Photograph of an Asian British woman

Asian English

What is the status of English today within the huge variety of languages spoken on the Indian sub-continent? Find out about the history of English in India and listen to examples of speakers in the UK’s Asian communities.

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 British 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 18 '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. The Human Development Survey of 2005, an academic study funded by the National Institute of Health, estimated that 5% of Indian males and 3% of Indian females spoke fluent English, while figures for those claiming to speak some English rose to 28% and 17% respectively. The figure for fluent users 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 sections below give 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 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.

(All sound files © BBC. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.)

Asian English phonology

Feature: retroflex tapped R

Explanation

 <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

Feature: unaspirated <p>

Explanation

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

Feature: unaspirated <t>

Explanation

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

Feature: V~W merger

Explanation

<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

Feature: TH-stopping

Explanation

<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

Feature: rhoticity

Explanation

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: code-switching

Explanation

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’

Feature: zero article

Explanation

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

Feature: zero past tense marker

Explanation

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

Feature: lack of subject-verb concord

Explanation

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

my marriages was typical arranged marriages

Feature: simplified syntax

Explanation

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

Feature: embedded interrogative

Explanation

Normal declarative’ word order (i.e. subject + verb) is retained in interrogative 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?”

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.