Thursday 1 July 2010


Thanks to Giridhar Rao for alerting me to this: a news website called DNA, based in Mumbai, India, reports that
94 per cent of the students in primary schools across the country cannot recognise the English alphabets.

Er, come again?
Which English alphabets would that be? When I last checked, we only use one alphabet, the one comprising the letters A to Z, the one also known as Latin script.
The writer can hardly be talking about Indian children being ignorant of the International Phonetic Alphabet or of alphabetic shorthand systems.
No, by an “alphabet” the writer of this report means what in core standard English is called a “letter”. The children can’t recognize the letters of the English (Latin) alphabet.

Isn’t it interesting that a reporter on an English-medium news website, writing a shock-horror article about falling standards of literacy, should confuse ‘alphabet’ and ‘letter’ in this way? This is a mistake I associate more with Japanese, Korean, or Chinese learners of EFL.

Or perhaps it’s not considered an error in Indian English.

Given the role of English in India, we conventionally call Indian English a variety of English as a Second Language, not English as a Foreign Language. But it’s worth remembering that the number of Indians speaking English as their first or only language is under a quarter of a million (1991 census), or putting it another way less than the population of Barbados. For the remaining ninety million or so Indians who reportedly speak it, it’s not their primary language. So it’s not surprising that in it we encounter some typical EFL errors.


  1. This mistake (calling "letters" "alphabets") is very frequent, in my experience, for EFL speakers from South Asia, Iran and the Arabic world. I have no idea why, though... Both Arabic and Persian have distinct words for "letter" and "alphabet", so I am at a loss as to what causes the confusion.

  2. East Asia, too. In the latter case, I think it's fairly clear that alphabet has come to mean 'alphabetic letter' (prototypically 'Latin-script letter', of course); Chinese characters are not called alphabets in this variety of English. Consequently, the alphabets means 'the alphabetic letters' = 'the alphabet'.

    Indian English is a special case, because the vast majority of the people who learn it, learn from other speakers of Indian English. Consequently, Indian English evolves independently of other varieties of English in a way that mimics first-language evolution. So perhaps alphabet in this sense is coming to be a regional feature of Indian English, just as counting large quantities in lakh and crore, or speaking of dacoity rather than banditry, is.

    The only comparable case that comes to mind is the teaching of Hebrew to traditional Jewish men. There too there are regional differences in vocabulary and especially in pronunciation between Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and other varieties of Jews. Since the creation of Israeli Hebrew, we now see the same situation as in English: L1 and L2 evolution operating independently.

  3. What I am interested in now is whether this should still be considered a mistake - when and where do we draw the line - when does L2 evolve so much that we must see it as a new L?

  4. It's difficult to call it a mistake. As an Indian English speaker, I used "alphabet" for "letter" all the time as a kid. For me, they were synonyms. It was only much later that I started using 'letter' exclusively for its particular meaning.

    As someone who considers Indian English to be his first language, I am a little piqued at the word "error". Words do get new meanings; and that's what has happened. Perhaps, the origin of the semantic collapse might have been an error, but it is quite establised now, as a standard feature of Indian English (except in the speech of those influenced by standard English - so, the use of "letter" as opposed to "alphabet" from my own random observations decrease with increase in contact with Standard (British) English - thru high-school literature...

  5. So what we have here is apparently a feature of regional dialect vocabulary, since it is not fully accepted as part of Indian Standard English (otherwise Karthik and other educated speakers would not move away from it). If it were a regional feature of Standard English, like American fall 'autumn' or railroad, it would be in use even at the highest registers, which does not appear (yet) to be the case. In any event, it is certainly beyond the level of a mere ESL mistake, though it doubtless began as one.

    Zala Mojca: As long as mutual intelligibility remains high, which it does, it's premature to speak of a separate L. What we do have, however, is a separate tradition of L2 learning which occasionally becomes L1 learning. Rudyard Kipling, for example, was born in Bombay and was an L1 speaker of both 1860s-era Indian English dialect and what he calls "the vernacular", which might have been Hindustani or Marathi. Only when he went to England at age five did he begin to learn Standard English.

  6. As a fairly frequent visitor to Mumbai, this seems to me a very common usage. I wonder to what extent it might be connected to the fact that the main local languages are written in scripts which represent words syllabically. There is no obvious common word in English for an aksara - the cluster of consonants, ligatures and diacritics that represents a syllable and which, say, the Devanagari writing sytem is based around - and I get the sense that the word "alphabet" is often used to refer to an aksara in English conversation. It seems a natural step from there for a native Hindi or Marathi speaker to calling letters "alphabets" when talking about something written in Latin script.

  7. Actually, I do think the use of 'alphabet' to mean Standard English 'letter of the alphabet' is Standard Indian English. It is also Standard Malaysian and Singaporean English, where it is used among L1 English speakers. That sensitive speakers in contact with prestige Englishes will move away from these forms is not surprising. It is exactly like American English 'fall', just that most American English speakers would not consider any other English more prestigious enough to adopt 'foreign' vocabulary.


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