’t need English to speak with each other. The Arabs and the Yiddish-speaking people, I think, speak excellent Hebrew too.

    Israelis don’t need and don’t use English to speak with one another, though they delight in throwing English words and phrases into their speech, and shop signs in the malls tend strongly to be in English only. But they really do need English to pursue almost all higher education (except in limited fields, it’s financial folly to produce university textbooks beyond 101 level in Hebrew).

    They also need English economically: a huge chunk of GDP is export-based, increasingly to China and India. There are more Israeli companies traded on Nasdaq than any other country save the U.S., Canada and, more recently, China. When Israeli publishers license titles for translation into Hebrew at the Frankfurt book fair, negotiations are in English. When French transport giant Alstom built a light rail system in Jerusalem, the French and Israeli engineers spoke English. When Malta and Israel negotiated a double-taxation treaty, the countries’ ministry of finance officials spoke English. The language at international conferences here is invariably English. When traveling, whether to Prague, Istanbul or Bangkok, the one language that will get you by in all three cities is English (and tourists to Israel, whether from Japan or Germany or Mexico, know they’ll be speaking English here).

    When they’re translated, Israeli Supreme Court judgments are translated only into English (I’m told they have a wide readership among jurists because of the complexity of the cases the court hears — there are still bits of Ottoman law in force here, and bits of British law too, and an occasional faint echo of Talmudic law is also heard).

    There are no more than 150,000 or so native English speakers in Israel compared to perhaps a million native Russian speakers. Yet while there are thriving Russian-language dailies, Russian-accented Hebrew is not an asset and can be a liability. English-accented Hebrew opens doors.

    The great majority of Arabs in Israel are functionally competent in Hebrew and many are fully literate in the language. Quite a number of Druze, in my observation, speak Hebrew at an L1 level. All but an insignificant number of ultra-Orthodox Jews are L1 speakers of Hebrew. (Only a tiny percentage of Israeli Jews speaks the local Arabic vernacular.)

    As to the language quality of English-language media in Israel, consider this: Excluding those in Israel, there are some seven million Jews in the world, and for six million of them English is L1. The only other languages with more than, say, 100,000 speakers are Russian (including Ukrainian), French and Spanish. Since L1 English speakers are by far the largest group, one of the ways the media compete for their readership is through quality of language.

  26. they really do need English to pursue almost all higher education

    That’s the thing! Thanks!

  27. “By the same token, the ordinary British expression I reckon, with the same meaning, sounds to an American like a regionalism, vulgarism, or archaism.”

    Archaism, often. It’s not a vulgarism here at all, and it isn’t really regional.That expression was used in 60s Old West shows like the Rifleman specifically to give period flavor. The other one I remember is “much obliged’ for “thank you.”

  28. I’ve heard Southerners use it, but then the South is a linguistically conservative part of the country.

  29. The other one I remember is “much obliged’ for “thank you.”

    That is (I believe) still in use in the South; at least it was a few decades ago. I can’t speak to “reckon.”

  30. And now that I think of it, “much obliged” is not simply “thank you.” It expresses a deeper gratitude, maybe even obligation arising out of that gratitude.

    I have never heard a Southerner use it, but there may have been class dynamics at work too – although those dynamics would normally have been conducive to language conservatism.

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