If your first language is English and you grow up in a country where English is the only official language (like us), it’s easy to forget that most of the English speakers in the world learn it as their second language. To put that another way: worldwide, more people speak local variants of English than ‘standard English’.

In India, over 200 million people speak English and there are more than 60 English language newspapers.

India is big. It is made up of 28 states and seven territories. And there are a lot of languages—according to a 2001 census, there were 29 different languages in India that had at least a million native speakers each. The official language is Hindi (an Indo-European language, interestingly)—but English in India is a rich variant in its own right. It is the language of science, of IT, of tourism, and of business. For many—especially the rising middle class—it is also the language of getting ahead.

One interesting question is: How did English change India?

Another is: How did India change English?


At first, English was meant to be the language of control.

It arrived in India with Father Thomas Stephens, a missionary, in 1579. Soon after, the East India Company was formed (1600), with the first permanent trading station established in Surat in 1613. English traders were encouraged to ‘go native’—learning local Indian languages and marrying Indian women. Incentives were great—profits from spices, textiles and opium sold back in England were as high as 200%.

As the Mughal Emperors’ power waned, Britain—through the East India Company—took over the administration of India. This lasted from 1765 until 1947.

This meant that, for most of the 19th century, there were only about 900 members of the Indian Civil Service (all British)—responsible for the governance of the entire subcontinent. In some cases, one District Officer was responsible for the welfare of up to three million Indian people.

And he couldn’t understand their language.

In 1835, an Englishman named Thomas Macauley, who was serving on the Supreme Council of India, wrote a Minute to the Governor-General. In it, he proposed English be adopted as the language of instruction for higher education.

This was not an act of benevolence—it was so he could form a:

… class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.

Macaulay’s Minute is popularly cited as the tipping point of English in India. But English did not take hold for another 20 years—when universities that primarily instructed in English were actually established in the major cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

While the culture of administration was seeding English with the Indian middle classes, it was being cultivated in another, indirectly related, area—the Indian Army. In 1881, the Indian Army comprised 69,647 British troops and 125,000 Indians.

What Indian English(es) sound like

Predictably, the wide range of native languages in India can be correlated with the idiosyncracies that exist in the many forms of Indian English. But, with so many native languages, it is difficult to speak about the phonology in general, other than to say most differences occur with consonants, not vowels.

For example, Hindi does not differentiate between the ‘v’ and ‘w’ sounds, so most native speakers of Hindi will use the same approximate for ‘v’ and ‘w’ when speaking English.

But let’s focus on the common features of many Indian Englishes …

The most prominent one is the fact that Indian languages are syllable timed, whereas English is stress timed. This means Indians give equal weighting to each syllable when pronouncing words rather than inflecting certain ones, as is the case in ‘Standard English’. Words are generally pronounced how they are spelled—unstressed vowels are not reduced to schwa (i.e. a very short nondescript vowel, like as heard in the second syllable of ‘chicken’). It doesn’t just affect multi-syllable words, it affects single-syllable ones too: function words (of, to, and etc.) that would normally be glossed over in most varieties of English do not have reduced vowels.

Grammatical features

Perhaps one of the most widely known (and widely parodied!) grammatical feature of Indian English is the use of the progressive tense where a speaker of Standard English would use simple present tense. For example, someone using progressive tense would say ‘I am liking this movie’ in place of ‘I like this movie.’ This structure is common in Hindi.

Another famous feature is the use of undifferentiated tag questions. In Standard English, it is important that the tag ‘agrees’ with both the subject and the verb of the statement part of the utterance—for example, ‘You’re going to work today, aren’t you?’. This is not the case with Indian English—the tag ‘isn’t it’ can be used in all situations: ‘You’re going to work today, isn’t it?’ This is cultural; using that phrasing tag question this way is ‘non-impositional and mitigating’. This cultural politeness can be seen in other aspects of use, such as using ‘may’ to express obligation—‘These mistakes may please be corrected.’


‘Bollywood’, ‘yoga’ and ‘pappadum’ are now household words but the Indian English lexicon incorporates lots of other interesting additions to Standard English.

Loan words

Loan words from Indian languages are predominantly nouns, such as:

  • names for foods (masala, roti)
  • words that originated in religious imagery (guru, juggernaut)
  • neologisms (oustee—one who is being ousted; step-motherly treatment—poor treatment, such as what Cinderella received).

Familiar words

Other ‘familiar’ words can have culturally contextual meanings: in newspaper personal ads, tall (describing a woman) can mean, specifically, between 155 and 162 cm—a cultural ideal.  And fair can mean ‘relatively light in colour, but still dark-skinned’, in contrast to ‘actually fair-complexioned’, which means fair in the Western sense.

In Indian English, words that have fallen out of use in other parts of the English-speaking world—including Britain, where they originated—are still commonly used. Among the most notable, perhaps, are tiffin, meaning ‘lunch’, and curd, meaning ‘yoghurt’.

Morphological differences

Indian English words have interesting morphological differences to Standard English words, such as:

  • a plural ‘s’ added to mass nouns—creating words such as furnitures and litters (bits of rubbish)
  • Indian words with English affixes (muskafy—to flatter someone)
  • truncating words (fundas—fundamentals)
  • compounding words (cousin-brother)
  • employing back formation to make words such as prepone—to change the date of something to make it earlier.


What I find most intriguing is the prevalence of metaphorical expression: a study concluded that metaphors are twice as common in the Times of India as in the London Times.

And finally…

Here’s a few other words that entered English from Indian languages. While you’re probably already aware that some of these originated from India, others might surprise you:

  • bungalow
  • cheetah
  • chutney
  • cot
  • dinghy
  • gymkhana
  • pundit
  • thug
  • jungle
  • loot
  • punch (the drink)
  • shampoo
  • veranda (where I’m sitting now!)

See the Wikipedia list for more.

This article was adapted—with a lot of help from Minnie!—from an essay I wrote for a linguistics class at uni in 2010.


Bakshi, R (1991) ‘Indian English’. English today 27. Cambridge University Press

Bayer, J (1986) Anglo-Indian English—A sociolinguistic investigation of the English spoken by the Anglo-Indians in Mysore city. Central Institute of Indian Languages

Bhatt, R (2001) ‘World Englishes’. Annual review of Anthropology, Volume 30, pp. 527–550. Annual Reviews

Bragg, M (2003) The adventure of English, Episode 7. ITV

Coelho, G (1997) ‘Anglo-Indian English: a nativized variety of English’, Language in society 26, pp. 561–589. Cambridge University Press

Crystal, D (2003) The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language (2nd edn.) Cambridge University Press

Ferguson, N (2008) Empire: How Britain made the modern world. Penguin Group

Mukherjee, J (2007) ‘Steady states in the evolution of new Englishes—Present-day Indian English as an equilibrium’. Journal of English Linguistics, Volume 35 Number 2. Sage Publications

Naidu, S (2009) Metaphorical expressions in Indian English: A cross-cultural usage-based study. Oklahoma State University

Trudgill, P, and Hannah, J. (1994). International English: A guide to the varieties of standard English. London: Edward Arnold.

Various, Wikipedia—<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_English>, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India>, < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_India>, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_newspapers_in_India#English_Language>. Accessed between May 29 and June 4, 2010