Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: Why is American English becoming part of everyday usage in India?

One reason is the widespread engagement of English speakers in the country with American television content.

“Do the math” is a favourite expression of writers and speakers in the media, though I believe it is still Arithmetic and Mathematics that is taught in schools and universities in India.

Even a decade ago, this expression was hardly seen or heard in India. Now it is everywhere, part of the Americanisation of the English language that is sweeping the world and influencing English in India as well.

Spellings are changing: “color” for “colour”, “program” for “programme”, “fulfill” for “fulfil” and hundreds more. Usage too has changed: “sweets” have become “candy”, in polite circles “washroom” has replaced “lavatory” and it is supposed to be more modern to ask for a “check” in a restaurant than the plain old “bill”. (Note, by the way, that the bank “cheque” is on its way to becoming a “check”.) Nouns as verbs seem more common in US English and are entering our usage: “impacted”, “actioned” and other such noun-verbs, which make the purists squirm.

Popular culture

There are, I think, two main reasons for the rapid pace in which American spellings are becoming part of everyday usage in a country where English is not the first language.

One is the predominance of material of US origin on the internet, and the widespread engagement by speakers of English in India with American content on television. If so much of what you read is in US English and you have not had UK English spellings dinned into your head in school, US English will become your default usage.

The other reason is another kind of default: what I like to call the “MS Wordisation” of grammar and spelling. Microsoft Word is the predominant text program in use. (Yes, it is “program” even in UK English when we refer to computer software. No prizes for guessing why.) US English is either the first choice and or the default setting in this software. So when users do not take care to change the default settings and the spellcheck tool is used automatically, US English becomes the “default” use in what you write and what you read.

Style book controls

What does a publication do when it is under onslaught from this Americanisation of English? Most publications have a style book that has guidelines for spellings and usage. Sometimes these are not just guidelines but rules that are to be adhered to. The style books of the more careful publications ask their writers and editors to stick to UK English in spellings but less so in usage.

Naresh Fernandes, the Editor of Scroll.in, says that the Scroll.in style-sheet calls for the use of UK English spellings. Sometimes, in articles reproduced from sites where American English is the norm, US spellings do creep in.

Usage and idioms are a different matter. No style book can keep pace with the changes in usage that we are now witnessing. The Editor admits that in the age of “satellite TV and internet memes”, it is impossible to keep track of the changes in language. Scroll.in, the Editor says, is “usually restrained” in usage of idiom and slang though he is all for use of phrases that are colourful and punchy, “provided they are easily comprehensible and don’t require readers to consult Urban Dictionary”.

Evolution of language

This is how it should be, for a language can never be frozen in time. While a language has to have rules of grammar, usage and spelling, there can be no book of rules permanently written in stone. A language is much like a living organism that gets enriched with external influence. Over time what was once new becomes integral to the language with spreading usage.

In a previous job I would dutifully change “impact” as a verb to a noun and change all “z” spellings (organize, fertilize, analyse…) to “s” spellings before I finally gave up, bowing to the power of spreading usage.

We should worry when the change in language is of only one kind and in one direction. In That’s The Way It Crumbles a new book by Matthew Engel, a writer of The Guardian, discusses the Americanisation of English. The argument, it appears, is not that we should worry about how English is being transformed but we should worry that the direction of change is one way: the US way leading to a homogenised American character. (See this review and this article in agreement with Engel’s book and this review in criticism).

This Americanisation of English is a global phenomenon. Everywhere UK English seems to be retreating. One recent study cited in this article on Americanisation found that in books and on Twitter it was American English that was marching ahead in usage and spellings. UK English was still ahead in the Commonwealth but losing ground there as well, and this had gone farthest in India.

One lives in the hope that Indian English can counter this Americanisation. The strange thing is that Indians who have a command over the language are willing to embrace the American “Do the math” but frown on the Indian “We are like that only”.

I, for one, would prefer to be like that only rather than embrace Americanisms. By the way a few days ago, in this article on women’s cricket in India Scroll.in asked us to do the math.

Readers can write to the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in.

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