Out of India

Three languages battle to dominate over a billion people.

English has made India a world player. The country is an outsourcing king, especially among publishers. Read a book or visit a web site, and there’s a chance that some part of it was produced or serviced in India.

How strong is English in India today? What forces oppose it? And which way is the struggle for language dominance going?

Every day on their subcontinent nearly 150 million Indians read 8,000 domestically-published English language newspapers. The circulations of some are undeniably world-class. The most striking example is Number Six on the global Top Ten list of daily newspapers in English, the Times of India, which outranks both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

English language books, too, are big. Only the US and the UK publish more than India, which releases 20,000 titles a year, more than a fourth of the country’s total production.

China can produce goods cheaper, but India’s unrivaled second language experience gives it an edge in the global business of information industry outsourcing. Worldwide, publishers outsource to the tune of a couple billion dollars. So, Delhi caters to book giants like Macmillan and Thomson Press.

Geography, which for generations hindered development on the subcontinent, now conspires with English. Together in the digital age, they produce a situation of high value timing. Now call centers and web sites are milking the difference in time zones. News portal CNET, for example, uses Indians to keep its news site fresh when HQ staff back home in the States are sleeping.

Consider the huge effect the language has on India in the 21st Century. You might think it gets protected status there. But far from securing its place, English is being challenged in the world’s next most populous country.

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The premier challenger to Indian English is Hindi. These two languages cooperated for two and a half centuries to dominate the vast subcontinent.

But early signs of a change show Hindi emerging as the possible lingua franca of the literate in India. Penguin Books India, which always only published in English recently launched its first publishing program in Hindi.

Hindi is already spoken by four to five times as many Indians as any other native language including Bengali, Tamil or Telugu.

On the global scale -if you count only native speakers – Hindi appears even larger than English.

But big as it is, this potential English-killer has failed to win over the large non-Hindi regions of the country. In the south English remains the lingua franca.

No one can say for certain how this struggle will turn out. It is possible that these two leviathans languages may have to yield to yet a third force, their own offspring.

“Hinglish” is the name given to English spiced with Hindi vocabulary, or to Hindi syntax supplemented with English. It’s currently popular among the Indian middle class. So advertisers – who might otherwise choose either Hindi or English – are using Hinglish.

Their reasoning: though they might be understood well enough in either of the two languages, the hybrid offspring gives them maximum connection with their audiences. As a result Indian advertising from most multinational corporations is filled with Hinglish.

In previous generations many Indians grew up thinking that if you can’t speak perfect English, you shouldn’t speak it at all. But now market power has shifted to the young. To them, being understood outclasses being correct. This new attitude opens the door wide for the mix that is Hinglish.

English, Hindi or Hinglish for India, the winner in this billion-population country will affect the whole English-speaking world for years to come.

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