A Hindi-English jumble, spoken by 350 million
Turn on any Indian television station these days and you're likely to hear things like "Hungry kya?" and "What your bahana is?"
Or one of your friends might ask you to "pre-pone" your dinner plans or accuse you of "Eve-teasing."
No, you didn't mishear them. These and countless other new words and phrases are part of the fastest-growing language in the country: Hinglish.
The mix of Hindi and English is the language of the street and the college campus, and its sound sets many parents' teeth on edge. It's a bridge between two cultures that has become an island of its own, a distinct hybrid culture for people who aspire to make it rich abroad without sacrificing the sassiness of the mother tongue. And it may soon claim more native speakers worldwide than English.
Once, Indians would ridicule the jumbled language of their expatriate cousins, the so-called ABCDs - or the American-Born Confused Desi. (Desi means countryman.) Now that jumble is hip, and turning up in the oddest places, from television ads to taxicabs, and even hit movies, such as "Bend it Like Beckham" or "Monsoon Wedding."
"Before, advertisements used to be conceived in English and then just translated into Hindi almost as an afterthought," says Ashok Chakravarty, head of the creative division of Publicis India, an advertising firm outside New Delhi. But that method doesn't work for the vast majority of Indians who know only a smattering of English. "You may be understood, but not vibed with. That's why all the multinational corporations now speak Hinglish in their ads."
To get an idea of what the tamasha (ruckus) is all about, listen to a typical Hinglish advertisement.
Pepsi, for instance, has given its global "Ask for more" campaign a local Hinglish flavor: "Yeh Dil Maange More" (the heart wants more). Not to be outdone, Coke has its own Hinglish slogan: "Life ho to aisi" (Life should be like this).
Domino's Pizza, which offers Indian curiosities such as the chicken tikka pizza, asks its customers "Hungry kya?" (Are you hungry?), and McDonald's current campaign spoofs the jumbled construction of Hinglish sentences with its campaign, "What your bahana is?" (Bahana means excuse, as in, "What's your excuse for eating McDonald's and not home-cooked food?")
None of this would have happened 10 years ago, says Sushobhan Mukherjee, strategic planning director for Publicis India.
"My grandfather's generation grew up thinking, 'If I can't speak English correctly, I won't speak it,' " says Mr. Mukherjee. "Now, power has shifted to the young, and they want to be understood rather than be correct."
Hinglish has a buzz now, adds Sanjay Sipahimalani, executive creative director of Publicis India. "Ten years ago, if somebody used Hindi in an otherwise perfect English sentence, I don't think that we would have hired him. It would be a sign of a lack of education. Now it's a huge asset."
The turning point that made Hinglish hip, say cultural observers, was the introduction of cable television in the mid-1990s. Eagerly anticipated music channels like MTV and its competitor, Channel V, originally provided only English music, presented by foreign-born Indian video jockeys who spoke only in English. Outside metro areas, the response was not encouraging.
Then Channel V started a new campaign that included comic spoofs on the way Indians speak English. By 1996, Channel V's penetration of the Indian market went from under 10 percent to over 60 percent.
"There are two trends going on here," says Vikram Chandra, a TV newscaster for NDTV news channel in New Delhi. "One is that [businesses] have to Indianize in order to survive in this market.... At the same time, most Indians recognize that to succeed and do well, English is where it's at." In effect, Indians are trying to have it both ways.
English coaching institutes are now burgeoning nationwide. Yet what Indians speak at work is not necessarily what they speak at home, with their friends, or on the bus.
Indeed, David Crystal, a British linguist at the University of Wales, recently projected that at about 350 million, the world's Hinglish speakers may soon outnumber native English speakers.
While most of the Indians who come to the West to work in the information-technology sector speak English, the sheer numbers of Hinglishmen in IT makes it almost inevitable that some Hinglish words will get globalized.
The subcontinental tug of Hinglish is already being felt abroad. In Britain, the No. 1 favorite meal is an Anglo-Indian invention called Chicken Tikka Masala. And last week, Microsoft announced the company's decision to launch local versions of Windows and Office software in all 14 of India's major languages, including Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.
Indians have always had a way with English words. Sexual harassment, for instance, is known as "Eve-teasing." Mourners don't give condolences, they "condole." And then there's "pre-pone," the logical but nonexistent opposite of "post-pone": "I'm busy for dinner. Can we pre-pone for lunch instead?"
Different Indian cities have their own Hinglish words. In Bombay, men who have a bald spot with a fringe of hair all around are called "stadiums," as in "Hey stadium, you're standing on my foot."
For the vast majority of Indians who have never studied English, and indeed, who may be barely literate, Hinglish is a foreign language that allows them to connect with their immediate world.
"In Bombay, everybody knows the word 'tension,' " says Shaziya Khan, a young advertising whiz in Bombay. "My maid one day told me, 'Aajkul humko bahut tension hain.'" (Translation: These days, I feel a lot of tension.) "She understands, and I understand. It really works."