How to say ‘vote for me’ in India – 447 different ways
With 814m voters, 29 languages spoken by at least 1m people, and 447 mother tongues, India’s election is a test of linguistic as well as political skills
British journalists: if you think you’ve got it tough trying to appeal to a global English-speaking audience, spare a thought for the candidates in this month’s Indian general election.
Narendra Modi, the favourite to become prime minister, and his rivals are faced with the tricky job of winning people over and garnering their votes in one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” That’s all well and good in one-to-one conversations, but it’s tougher when your potential supporters have several hundred native languages among them. Finding a language they understand may be the best you can manage.
India is the largest democracy in the world, with 814 million people eligible to votethis month. It’s a linguistically complex electorate: Ethnologue, an online database detailing the languages of the world, lists a total of 447 mother tongues currently used in India. For comparison, the same source lists 13 native languages in the UK, 214 in the US and another 214 in Australia.
If you count the various Western Hindi and Eastern Hindi dialects all under one umbrella, there are 29 languages spoken by at least a million people in India. Between them, the Hindi languages are spoken natively by more than 400 million people – 41% of the population. Other major languages include Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu, each of which is spoken by more than 50 million people (5% of the population). In addition to regionally important languages such as Kannada, Punjabi and Oriya, there are also many endangered languages that are used by just a few thousand people.
Multilingualism is the norm in India. It’s very common to use several languages during the course of the day – you might use one at home, another at work and another for shopping, for religious activities or with friends. Modi himself speaks Gujarati, Hindi and Marathi fluently. But which languages does he use to address potential voters?
Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party are well aware of the importance of getting not only the message right, but also the languages in which it is expressed. His PR team are savvy users of social media: Modi’s videos and tweets have been translated into Assamese, Kannada, Bengali, Urdu and several other languages, in order to appeal to a wide audience. The BJP nonetheless made a notable faux pas when it ran Hindi adverts in southern parts of India, where voters are more likely to speak Telugu, Tamil or Malayalam.
Despite the proliferation of regional and local languages, Modi’s campaign website is set to English by default. English plays a distinct role in the Indian linguistic landscape: the 2001 census revealed that although there are only 226,000 native speakers of English in India, 125 million people have it as a second or additional language. It is used in the media, in academia and in government and is seen as the language of power, prestige and aspiration.
It’s worth noting that Indian English isn’t the same variety as British, American or Australian English. It’s a distinct national dialect, with words and grammatical features that are unfamiliar elsewhere. While I might have a “soft spot” for the actor Irrfan Khan, for instance, a speaker of Indian English might have a “soft corner” for him. Were I to marry him (this is unlikely), we might celebrate our “wedding anniversary” in the UK, but our “marriage anniversary” in India. Progressive tenses are more common in Indian English than in other varieties: it’s common to hear “I am liking the roles played by Irrfan Khan” in contrast to “I like the roles played by Irrfan Khan”. (Have a read of Standard English and Indian Usage by J Sethi if you’re interested in finding out more about the differences.)
Although he likes to mock the elite English-speaking politicians of the rival Indian National Congress party, Modi has been brushing up on his own English language skills. If he is to win support from a wide base, he needs to be able to compete with the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, whose English is widely praised.