The Future of Business English

If you are in India you probably hear the phrase ‘Tell me’ many times a week from someone who just answered your call. The phone conversation goes something like this. ‘Hi, this is Basab.’ The other guy says ‘Oh hi Basab. Tell me.’

‘Tell me’ is a literal translation of ‘Bolo’ in Hindi or something equivalent in other Indian languages. This is a uniquely Indian phrase. Good English would require ‘Tell me’ to have an object at the end of it. Like ‘Tell me why’ or ‘Tell me something’.

We had an American employee in Infosys who started using ‘Tell me’ in his phone conversations. I asked him why. He said that he heard the phrase a lot when he called his Indian colleagues, so he was getting used to it. Plus it was perfectly understood. When you say ‘Tell me’ it is understood that you want the caller to start talking about what he called you for. No ambiguity there. Which is not quite the case with ‘Hi. How are you?’ which is the international English equivalent when you pick up the phone.

English is the closest this planet has to a universal language. It is spoken by over300 million people. Mandarin is spoken by more people, but no language has the global distribution that English has. Also, and importantly, because it is the language spoken in developed countries like the US, UK, Canada and Australia – it automatically becomes the language of choice in the business world.

But the Americans or even the British do not ‘own’ English. It is a flexible, constantly morphing language. It’s like open source software. You can adopt its vocabulary, grammar and phraseology, but make whatever changes you want. The changes you make (or rather your community makes) are then available for broader adoption. Over the years, English has constantly evolved its vocabulary, phrases and accepted use of grammar. American English now differs considerably from British English with phrases like ‘hunky dorey’ or spellings of common words like ‘analyze’. The way English is spoken is a whole different kettle of fish.

I believe the evolution of English is going to accelerate. There are two forces that are propelling it forward – technology and globalization.

Today’s children are growing up very comfortable with email, instant messaging and SMS. While much is made of the special language of SMS and IM, I believe email will have a greater impact on business English. In a corporate setting, most of what one writes goes into emails. Email is expected to be written in decent business English. However, there is a key difference between letters and email. The English in letters needs to be near perfect. Both because of its ‘shelf life’ (you want the pensmanship to be good, when something may be read and re-read many times) and the need to leave the reader with no ambiguities. With email, you don’t have to bother about being perfectly clear. If the reader has a doubt, he’ll email you back the next minute. You don’t have to be perfectly clear, but you have to be brief. You are short on time and so are the readers of the email.

The other major force behind the changing face of business English is globalization. Hollywood is of course a major factor here. So is global media – print and especially TV. I’m sure accent neutralization in Indian call centers is that much easier because they show sitcoms like ‘Friends’ on the many cable channels showing American sitcoms.

Global business is now increasingly going to play a role as well in the future of business English. As the tens of millions of Indian and Chinese English speakers join multinationals or do business with other English speaking countries, especially in the Services industries, they will bring their own flavour to English. You’ll be surprised at how quickly this permeates into the main body of English.

During the British Raj, many Indian language words made their way into the English vocabulary. Brahmin, Atman, Pundit and Mulgitawny are just a few. After the Britishers left, India’s socialist policies isolated us from the rest of the business world and we didn’t make any further contributions. As India re-emerges on the world economic stage, I expect English will welcome its adaptations with open arms. I can’t wait for the day when I can say ‘Abey yaar, I was looking for you only’ and be speaking in perfect English.

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8 Responses to The Future of Business English

  1. ila says:

    Thanks for changing the font. Its so much easier on the eye !
    Ila

    Like

  2. Yogesh says:

    I’m sure ‘Abe yaar’ is going to be acceptable soon, and that’s gonna be ‘Highlish’ (Hindi + English), as there may be possiblity of Chinglish too (Chinese + English). Again its perfect point – Globalization and
    Technology (contributed by Indians – Hindi speaking ppl – ‘junta’)
    Isnt it?
    PS: Earlier font size was better :). It’s just PP may be.

    Like

  3. mahen says:

    I remember a joke, “Britishers ruined our country for just 300 years. But, the world ruins and will ruin their mother tongue for several centuries”. :).
    Well, thats a good thought about e-mail english.

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  4. Anon says:

    Language is for communication and since many words can be pronounced the same way (homonyms) spelling them properly is important. Words that were imported into English also got morphed similarly. Sad to see that as an Indian you cannot spell MULLIGATAWNY! Should have been easy for someone who spent a whole life at a Southie firm – mulagatanni should have been easy fare..

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  5. Very good thoughts on the language. I hear many people in USA ( atleast in silicon valley ) use the word “Yaar”. It is not just by Indians, but by whites too. They know the meaning of that word too. That will get included in the dictionary soon.

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  6. Basab,
    “Tell me” happens to be grammatically correct. It is used informally (in conversation) both in speech and in writing.My comments on this phrase will make it clear.

    As for the word “mulligatawny”, I don’t think anyone can claim the right to know the correct spelling. This is an anglicised version of an ancient Tamil word. The way it is spelt now does not match the original pronunciation at all. So how can that be right? The spelling that comes phonetically closest to its Tamil sound is “milagutanni”. Here “milagu” is pepper and “tanni” is juice (rasam).

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  7. Ved Vyas says:

    I think even before Britishers came to India quite a few Sanskrit words such as data from daata – the giver made an entry in Latin lexicon. I remember one of my school teacher listed some 10-15 Sanskrit words that travelled through Latin into English.

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  8. True that English is constantly ‘morphing’. But the ‘gatekeepers’ remain the native speakers; their certification is all important. And no surprise there: English is big business.

    “Building on research in Switzerland and worldwide, he [François Grin, University of Geneva] was commissioned by a French educational research institution to investigate the impact of the current dominance of English in terms of quantifiable privileged market effects, communication savings effects, language learning savings effects (not needing to invest so much in foreign language learning), alternative human capital investment effects (school time being used for other purposes), and legitimacy and rhetorical effects. This enabled him to conclude that continental countries are transferring to the UK and Ireland at least € 10 billion per year, and more probably about € 16 to 17 billion a year.” Robert Phillipson, “English, a cuckoo in the European higher education nest of languages?” (Forthcoming in the _European Journal of English Studies_. The Grin report, in French (if you want to go that far!) is here: http://cisad.adc.education.fr/hcee/documents/rapport_Grin.pdf )

    In an earlier study Grin estimated that “the savings to the US education system is a hefty $ 16bn a year. These savings are made possible by the very fact that people in the rest of the world are willing to devote time, money and effort to learning another language — in this case, English.” http://www.etes.ucl.ac.be/Francqui/Livre/13.Grin.pdf (pp. 10-11).

    When you are protecting those kinds of returns on investment, there is nothing “automatic” in English becoming “the language of choice in the business world”. Phillipson’s _Linguistic Imperialism_ (OUP 1992) documents quite meticulously the policies in internal and public documents of the British and US governments, and agencies like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the British Council in strategically “placing” English.

    So, while English is impacted by other languages and cultures (and new technologies), “the main body of English” will continue to be the cultural property of its native speakers.

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