The Art of Common Talk in British South Asian Diaspora

First Published at on 08 June 2020. Commissioned by Professor Rajinder Dudrah for the University of Oxford led project Creative Multilingualism.

Linguistic creativity is entwined with language play and according to Professor David Crystal, we love to play with language and we love it when others do too. Why is this so? One reason is that language play connects us to our inner child and takes us to the beginnings of life; as infants, we enter a world of language play, with adults immersing us in all forms of baby talk and nursery rhymes. We arrive at the school playground playing with new and old rhymes, riddles, talking backwards, and all sorts of tongue-twisters. In a cumulative manner, we realise that language is not just for fun, but for serious reasons too.

We learn language is a serious tool as we begin to internalise language ideologies that can manifest in the development of the inner-critic or sensor as “pardon my language”. The language ideologies impacting the inner-critic are different for monolinguals and bilinguals, as is the way their language develops and displays itself.

Professor Tej Bhatia and Professor William Ritchie observe that, when  speaking, the bilingual brain makes “complex decisions concerning language choice”. In contrast, a monolingual speaker’s language choices are restricted to style or register, such as informal vs. formal. Having more than one choice of language naturally leads to language mixing, of which code-switching is a subset. Code-switching is the practice of moving back and forth between two or more languages or between two or more dialects or registers of the same language. Although language mixing reflects an effective and economical strategy in human communication, it is seldom perceived as desirable or positive in our societies. Rather, language mixers are perceived as “people that have difficulty in expressing themselves”, or are “lazy” and “careless”.

As Professor Rakesh Bhatt explains, such ideologies date back to the adoption of English language as the official medium of education in India in 1835, a decision which further strengthened the language’s prestigious status. At this time, the English language was reserved “for the elite class and ensured that identities were tightly bound by it” to the extent that the mixing between languages was socially stigmatised. Even now, many bilinguals can be apologetic for their language mixing, going as far as to excuse it as “a memory lapse”, or, in more extreme instances, they will suppress the urge to code-switch. Nevertheless, language mixing is a force of its own, and feature of the bilingual mind, so much so that younger generations have legitimised the practice.

Linguistic Creativity and Rules

So, what does language creativity look like in bilinguals of English and South-Asian languages in the UK?Can one mix any part of language or are there rules? Bhatia and Ritchie offer a useful analogy in understanding language mixing from the beverage and material science industry: 

“…When orange and apple juice are mixed together, the resultant product is a third new product — distinct in taste, appearance and effect from each juice in its pure and unmixed form. Metallurgy or material sciences are also grounded in mixing in an effort to develop a new product. In order to get an optimal yield from mixing, what is imperative is the right kind of mixture, not a random or odd mixture.” 

Language mixing is a process similar to those described by the aforementioned analogies in that it adheres to a set of rules, which enable it to create a “new product”. Specifically, Bhatt argues that code-switching creates “a third space where two systems of identity representation converge”.

As for the rules and creativity in language mixing, how do they work together? According to Professor Noam Chomsky, language creativity is the capacity to generate an infinite number of rule-governed language choices. That is, the speaker and listener can produce infinite sentences that are new to them both, and yet are effortlessly understood by both. The creation of new sentences and words is one of many areas in which language creativity takes its space, in which one is let loose(ish) into the world of language play. 

While certain parts of language can be seen overtly as verbal art, other parts are quietly masked under “ordinary language”. For example, language mixing of everyday verbs can be seen as verbal art in bilingual speakers of English and South Asian languages like Pahari-Pothwari, Urdu-Hindi, Punjabi, Hindko, Bengali, and Gujrati. They enable an infinite number of verb mixing, even though they have native equivalents; the process and result of verb mixing is a creative one. For example, in Pahari-Pothwari, Punjabi, and Urdu-Hindi by adding the native verb kar (‘to do’), nachna (‘to dance’) becomes dance kar (‘to dance, lit. dance do’); khairna (‘to play’) becomes play kar (‘to play, lit. play do’); and sikhna (‘to learn’)becomes learn kar (`to learn, lit. learn do’). There are countless more combinations like this, as one can mix most English verbs with the native verb kar. 

These types of verbs cannot be integrated into any type of sentence, however, because language mixing has a set of integrated rules. For instance, while the English loan-word learn cannot be combined with the native auxiliary verb ai, sikhna (‘to learn’) can be used with ai, as in the following Urdu-Hindi examples, which translate as ‘You learn this’:

(1)  ap yai learn kar ai    

(2) *aap yai learn-ai

(3) ap yai sikh-ai

The ungrammaticality of *aap yai learn-ai is not based on opinions of the speakers, but rather is rooted in the unconscious rules that govern the integration of Urdu-Hindi and English.

Why have multiple verbs that have the same meaning, such as learn kar and sikh? Code-switching is motivated by social discourse functions, so having a choice of the two verbs can mark formality or informality, solidarity, group identity, and/or lexical need. Choosing between the two verbs can also mark a subtle difference in meaning.

Chaklait shaklait & nachna-ing

Reduplication† – such as in the example of chaklait shaklait, x-ray sheksray, and tea shea – is a great example of visible language play and creativity in everyday speech, because of its rhythmic and rhyming natureHere we see that the English nouns chocolate, x-ray, and teafollow the same pattern as native nouns like chai shai and daal shaal

Mixing with the English suffix –ing, used in gerunds (like swimming), is another example of this sort of language play. Although it is more popular amongst the American South Asian diaspora community, certain younger speakers in the UK do playfully and informally add -ing to South Asian verbs like nachna-ing (‘dancing’), khana-ing or khay-ing (‘eating’), and pi-ing (‘drinking’).

An old Urdu anecdote‡ highlights what playing with the ­–ing suffix reveals about language perceptions. There are two men that regard themselves as English speakers, but when describing their broken down truck, they language mix by adding -ing to their native Urdu verbs; “truck phas-ing…no hil-ing no jul-ing.”

The verb phas-ing (phasna) translates as ‘stuck-ing’, while hil-ing (hilna) and jul-ing (julna)translate as‘moving’ and ‘wiggling’. In trying to decode the language mixing, the listener can both laugh at and reflect upon the degree to which the two men are English speakers through their language mixing  and whether their language mixing is, in fact, a mocking subversion of language ideologies. 

* The asterisk symbolises an ungrammatical sentence. 

† In linguistics, there is a term dedicated to expressions like chai shai called reduplication, which is a word formation process that permits a word or part of a word to be repeated. 

Thank you to my Urdu teacher Amna Raja for sharing this story with me.

Dr. Farah Nazir (@drfarahnazir) is a UK-based linguist studying the linguistics of the Pahari-Pothwari language. Her research interests are in South Asian languages, syntax-semantics, multilingualism, language contact, and language creativity.

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