At sea in the language of Shakespeare and Bollywood

To be an island nation is not to be cut off, but to be outward looking, moving ceaselessly, like the tides

Yes, brown is now indisputably the new black. This exhausted cliché is thrown up daily by yoof hacks and commissioning editors to affirm that South Asian stuff is even more "in" than it was when Cherie Blair shimmied week-in, week-out in glittering Indian garb to flatter Asian voters, especially millionaires.

The impact of South Asians on British life is growing and deepening. Millions of Britons are addicted to red food colouring, Bombay Dreams and The Kumars No 42. Bhangra, sari curtains and oil head massages are an integral part of the lifestyle, just as yoga and Hare Krishna and lentils were in the Sixties. But whereas hippies felt they were being rebellious and excitingly counter-cultural as they dabbled with these accoutrements, today the influence is decidedly mainstream and affects everything from gardens to architecture, from music to language.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes many new words from the Asian languages and more are appearing in the Collins Bank of English too. Arfaan Khan, a linguist at Reading University, believes this development will continue. Many a young amorous man - white, black and brown - now uses ras malai (a soft, milky sweet) or sonia (meaning attractive) to describe lovelies. As if to return the compliment Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Kutchi (my mother tongue) are picking up ever more English, and then naturalising the pronunciations - "goarmant" for government; "filum" for film, and so on.

English has always been promiscuous, open and adventurous. Eighty per cent of our vocabulary is foreign born. Shakespeare borrowed freely in his time; Martin Amis does so in his. English is the mongrel child of a mongrel nation, and its genes are now spread around the world. Our culture too is ever-changing, unlike the other EU big cats, where a sterner monoculturalism has kept guard.

To be an island nation is not to be cut off, but to be outward looking, moving ceaselessly, like the tides, trading with difference. Traditionalists may put up barriers and yearn for a mythical past when mushy cabbage was eaten without complaint and people knew the second verse of the national anthem. But it was never thus.

In this we are like America. There too, blacks, Hispanics, Italians, Jews and now Arabs and Indians inject the culture and language with colour and verve. Americans also play fast and free with grammar. General Alexander Haig, the chief of staff under Richard Nixon, was brilliant at using nouns as verbs - "to caveat", for example. And when the most expressive of these enter our lexicon, we too are injected with that energy and iconoclasm. What would our culture critics do without the Yiddish word schmaltz? And how would our teenagers show they approve of something without the black American invention, "cool"?

Language is wilful yet deeply conservative; it is independent, creative, follows its own imperatives and yet it has to be subject to rules old and new. And English is more complicated than any other language, because it belongs to the world in all its guises.

When I was in India last month, people, at first, simply didn't understand or were irritated by my English. Was I pretending to be a gori (whitie)? I look Indian. They expected me to speak that lovely Indian English (which sounds like Welsh English); and within three days I found myself doing just that, shaking my head from side to side, too.

"Yes, I only was asking the price," I said to traders. And, "It is the mostest beautiful tomb," I said to our enthusiastic guide at the Taj after he used the phrase at every historical monument to a dead king. Soon I was adding "ji" to names (it is more polite). Most surprising of all, I found I could speak Hindi fluently even though I had only ever understood it passively before, while my English was Hindified effortlessly.

Then there were the newspapers and public notices which thwarted first and delighted next. "No Madam With Menses Beyond Here This Stone" - an injunction outside an old Hindu temple. "Menses" is gone from Britain but on the subcontinent they keep such bygone words alive. There is a big debate about "Eve-teasing", which is the problem of men pinching, pawing, brushing against, ogling and whistling at women or calling out lewd remarks. How sweetly protective is that?

In this country, too, as different tribes try to live together, our common language can help unite us, but not without pain and some chaos. The Ron Atkinson case illustrates how unclear the rules are. His remarks were racist but he clearly was confused about when it was OK to use the word "nigger". My closest friends have permission to teasingly use the word "wog". They are insiders in my life. But is that only confusing to others and does it help to validate people such as Atkinson?

Supplely, creatively, insolently, bravely, surprisingly like no other language on earth, the kaleidoscope of English sparkles and transmutes itself limitlessly and Hinglish is one more star in that firmament. The English people, having just marked St George's day, must feel right proud of that.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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