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This is how they, like, talk

Talk to a youngster and like it or not, you?ll be overwhelmed by the word ?like?, writes Bhaskar Ghose.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2006 04:40 IST

As a college student I was fascinated by Percy Wyndham Lewis’s slim book The Demon of Progress in the Arts in which Lewis, the once very avant-garde painter, prophesied a dark end to the visual arts which, he said, was making a fetish of innovation. I remember the way he ended the book. Having regaled readers like me with stories of how one celebrated painter put up an easel and then cycled past it at speed splashing paint on it as he whizzed by, Wyndham Lewis then said darkly that if this sort of thing went on unchecked, then one day art would become — and you had to turn to the last page there, which was completely blank.

Reading the kind of English one comes across in our newspapers and journals, and listening to it being spoken by a variety of people one cannot help but remember Wyndham Lewis’s warnings. Except that there are no signs of progress here, except an easy slipping into ways of speaking that are gradually becoming less and less coherent. It isn’t very different from the way we drive, weaving in and out of traffic, overtaking from the wrong side, slowing down suddenly for no apparent reason in the middle of the road, and sometimes trying to reverse on a busy road with the hazard lights blinking hopefully. Discipline is not something we like, as a rule, and avoid it if we can. We do it when we drive and many of us do it when we try to speak English.

All right, it is not our mother tongue. All right, if we could we wouldn’t speak it, at least, most of us, wouldn’t… but wait a moment. What would we speak instead? Our mother tongue, our own language? A good many would, certainly. But by and large they would try to avoid that too, as that also requires discipline in terms of grammar and syntax. In fact, there would be much more criticism, even derision, if one took liberties with one’s own language. But with English it’s all right. You can always say it isn’t my language so what the hell, yaar... And proceed to mangle it, and serve it up in any manner we choose, tarted up with words from Hindi, or Punjabi, or Bengali and Tamil, depending where we happen to be located.

Initially, it could be passed off as affectation. It was very chic to toss in the odd Hindi word, or a Punjabi phrase. But that phase is long over. Now those have become a way of expressing oneself in what one fancies as English. Now it’s the age of using some totally wrong words or phrases. Not only in conversation, but in print as well. One leading journal had a report headed, ‘Blinds protest against discrimination’ not so long ago. Blinds? And consider, that passed editorial scrutiny, so there’s a little more to it than just one person whose English is rocky. And let’s not forget that other gem that’s almost come to be accepted as perfectly correc: a film, we are told, will be releasing tomorrow or whenever. Releasing, not will be released. And a lot of those who read this will wonder what’s wrong with releasing.

It’s so easy to take this kind of thing and give it consequence. We are, it will be asserted, inventing our own language, we don’t speak the Queen’s English, we speak Indian English which is good enough for us. Yes, of course. But where will you draw the line? It’s ‘releasing’ now, and ‘blinds’ leading the ‘blinds’ and what will we have next? There are enough examples that all of us have and there really is no point in spending more time on examples.

The fact is that the quality of the language is becoming degenerate. The one reason that English survives in India is because, apart from being shared by all communities across the country, it was — and still is — a wonderfully articulate language which is supple enough to bend to local emphases and colours. Besides, of course, being the language in which all professional education was learnt. It will no longer do to beat people on the head about it being a foreign language; it is the means by which all educated Indians earn their livelihood, not just here but in countries across the world.

This is what makes its degeneration so difficult to understand. Talk to a youngster and like it or not, you’ll be overwhelmed by the word ‘like’. “Like, I go out with my friends, like, and we, like, go to a place where we, like, chill out,” and so on. And this has now been taken a step further — “He asked me if I could go out and I’m like ‘When do we hit the road, baby?’ So he said we should go into this coffee shop and I’m like ‘Can’t we start now?’” It is obviously the influence of American films and television shows. But its origins are not as important as what it’s leading to —

a clouding over of clear meaning. What one wants to say is messed up with phrases and words that are ‘in’ and that inevitably means that thinking becomes less and less clear.

And yet they will throng the call centres, they will crowd into those hole in the wall teaching shops that dispense a kind of garbled English that they think will get them all that they dream of — a job that fetches them a hefty income, and all the goodies that come with that. The laziness and propensity to cut corners with the language becomes positively dangerous when it becomes the instrument of learning such vital skills as medicine and surgery, or flying. Or in the world of finance, where a wrong word or phrase can be catastrophic.

The fault as always is on the schools — not just in the English teachers, though they have much to answer for, as many of them are incapable of teaching the language with any degree of competence. It’s in the communication that children develop among themselves in school, which most schools are quite indifferent about. Surely, teachers know that children switch to one kind of communication when they are in class to something quite different when they come out of it and are with their peers. But does anyone stop to listen?

And while it is true that the problem isn’t one to be handled by teachers of English, it’s worth looking at just what those teachers are actually teaching and whether they know the basics of the language they are teaching. Goodness knows how many of these teachers teach English because they have no other choice. And what is worse, whether those who employ them realise what harm a bad teacher of English can do. Yes, all bad teachers can do a great deal of harm; but that is done through a medium, a medium these students want to learn because it makes the difference between their being able to take up a lucrative profession and their resigning themselves to being just where they are.

This is not a plea for English. That plea does not need to be made any more. The young looking for gainful employment make it over and over again. It is a plea for teaching the language well and, above all, thinking of means by which the disease of the pidgin that youngsters think is so ‘cool’ is replaced by a language that is as cool as they want it to be but doesn’t impair their ability to comprehend. You get my drift, dude?

First Published: Jan 14, 2006 04:40 IST