Asian English

English in the Indian Subcontinent

Just as in the Caribbean, the English Language arrived in South Asia as a result of colonisation. Unlike its history in the Caribbean, however, English has always co-existed in the Indian subcontinent alongside thousands of local languages. So for most of the population, it has only ever been a second language.

The origins of English in India

The British first arrived in India in the early 1600s and soon established trading posts in a number of cities under the control of The East India Company. By 1765 the Company’s influence had grown to such an extent that the British were effectively controlling most parts of the country. This date is often taken as the start of what is referred to as The Raj — a period of British rule in India that lasted until Independence in 1947.

Initially English was only taught to the local population through the work of Christian missionaries — there were no official attempts to force the language on the masses. But by the 1700s, English had firmly established itself as the language of administration and many educated Indians were demanding instruction in English as a means of social advancement. By 1857 universities had opened in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. English was increasingly accepted as the language of government, of the social elite, and of the national press.

After Independence

After Independence, India became a nation state, and it was intended that English would gradually be phased out as the language of administration. But there was no simple solution as to which language should replace it. At first Hindi, the most widely spoken language, seemed the obvious choice, but following violent protests in 1963 in the state of Tamil Nadu against the imposition of Hindi as a national language, opinion has remained divided. In a country with over 900 million people and more than a thousand languages, it is difficult to choose a single national language, as mother tongue speakers of that language would automatically enjoy greater social status and have easier access to positions of power and influence. Even Ghandi, a proponent of a native variety as a national language, accepted that his message was most widely understood if expressed in English. So, although English is not an indigenous language, it remains as an ‘Associate Language’ in India, alongside Hindi, the ‘Official Language of the Union of India’ and eighteen 'National Languages', such as Bengali, Gujurati and Urdu, that have a special status in certain individual states.

English in India today

Despite continued pressure from nationalists, English remains at the heart of Indian society. It is widely used in the media, in Higher Education and government and therefore remains a common means of communication, both among the ruling classes, and between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages. According to recent surveys, approximately 4% of the Indian population use English. That figure might seem insignificant, but out of the total population this represents 35 million speakers — the largest English-speaking community outside the USA and the UK. In addition there are speakers of English in other parts of South Asia, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where English plays a similar role. English is virtually a mother tongue for many educated South Asians, but for the vast majority it remains a second language. This means there are speakers whose spoken English is heavily influenced by speech patterns of their ethnic language, alongside those whose speech reveals nothing of their racial background and some who are ranged somewhere in between.

Asian influence

There are a number of elements that characterise the more ‘extreme’ forms of South Asian English. In terms of pronunciation, many speakers do not differentiate between the sounds <v> and <w>. They might also replace <th> in words like think and this with a <t> and <d> sound, as no Indian languages contain these consonants. Under the influence of traditional Hindi grammar, speakers often use progressive tenses in statements, such as I am believing you or she is liking music. Anyone who has experience of speech in the UK's Asian communities will also have encountered the phenomenon of code-switching — mixing words, phrases or even whole sentences from two different languages within the same conversation. The occasional or even frequent use of a Hindi (or Urdu, Punjabi, Gujurati etc.) word or expression within an English sentence can communicate a great sense of shared identity or solidarity with other speakers. This characteristic feature of Asian speech has led commentators to coin popular terms, such as Hinglish (i.e. Hindi English) or Pinglish (i.e. Pakistani English).

The table below gives several examples of speakers using a number of pronunciations and grammatical constructions that are typical of speech on the Indian subcontinent. All the audio clips are taken from recent BBC interviews and come from spontaneous conversation and therefore reflect the natural reflexes of South Asian English. The left hand column lists each feature, while the second column gives an explanation. The list is by no means comprehensive, but by clicking on the sound file you can hear an extract from a recording of a speaker using the target feature.

Asian English Phonology

feature explanation sound file
retroflex tapped R

<r> is pronounced by flicking (i.e. tapping) the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth — thus making only very brief and rapid contact — while the tip of the tongue is curled backwards in the mouth

and I was studying for electronic engineering

unaspirated <p>

there is no release of air when <p> precedes a vowel in words like pin and pot

and, uh, so what happened, uh, that my parents found a suitable match

unaspirated <t>

there is no release of air when <t> precedes a vowel in words like tin and top

my, our two sisters met in a party in different town where our parents lived

V~W merger

<v> and <w> are pronounced interchangeably regardless of spelling

I just realised that, uh, Indian food is becoming so popular that one day it will land on the shelf of the supermarket with vengeance — and it did!

and the housewife — be it British or Caribbean or Indian or anyone — they were able to, with confidence they are able to pick up a pack of Indian food in their trolleys for their weekly shopping


<th> in words such as thumb and three is pronounced using a <t> sound and in words such as this and that using a <d> sound — there is often no release of air when <th> precedes a vowel in words like thick and thin

I just could not think that I could marry anybody in this country


the <r> sound is pronounced after a vowel in words like hard, corn and nurse

and I know, I remember when I, when my first visit in early sixties there were hardly a few restaurants in Grafton Way in Central London

Asian English Grammar

feature explanation sound file

alternating (‘switching’) between different languages (‘codes’) as circumstance dictates, often within the same utterance

mum said, “Your father send you piyaar

we didn’t have car, cardigans, but what we had, eh, shawls, you know, like what they call ‘chador

and they start picking on those — I said, “Mum, they're picking our chil ghozah, you know — why?”

and, uh, specialised ice cream which you would call it ‘khulfi

zero article

the indefinite article, a or an, or the definite article, the, are often omitted

and then, uh, there was, uh, no fear of going to an Indian restaurants and sending your suit for a dry-cleaning _ next day, because they were well-ventilated etcetera and I’m, I’m very pleased that Indian food has come _ long way

zero past tense marker

verbs are left unmarked for tense, although other signals (adverbs of time, such as yesterday, last week etc.) often give linguistic clues about the timing of an event

so they send me photograph, which I approved and m, m, my wife, uh, pinched, uh, one photograph from the album, so obviously she like_, uh, the photograph

lack of subject-verb concord

singular nouns are sometimes assigned a plural verb or plural nouns a singular verb

my marriages was typical arranged marriages

simplified syntax

all unnecessary semantic content is omitted, but basic meaning is still communicated effectively

but when we first came, _ few, few months later, _ didn’t want to stay, because _ no friends, no communication much

declarative word order in interrogative construction

‘normal’ subject + verb word order is retained in statements using the question words who, what, when, where, why, how etc.

you know, when we see all these white people, you think, “Oh my God — who they are?