English is Malayalam



Or maybe Malayalam is English. The lingua franca of digital India is an ingenious, mind-boggling blend of regional language and the English alphabet.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a tech tour in the US, Google’s India-born CEO, Sundar Pichai, said that Android, the company’s mobile operating system, would introduce keyboards in nine Indian languages. It is time technology companies woke up to Indians who are skipping English to communicate, especially and remarkably when they are messaging on their phones. Half the messages in my Samsung phone only look English; they are not in English. They are written using the English alphabet that we all learned sometime in school. This is, in fact, Malayalam written in Roman script. Digital jugaad has changed English as I knew it. Here English is Malayalam, or Malayalam is English. It is a delightful, whimsical, ingenious linguistic transformation that has never before been attempted so well, so democratically, so instinctively. English is no longer the language of translation. It is the language of transliteration. English is not just the language to which we translate our thoughts from Malayalam (substitute another regional language here). English is now the language we use to transliterate what we think in Malayalam (substitution applicable again) — and without any apologies. When I moved back from Delhi, where I gratefully slipped into English to chat with friends from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, Manipur and Tamil Nadu and almost every other state, to Kerala, and was once again surrounded by more Malayalis than there are shrimp in the seas, I needed, indeed hankered for, Malayalam when I was texting, sending a WhatsApp message, or posting on Facebook. The reasons were many: some of my friends preferred Malayalam to English, even though they knew both languages very well; some of my friends were more comfortable in Malayalam; some did not know English and, thankfully, it did not matter to them. These were also people with whom I have only used Malayalam to converse. Sending a message or a WhatsApp one-liner in English now meant losing our familiar conversational tone, the everyday sweetness, the linguistic capriciousness, the idiosyncratic quality of our dialect. “Entharade” must be said as “entharade”. “What is this” does not cut it. It became an effort to capture in English the ease with which we spoke in Malayalam. We would, in English, lose our shared cultural codes: the slang, the songs, even the Mohanlal dialogue that otherwise punctuated our conversations. I never needed them when I spoke to my non-Malayali friends in university and at work in Delhi. But without these — these were sometimes props, sometimes the very soul — a chat in English with a Malayali would look like a mundu that has been starched too much — formal, stilted. It just does not fall well, it does not cling to me. Check this word one of my friends used recently: “There”. That’s English, right? That is what I thought, too, at first glance. But there is no English “there” between me and him. It is, if you are so picky on exact transliteration, “theeré”. He was saying, “There illa (Not even a little)”. English is losing itself — and Malayalam may not be gaining either — in the hands of these radicals, but they have exploited whatever app and font is available to them, and blended it to create something extraordinary: A language that they need in these digital times, in digital India. This new Indian phone language is everywhere. Once the staple of online porn stories, it now appears in varying degrees on social media. It is not very common on Twitter, where Malayalam will not help you communicate with your mysterious bunch of followers whose linguistic preference you wouldn’t know. It is more common on Facebook, especially when you want to communicate something to people who speak the same language as you do. But it is the lingua franca of WhatsApp groups where you are speaking with family or school friends with whom you share a past, a language. Pichai said there are more internet users in India than in any country in the world except China. He added that in the past year, 100 million Indians started using the internet for the first time. These are digital newcomers and they are mostly using mobile phones and their medium is more likely to be Malayalam or Tamil or Urdu or Hindi than English. Pichai said: “We have an improved Hindi keyboard and support for seven Indian languages with the latest version of Android.” On my Samsung, there are already 14 languages — from Assamese and Gujarati to Bangla and Telugu. Before Pichai, there was Nokia, our original mobile phone and fetish, the nursery where we learnt messaging. In 1999, the Nokia 3210 had the first menu in Hindi, and two years later, its 3610 model was the first phone to allow Hindi for texting. We not only need keyboards and keypads in Indian languages, but the multilinguals or at least bilinguals among us need keyboards and keypads where we can toggle between two or more languages. We are divided linguistic selves. We cannot choose. We cannot change settings every other minute when our thoughts jump from The New York Times to Nadodikkattu. That’s digital India’s memo to Silicon Valley.

*The writer is a journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram

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