The English Language in India - Historical and Contemporary Aspects of Features and Functions

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2006

25 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. India – A Multilingual Challenge

II. The Emergence of English on the Indian Subcontinent
II.1. The Colonial Period: 1612 - 1947
II.2. The Role of English after Independence: Linguistic Situation and Linguistic Policy

III. A Different English: Distinct Linguistic Features of Indian English
III.1. Phonetic and Phonological Peculiarities
III.2. Morphology, Syntax and Lexicon
III.3. The Sociolinguistic Attitude Towards English

IV. Indian English in the 21st Century: An Intruding Force Turns into a Key to Success

List of Works Cited/ References
bodies of law/ legal publications


I. India – A Multilingual Challenge

Considering the vast scope of possible objects of research in linguistics the scientific exploration of the languages spoken in modern India, as it has emerged since independence in 1947[1], is a fruitful and worthy endeavour – particularly when it comes to the interconnection between India´s colonial past and the consequent implantation of an alien language which is now competing, changing and developing alongside indigenous tongues of Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Chinese descent.[2] Thus, English as the most prominent remnant of the British colonial administration is still a vital part of India´s linguistic landscape and is going to play an important role concerning the country´s economic development as well as an internal lingua franca bridging controversies about the perpetual question of a pan-Indian language – apart from official yet disputed Hindi[3] – acceptable in both the northern and the southern part of the country.

The following paper will examine the current state of Indian English following a synchronic approach with special emphasis on phonetical, phonological, morphological, syntactical, lexical and sociolinguistical features. Moreover, due attention will be paid to the historical events which have led to the present conditions as it is indispensable for a holistic understanding of the subject matter. The intention of the author is to give a short account of a variety of English that is spoken by nearly 35 million people[4] all over India and neighbouring Sri Lanka as a secondary language and thus has a non-deniable presence in Southern Asia – together with about three million speakers in Pakistan[5] and Bangladesh.

Since there is a common genesis of Indian and Sri Lankan English and, above all, due to a required limitation of this treatise it was deemed appropriate to omit Sri Lankan characteristics of English because they are, however, comparable to the Indian type so as to concentrate on a comprehensive analysis of the Indian variety.

English in its distinctive Indian variety has emerged over centuries – yet a relatively small number of Indians speaks it frequently not to mention exclusively – and has developed its own characteristics which distinguishes it for instance from the most prestigious Standard English accent, the Received Pronunciation.

Today, Indian English possesses the very status of an independent variety among the Englishes in the world. Less than 200 years ago Indian English like all the other normative varieties of English outside the British Isles was virtually non-existent. The sole variety of English spoken in India owing to the colonial rule was the variety of the upper-class represented both by British aristocracy and the trading bourgeoisie.[6] It was the language used by the governor general of the British East India Company and the successive viceroy[7] as the executor of power and orders by royal permission. It was the language of officers, merchants and other members of the administrative, military and commercial corps.[8] A closer look at these representatives of the English claim of supremacy over the former Indian principalities and other political entities – a united India as well as the separate states of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka[9], Nepal and Bhutan were not yet existent in its current shape – reveals that at first there was not at all a desire to replace local languages some of which already had a status of a regional lingua franca. Thus the British colonial elite did not pursue a policy of cultural or linguistic supersession as the intention of their presence on the subcontinent was merely the conduct of economic trade and the exploitation of natural resources. The focus of their interest was limited to the establishment and control of trade routes and, therefore, led by the desire to expel other European nations with similar colonial ambitions, such as France and Portugal, as it was typical for the era of competitive colonial expansion.

From initial modesty to final political, military and hence economic dominance, the type of British presence on the subcontinent had changed entirely in the course of 335 years. A private venture provided with a royal charter became Britain´s most important colony in the 19th century. However, there was always the will to cooperate with the indigenous ruling class. Several hundred independent states[10] ruled by maharajas, rajas and other sovereigns retained their domestic feudal powers while there were tied by contract to the British Crown serving as their superior feudal lord. Obviously British rule and administration remained rather indirect which distinguished them from the French and the Portuguese. It had been maintained since the early days of settlement when domestic rule was carried out by a chartered company, the British East India Company, with its exclusive trade monopoly lasting from 1600 until 1857/58 when the Government in London reassumed the function of a supreme authority over British India [11] after severe outbreaks of violence and insurgencies against the unpopular rule of the “Company” necessitated a reassertion of British rule henceforth led by the central government. Facing British presence endangered by those defiant movements of discontent direct rule in the name of the Crown was to prevent the probability of recurrent instability.

Since then English has gained more and more importance. A growing number of residing British colonial servants fostered the further spread of the language and virtually compelled the indigenous to learn it in order to simplify the interaction between the ruling class and the “Indians”.[12] Between 1857 and 1947 the alien influence of British linguistic and cultural features intensified and provoked response of various kind, mostly in the shape of political organisations such as the Indian National Congress [13] and the All-India Muslim League [14] both of which assembled wealthy Indians of high social background demanding participation and rights of co-decision concerning the rule of British-Indian provinces. This inevitably acquainted the Indian population – first of all the Indian nobility and the intellectual elites – with the English language as it was the language of colonial administration and British educational institutions which were created in the second half of the 19th century.

Apart from that India comes up with a linguistic diversity that is – except for Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea – unparalleled. The Indian constitution currently lists 21 acknowledged languages[15] with Hindi being the only official language of the union – together with English serving as an indispensable means of intranational communication. Since independence it has become obvious that a multiethnic and multilingual country like India with about 179[16] distinct languages has to retain the language of the former colonial power due to the fact that there was the difficulty to agree on a indigenous language to take the role of a national means of communication. In fact, it is to state that Hindi, the first official language, is merely the mother tongue of 264 million.[17] Belonging to the Indo-Arian sub-group of Indo-European languages Hindi and its dialects – some of which have been politically appreciated and are regarded as a mature language now[18] – are the most widely spoken languages in northern India[19] but are not related to the languages of the Dravidian family spoken in the south. Therefore, English was needed and is still crucial to serve as an adhesive between North and South in order to make pan-Indian communication possible and to avoid domestic dissent.

II. The Emergence of English on the Indian Subcontinent

II.1. The Colonial Period: 1612 - 1947

In contrast to other European colonial powers England and later the United Kingdom tended to acquire territory rather than to merely operate trade posts.[20] Indeed they managed to conquer two thirds of British India´s territory leaving only scattered enclaves of various sizes to native rulers.

Basically, the English (Later: British) foreign rule in India can be divided into two episodes. Firstly, there was the peculiar institution of a ruling company which continually extended its sphere of influence provided with and supported by parliamentary permission normally belonging to a state or a similarly sovereign political entity. Even with regard to contemporary circumstances in the 17th century this peculiar and matchless British (English) way to combine or to fuse political and economic leadership was unique and unusual compared to conventions in other European countries with global ambitions.[21]

The second phase, a combination of direct and indirect rule by Crown and Parliament lasting from 1773[22] until 1947, saw a more intensive and more formative planting of British cultural features which are still living on with a special emphasis on the prominent role of English.

Internal animosities, wars of succession and other quarrels between local princely states were used by the British as most desirable opportunities to take control of those countries. The fact that the number of British officials present was very limited led to a large-scale recruitment of locals to serve in the armed forces whose establishment was necessary in order to protect and defend the intentions of the BEIC [23] and later the royal (governmental) plans of expansion.[24]


[1] [08.08.2006]

[2] Nyrop, R. F. et al. (ed.), India – a country study/ area handbook series, Washington : 1985, p. 181

[3] According to the Constitution of India, XVII, Art. 343/ 344, Hindi is the official language of the entire country.

[4] Hansen, K./ Carls, U./Lucko, P., Die Differenzierung des Englischen in nationale Varianten – Eine Einführung, Berlin: 1996, p. 219; about 3 - 4 % of the population of approximately 1.1 Billion (Census of India 2001)

[5] Hansen/ Carls/ Lucko (1996): p. 230, 231

[6] Hansen/ Carls/ Lucko (1996): p. 211, 212

[7] The office of a British viceroy as the supreme representative of the Crown was installed only in 1858 when the British East Indian Company lost its chartered right to exert administrative power in the territories of British India by a parliamentary decision which handed over British India to the Crown and thus an appointed representative.

[8] Hansen/ Carls/ Lucko (1996): p. 17

[9] Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was not considered a part of British India. It had had the status of a separate colony ruled directly from London until 1948. Independent Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka in 1972.

[10] The terrority of British India consisted of more than 600 princely states. Stang, F., Wissenschaftliche Länderkunden: Indien, Darmstadt: 2002, p. 60

[11] This term refers to all territories which were under colonial control of the British East India Company or Britain (since 1858) between 1612 and 1947, hitherto comprising today´s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (East Pakistan until 1971) and Myanmar. Sri Lanka had been a separate colony under royal authority until 1948.

[12] Here, “Indians” refers to all inhabitants or subjects of a territory ruled either by an native prince or directly by British authority. Today the term Indian designates the citizens of the modern state of India.

[13] The INC was founded in 1885 and became the Congress Party after independence. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (ed.), Informationen zur politischen Bildung 257: Indien, Bonn: 1997, p. 7

[14] ibid.

[15] [20.10.2006]

Official language of the Union is Hindi with English serving as associate official language. There are 21 regional languages with an official status granted in the Indian Constitution: Asamiya, Bengali (official language of Bangladesh), Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Meitei, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit (ancient; usage limited to religious and academic purposes), Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu (official language of Pakistan).

[16] Rothermund, D., Indien – Kultur, Geschichte, Politik, Wirtschaft, Umwelt, München: 1995, p. 101

[17] ibid., p. 105

[18] Spitzbardt, H., English in India, Halle/Saale: 1976, p. 14, 15

[19] Rothermund (1995): p. 105, 106

[20] Stang (2002): p. 47

[21] Kulke, H./ Rothermund, D., Geschichte Indiens – Von der Induskultur bis heute, München: 1998, p. 303, 304

[22] In 1773 governmental interference concerning the activities of the BEIC began. The government in London assumed full control in 1857 when the BEIC appeared unable to retain law and order. Hansen/ Carls/ Lucko (1996): p. 210

[23] British East India Company

[24] Kulke/ Rothermund (1998): p. 316 et sqq.; Stang (2002): p. 53

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The English Language in India - Historical and Contemporary Aspects of Features and Functions
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
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This paper presents a short but yet comprehensive study of the peculiarities of (the)Indian English(es). Starting with the history of the language´s transplantation on the subcontinent by the British colonial rule the paper subsequently analyses the political and social implications within an Indian language policy. Furthermore, the distinct lingusitc features are explored in more detail followed by a comprehensive conclusion.
English, Language, India, Historical, Contemporary, Aspects, Features, Functions, Seminar, Comparative Linguistics, Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft, Indische Sprachen, World Language, Language Imperialism
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Oliver Gebel (Autor:in), 2006, The English Language in India - Historical and Contemporary Aspects of Features and Functions, München, GRIN Verlag,


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