Of Hinglish, Creoles, Pidgins and Registers

This is something that's interested me a long while, and I've done some reading on it. When two languages meet, and people must communicate across the language divide, what happens? Especially, what is the status of Hinglish?

This question arose not today, but ever since different groups of humans diverged from each other, and then needed to interact. The first pidgins and creoles would have arisen in the time of the Stone Age – why there might have been an inter-species Cro-Magnon – Neanderthal pidgin even! But let's not meander here and there, but try to make a more methodological study.

The meeting of minds

Languages end up side by side for many reasons – migrations, military adventures, trade, and even due to natural events. A few examples to start with. Migration is a very common reason, especially now as people migrate to find jobs. Military conquest is another – the Mongol language was spread far and wide by Genghis Khan's conquests. Intrepid traders can take their languages great distances – the Tamils, Arabs and English being some. The Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra ended up there because of a shipwreck, bringing Hebrew and Marathi in close, unexpected contact.

So what happens? For one, it depends on the dominance of either language. If a language's speakers have the numerical or political advantage, theirs could wipe out the other language.

Numbers: All migrants know this. Parents watch their children speak the 'local' language everywhere, even at home, at the cost of their 'mother-tongue', even though they retain other aspects of culture – food, dress, religion. The Parsis of Gujarat, and the Sidis of Karnataka are well-known. (My mother passionately complains about the Hindi my sister and I use between us, instead of our native Tamil.)

Political: Turkish replaced the Greek dialects (in which the Greek Bible is written) in Anatolia after the Ottoman Empire became powerful. Many people in India complain how English is pushing regional languages to the brink of extinction. (This is also a passionate pastime for my mother, when she hears us 'pollute' our mother tongue.)

Counter-examples exist too. The Ahoms (a Burmese tribe) conquered Assam in 1228, but it was Assamese that survived and flourished, while the conquerors' native Ahom language went extinct. Migrant communities often keep their language, often in creolised form (more later).

When the languages are co-dominant, more interesting things may happen. Children in a bilingual environment will pick up both languages. Most Indian children can, for example speak both their school language (i.e. medium of instruction), playground language and their home language fluently, without mixing them up (In my case, English, Hindi and Tamil when I grew up in army cantonments). But learning a new language is hard for adults, and that's when pidgins develop.

Getting down to business

Business is how the word pidgin came to be. Chinese traders could never get around to say the English word 'business', even though they did a lot of it with the East India Company in the 18th and 19th centuries. 'Pidgin' or 'bijin' is all they could manage to say, and that became the name of the curious language that developed for conducting business between the Companymen and Chinese. If you ever said 'long time no see' to a friend of yours, you're speaking Chinese Pidgin English.

Closer home, Bambaiya Hindi (Hindi, but with many elements of Marathi grammar) is the best-known pidgin:

Apun ko yeda samjhela hai kya?  (You think I'm mad?)
Apun & yeda are derived from Marathi words, as is the -ela ending.

Another is Madras Bashai (A pidgin of Tamil & Telugu):

Inna naina, dhuddu keedha? (What father, do you have money?)
Naina and dhuddu are from Telugu.

In most cases, such pidgin is considered low in prestige, often because of the economic status of the migrants, and also because both language groups (in this case Marathi and Hindi speakers) give greater prestige to their own languages. Beyond transactions in the market, it remains unnecessary. (Though cinema directors and teen counter-culture have made them fashionable in circles.)

In the strict definitions of linguistics, a pidgin emerges when speakers of mutually unintelligible languages have to co-exist. Like Bambaiya Hindi and Madras Bashai, they have little grammar of their own, and very limited vocabulary. (See this article for the norms to classify a language as a pidgin.) Many of us have our own individual pidgins, which will die with us. A pidgin I remember is my grandmother's - a minimal vocabulary of Hindi, heavily influenced by her native Tamil, which allowed her to get by in Mumbai.

Modern Hinglish is a kind of pidgin, although most linguists will not count it as one (more later).

Most pidgins disappear. One is because children don't need it, as they can learn and become fluent in both languages. That's how Chinese Pidgin English died: the children of those traders grew up to speak pukka Chinese and/or English. A pidgin could disappear because the interacting communities separate, as in decolonisation. A rich and colourful pidgin was Anglo-Indian: the English spoken by Indian and British soldiers living side-by-side in colonial cantonments. It's dead as a spoken idiom, as the soldiers have gone their separate ways. Yet anyone who reads Rudyard Kipling or the Hobson-Jobson (a dictionary I strongly recommend that you buy) will delight in it.

Or, one language becomes dominant, absorbing the second language's vocabulary. In this case, a subsection of the population may use this vocabulary heavily, turning it into a 'register' of the dominant language. We'll  go into registers later in the article, in the discussion on Hinglish.

From business to creativity

In certain cases, pidgins become stable and turn into creoles. Nefamese, a mix of Assamese and the languages of Arunachal Pradesh, might just get there. (It is at risk from the rising political dominance of Hindi.)

Linguists usually require that a generation must have grown up speaking that pidgin, and add grammatical elements to the mixed vocabulary (see here). Many creoles, spoken over several generations, are full-fledged languages in their own right (like Haitian Creole). Nagamese (Assamese + Naga dialects) emerged as a pidgin when Naga-speaking areas were incorporated into British Assam. It is a language in a state of transition from pidgin to creole, depending on the area spoken. The creole is stable in Dimapur (on the Assam border) and still inchoate deeper in the hinterland. A few phrases for you.

Though I said immigrants to an area often lose out, as often, they don't. If the immigrant community doesn't assimilate well (i.e. tends to live apart and ghetto-ise), the language can stay on, often creolised with vocabulary from the host area language. If you visit Thanjavur or Madurai, you'll see this. A small Marathi community that remains in Thanjavur (descended from the settlers who came there with Shivaji's brother Venkoji 1676) retains its language (and grammar), but most of its vocabulary is now of Tamil origin. Be prepared to be offered poli-sambar in a Thanjavur Marathi household.

Similarly, the silk-weaver community of Madurai is called Saurashtra, from the place they immigrated from in the 16th century. They retain a language similar to Gujarati and Marathi, creolised with Tamil. It has its own script, dictionary, literature and even a literary conference now.

Thanjavur Marathi and Saurashtra are both creoles stemming from an Indo-European language interacting with a Dravidian one. A more curious one is Sankethi – a creole of Tamil and Kannada, spoken by a Tamil-origin community that settled in Mysore district in the 15th century.

Both have lasted so long, and are rich enough in expression and literature that many linguists consider them full-fledged languages, and no longer creoles. A more classical creole is Kristi (Konkani/Marathi and Portuguese) spoken in Korlai village of Maharashtra. This is a village inhabited by descendants of Portuguese soldiers who married native women. It is a spoken language only, lacking a written literature. However, the creole is dying out, replaced by Marathi.

Creoles are often of low prestige, so the younger generation is happy to learn the other dominant language(s), unless there is a sense of pride and willingness to keep the creole alive. Haitian Creole is lucky that way – pride in Haiti's history and heritage, a base of 15 million speakers, and the absence of a dominant language have let it thrive. A theory holds that Japanese started out as a creole, a very, very long time ago. If you, reader, know of any creoles that originated from interactions among Indian languages, please do tell me.

But what if a creole has more prestige than the parent languages?

Hinglish ka number kab ayega

That's where I come to Hinglish. I didn't talked of Hinglish all this while, though the title starts with it, because I needed to explain pidgins and creoles. A BBC article contends Hinglish might be a creole too. An blog in the Economist disagrees. (This post is an expanded form of a comment there.). Contrary to pidgins and creoles, Hinglish certainly has no lower prestige than other language, largely because of its origin in the upper classes.

I agree with the Economist's blogger in that Hinglish is not a creole. Yes, it did start out as a pidgin among bilingual speakers (mainly to incorporate cross-cultural concepts). But rather than go extinct or turn into a creole, it is standardising pretty fast as its use becomes widespread in newspapers, on TV (in both news and entertainment), on internet conversations between (Hindi-speaking) Indians.

However, what it is standardising into is a 'register' of Hindustani. This will need explanation. A 'register' is a form of a language, with an officially sanctioned grammar and vocabulary. It is usually sanctioned by an academy (like the Académie française for French) or a government department (most Indian states have a department to regulate the state's official language). Hindustani has two already – Hindi and Urdu. The differences between registers are usually in vocabulary and very rarely grammar. Which is why Hindi and Urdu speakers can understand each other easily, and Pakistani comedians and cricketers need no translation on Hindi language channels.

A dialect on the other hand, diverges from the standard in both grammar and vocabulary. If the difference is large it is often a distinct language. How large the difference is is usually a matter of pitched debate between linguists. 'Lumpers' like to club lots of languages into one, 'Splitters' do the opposite. For a long time, lumpers  ruled, and treated Goan Konkani as a dialect of Marathi; then in 1975 the splitters won and got it recognised as a separate language by the Sahitya  Academy. (To add to the confusion, the dialect of Marathi spoken in the north Konkan is also called Konkani.) Currently lumpers rule in Hindustani linguistics, treating languages as distinct as Marwari and Magahi as 'dialects' of Hindi, though their speakers may barely understand each other. Splitters rarely win, though they did succeed in getting Maithili recognised as a separate language in 2003.

Hinglish, as heard in India has a solid bedrock of Hindi grammar, borrowing only vocabulary from English when the corresponding Hindi word is non-existent, unwieldy or obscure. Many of these words acquire Hindi grammatical endings in Hinglish. (e.g. it's possible to hear basein aur taxiyan nahin chal rahin hain (buses and taxis are not running) during news of a strike). No elements of English grammar have been borrowed into Hinglish, except plurals (when the Hindi plural ending sounds awkward). Similar 'registers' are developing fast for other Indian languages, with no borrowing of grammar.

This has happened before. Many Hindu soldiers picked up Persian vocabulary (and few aspects of grammar) between the 10th and 15th centuries, and that language became Urdu. But Urdu never developed a distinct structure of its own (as Nagamese is doing), and so remains a register of Hindustani. The formation of Pakistan has led to it being concentrated in that population. A similar development occurred in the 19th century, as several Sanskrit words were imported into Hindustani to form Standard Hindi, the current official language of India. (Khariboli is the substrate dialect for both registers, and also for Hinglish.)

"English with a healthy dash of unique Indian vocabulary" as the Economist says, isn't Hinglish however. It's either called Indian English, or (often humorously), Inglish. It will have native words for which no English equivalent exists like panchayat, godown or gherao, or words of pure English etymology not used outside the subcontinent (prepone and airdash). (Several Indian words like pundit and avatar are no longer just Indian English, they're now just plain English.) The grammar of Indian English is still English, it has borrowed nothing from Indian languages. To put  it plainly, it is a dialect of English.

In the academics of creoles and pidgins, the development of registers has received scant attention. Often all that results from an interaction between languages is that a subset of speakers borrow words from the other language, but keep their own grammar. Nevertheless, other cultural differences (religion, script) lead to a separate identity. Hindu Hindustani speakers borrowed Sanskrit words to replace Persian and Arabic words in Hindustani to form Hindi*; Muslim Serbs borrowed Ottoman Turkish words to form Bosnian. (Croatian and Montenegrin are other registers, but barely distinguished from Serbian). Dari (Afghanistan) and Farsi (Iran) sit across the Sunni-Shia divide.

Tajik is another register of Farsi-Dari with Russian words and the Cyrillic script. Prevalent in Tajikistan, it was deliberately devised under Soviet rule to prevent the Tajiks under its rule wanting to separate and unite with Dari-speakers in Afghanistan. If you know Farsi and can read the Cyrillic script, voilà – you're literate in Tajik!

Fiji Baat is a version of Bhojpuri with many Fijian and English words. Although because many aspects of its grammar differ from Bhojpuri, it is somewhere between a register, a dialect and a creole. Sarnami is another interesting one – the Surinamese register of Bhojpuri incorporating words from Dutch and Sranan Tongo (the Dutch-African creole of Surinam). Both Fiji Baat and Sarnami separated from Bhojpuri over a century ago, and because there is no official dictionary to hold them together, they will diverge to form dialects and ultimately separate languages over time (if they survive).

Yiddish is a register of High German, with Hebrew and Aramaic words, and written in Hebrew script (though not being easily intelligible with Standard German, it may be considered a dialect more than a register). In fact Jewish migrants have often formed their own registers of other languages, for example Bene Israel Marathi, Ladino (Jewish Spanish) and Judaeo-Malayalam (spoken by the Cochin Jews).

Other registers might evolve because of different standardisations of spellings and vocabulary, arising from geographical and historical reasons. American and British English differ in spelling and limited vocabulary, as do Brazilian and European Portuguese. Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia are registers of the same Malay base, but divergent because of spelling and vocabulary differences brought on by colonial history. North Korean and South Korean are divergent registers as they remain under different (and mutually hostile) regimes. But as their origin doesn't depend on interaction with foreign languages, they don't come into this discussion.

Hinglish ka future

It will be interesting to watch the progress of Hinglish, compared to similar pidgin-registers of other Indian languages (such as Tanglish, Banglish etc). It is possible that these will go extinct, as words borrowed from English simply become part of the language over time and stop being considered alien. This process is common in all languages - Persian has a large number of Arabic words, English vocabulary is rich in Norse and Norman French words, Drvaidian languages have lots of Sanskrit words.

It's especially so if the second interacting language has no native speakers to keep the pidgin alive. Though English is prestigious enough to remain alive in India on its own, most people who speak it today did so growing up, and are thus bilingual. Anglo-Indians (whose native language is English) are mostly bilingual, and also don't need the pidgin.

On the other hand, Hinglish is likely to be stable. Urdu's prevalence is declining in India. Standard Hindi faced (and still faces) fierce resistance in southern and eastern states, such as the anti-Hindi riots in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s. [In fact, it is not a spoken language even in the states it is an official language in; because each state has its own set of languages. It remains a sarkari language, used only by politicians and bureaucrats.] Also, it is not open to borrowing – it is an official language with a government-mandated vocabulary, and invents words for concepts that came from abroad. Such constructions include 'lohpath gamini avagaman suchak yantra' for railway signal and 'dhumrapan-dandika' for cigarette.

Hinglish, now supported by writers, media and the film industry (but not the government), is far more easily understood. It also does not carry the political baggage of Standard Hindi; people who speak different languages (say Kannada and Bengali), use Hinglish to communicate with each other. It is flexible, as it easily borrows words from other languages. And to borrow an old advertising slogan, there's nothing official about it.

One day, perhaps, Hinglish will become our national language.

*This kind of statement usually leads to trouble. Hindi-speakers insist their language is as old as time, whereas it only originated from the Sanskritisation movement in the 19th century. Prior to that Hindustani was the prevalent language, a balanced mix of Khariboli and Persian. Urdu was a literary form used in courts and poetry, overdosed with Persian, Arabic and Turkish words (which has accelerated in Pakistan). Some Urdu poetry is so thick with borrowed words that regular Urdu-speakers can't understand it. Standard Hindi often goes that way - so thick with Sanskrit words that it opens a gulf between the governing and the governed.


Venkatraman P. said…
Good post. They say that the language in India changes every 100 kms.

Another Tamil variant is that spoken by the Bondils ( also called Singhs ) who descended from the Rajputs couple of centuries back.


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