Indian English -- Does It Exist? What Do We Call It?

I'm preparing to teach a seminar on "Global English," and as such I've been reading a book called The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran (my version came without pictures, though). The book is incredibly useful as a summary history of the formation and dissemination of the English language. It starts with English's early variants -- Old and Middle English -- and continues through the postcolonial era, with chapters on the dialects (and accents) of English found in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and of course the Indian subcontinent. The stuff on English in early periods is particularly helpful to me, as I've never really understood things like the 'great vowel shift' (now I do).

As I was reading the India chapter, I began to wonder: is 'Indian English' really a distinct linguistic phenomenon -- a patois or a dialect? McCrum et al. cite the following as an example of Indianized English in an old article (1986) from the Telegraph:

Frequent dacoities and looting of fish from bheris in the Sonarpur area has created a serious law and order problem. Tension prevails in the entire area which has 60 bheris. Dacoits armed with pipe-guns, swords and sticks strike before the villagers can retaliate. They surround the bheris and loot the fish. For the villagers, the attacks are 'straight out of Hindi movies'.

And this is how they interpret it:

This fragment of Indian journalistm is an unspectacular but typical example of the everyday uses of English in a society that is continuously indigenizing a foreign language. It is the reinterpretation of the English language by the Indian people -- a process echoed in Ireland -- that has fascinated visitors from the very beginnings of the British involvement in India.

Their main claim here -- that Indians are "indigenizing" English -- seems reasonable at first. But in the end, both the word "indigenizing" and the idea that Indian English is a "reinterpretation" of the English language seem too vague to be really supportable. It suggests an ongoing process of systemic, and growing difference from British or American English.

There are many, many examples of Hindustani words entering into everyday English in India (such as "dacoit" in the above passage; there could be dozens of examples). But that's just local vocabulary; it doesn't prove much. Secondly, there are some grammatical tics that Hindi-speakers tend to bring into their English, most of which will be all-too-familiar to readers: overuse of the present participle ("I am doing"), overuse of "only" ("like this only"), and underuse of the definite article (the missing "the").

And there are many more examples listed here and at Wikipedia. (Some are a little questionable, if you ask me.)

But all in all, the structural differences seem pretty small. More importantly, they aren't generally reproduced (and they aren't taught). When Indians become aware of grammatical tics, they tend to try and correct them. The goal is some idea of "standard" English, not "indigenized" English.

The idea that Indian English is evolving into an identifiable dialect has been popular, partly along the lines of "one should respect different cultures": there is this postcolonial awareness that standard (i.e., BBC) English need not apply to everyone. In principle I agree (no one standard should or could be applied), but I find the evidence that thoroughgoing indigenization has actually occurred to be suspect.

To be clear: I'm not saying that people in India who speak less standarized English should become more "correct." Rather, I've observed that people learning English in India eventually do away with Hindi elements. The distinguishing features of the "dialect" disappear, and the only remaining defining feature of Indian English is the vocabulary, which is fascinating, but relatively trivial.