We Need New Words for New Times But Appealing to Dictionaries Won't Work

Why should an Indian English speaker look to the West to validate her variant of English when the vitality of the Indian English language is in fact its own validation?

In a recent tweet during the voting phase of the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi posted what appeared to be a screenshot of a page from an online dictionary with an entry for the word “Modilies”. He claimed the word had been recently added to the English language. The Oxford dictionary’s official handle was quick to refute this claim.

Despite the fact that the word was made up, Gandhi’s claim invoked what is generally perceived as the arbiter of proper, correct English usage in India: the Oxford English Dictionary. The logic was that the inclusion of a word within its hallowed pages could breathe life even into an otherwise unrecognised word.

By claiming that the word was in the dictionary, Gandhi was appealing to the faith Indians have in the power of the book. However, this faith needs deeper examination.

A bundle of contradictions

The use of Indian English in India is complex, made more confusing by a perplexing, heady mix of closely intertwined contradictions. Its character is unabashedly Indian but it cannot be separated from literary and linguistic currents in the West. It is one of India’s most conspicuously visible languages but is only spoken by a small minority.

On the one hand, Indian English speakers and writers often express pride in its fluid vocabulary and how it draws freely from various Indian languages. However, many also look askance at its uniquely South Asian patterns of pronunciation, with linguistic influences from Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages (many of them shared across the country).

Most importantly, while millions of Indians speak Indian English, most only speak it as an additional language. The popular claim, in elite circles at least, that English is now a truly Indian language must be tempered by the awareness that only a small number of people speak it.

According to the 2011 Census, 259,678 Indians returned their mother tongue as English, the bulk of whom are likely Anglo-Indians. This is probably a lower estimate since ‘mother tongue’ traditionally refers to an ethnic language in the Indian context, regardless of whether or not one actually speaks it. The number of Indians who speak English as a second or third language is in the tens of millions according to the same data, but with no indication of competency levels.

As such, it is no surprise that speakers – even fluent ones – have to actively work to adhere to a normative standard. Dictionaries offline and online, especially the latter, help these Indians adopt a more standard vocabulary and understand words that they not likely to encounter in India.

And for those Indians whose grasp of English is weaker, these same sources grow and become more important as they offer a way to bridge the larger gap in their vocabulary comprehension. They can look up numerous words in the written language, which they don’t understand, quite painlessly. This includes large terms like ‘optimisation’, ‘affluence’ and ‘trifecta’ as well as region-specific entities, such as ‘fossicking’ or ‘sasquatch’.

At the same time, we can’t discount the effect of colonialism, since educational infrastructure installed by the British has been hardcoded with English privilege.

So it is no wonder that the dictionary holds such an exalted status as a source for lexical legitimacy in India.

Dictionaries describe language

It is very important to remember that dictionaries are not designed to define the use of language. Instead, they are supposed to record it. In other words, dictionaries are descriptive works, not prescriptive.

The store of words available in all spoken languages is constantly evolving. One aspect of this constant change is how a language can take in, coin or even repurpose words to describe new concepts that its speakers are exposed to. It is such a core feature of language, an intrinsic part of how humans interact with the way they speak, that it just happens organically and without conscious effort on the speaker’s part. Lexical bodies then record these words and define them as the people use them.

For example, a word that ends up used by speakers to the point where its meaning is apparent through familiarity has already entered their vocabulary. A dictionary would then need to define this word so as to record it, and allow the speakers to look it up for reference.

Ultimately, a word becomes legitimate – as Indian English speakers seem to desire – when it enters popular use.

The vocabulary in different versions of a language can end up evolving differently as a result of cultural, political, historical forces, as with American and British English, for example. Indian English is susceptible to similar forces, with the distinction of how its speakers inhabit a primarily Indian-language-speaking milieu and generally come from Indian-language-speaking backgrounds themselves.

So, why should an Indian English speaker look to the West to validate her variant of English when the vitality of the Indian English language is in fact its own validation? Approval by a dictionary body far removed from the pulse of a language and discourse can’t be the gold standard in this context.

Indian English speakers will continue to require words to describe their ever-changing political contexts. When they do, they will draw from a variety of sources, including from their own mother tongues. Some of these words will be used widely, eventually entering the realm of established discourse. That’s when you know an Indian English word has “made it”.

None of this is a new phenomenon. Words like ‘hartal’, ‘bandh’, ‘roko’, ‘gherao’ and more are Indian English terms referring to political concepts, all drawn from Indian languages, primarily Hindi.

Recognising linguistic variation

While nobody recommends that we shouldn’t at all rely on dictionaries, it is also important to realise that their contents are not the be-all and end-all of English usage, especially given the linguistic variation and divergence that separate Indian English from its British counterpart.

These points are not contradictory because the very function of a dictionary is to define and record, and the absence of a widely used word in the dictionary only points to a delay in having the word recorded and added. It does not indicate that the word in question is invalid.

Meanwhile, our distinctly Indian brand of English continues to grow, with both its spoken and written forms driving its evolution. If dictionary bodies intend to stay relevant in the country, they will need to keep up and record its growing vocabulary.

Karthik Malli is a Bangalore-based communications professional with a keen interest in linguistics, history and travel. He tweets on Indian languages @TianChengWen.