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May 2, 2016

Linguistic imperialism


May 2, 2016

Language is a vibrant phenomenon, which is linked with power and politics. Like education, language has also been used by colonial powers to control ‘others’.

In my article, ‘Imperialism and indigenous education’ (April 9, 2016), I tried to explain how the British colonisers’ educational policies affected the indigenous Indian educational system in a negative way. In the same way, language was also used as an effective tool of hegemony. Imperialism almost always made use of language and culture for hegemonic purposes. Robert Phillipson, in his widely acclaimed book, ‘Linguistic Imperialism’, raised some important questions about the dominance of the English language.

According to Phillipson, “The dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other Languages.” The language inequalities are advocated and promoted in a systematic manner. A very common strategy that is used by imperialists is to glorify their own language and culture, considering them symbols of high civilisation.

The East India Company came to India for trade but, as economics and politics go hand in hand, slowly and gradually, it took over India and a long period of British control on the Subcontinent began. Besides other techniques of control, the English language was introduced for a civilising effect on the natives.

The 1832 parliamentary report on language and employment recommended that, “the cultivation of the English Language is most highly desirable, both with a view to the introduction of the Natives into places of Trust, and as a powerful means of operating favourably on their Habits and Character”. It is interesting to note how English was viewed as a means of “operating favourably on the habits and character” of the native people.

It is important to realise that no language is inherently weak or strong. It is the political status of the speakers of a certain language that determines its status. But all imperialistic powers made it a point to glorify their own cultures and stigmatise the languages and cultures of the ‘others’. Cohen, in his seminal paper, refers to Edward Haley, who wrote the first grammar of the Moors because he found it impossible to discharge his duties without knowledge of the ‘corrupt dialect’. Haley’s tone suggests a lot when he talks about the local language, which, according to him, is not merely a dialect but a corrupt dialect.

English, on the other hand, was presented as a supreme language that carries ‘matchless wisdom’. The judgemental tone and finality of style, emerging from positional superiority, is evident in Macaulay’s proposal, in which he tries to make a comparison of English with Sanskrit and Arabic. It is important to note that two major communities living in India had passionate affiliations with Sanskrit and Arabic for religious reasons. So, it was important to target these two languages.

Macaulay does it by ridiculing these languages: “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature in India and Arabia.” This is a sweeping statement about two literatures. The lighter side of this issue, however, is that the first line of this paragraph of Macaulay’s Minute reads: “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.” This sentence tells a lot about the linguistic knowledge (or lack of it) of Macaulay and makes his claim unconvincing.

‘The Minute’ by Macaulay underlines the thesis of the educational system proposed for India, and English language was a constitutive part of it. The imperialist vision of education is reflected: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and intellect.”

Besides Arabic and Sanskrit, which had religious significance in the lives of Muslims and Hindus, Persian was the most important language of the Subcontinent, which was dealt with by the colonisers in a systematic manner until it became an abandoned language at the official level. In 1935, it was decided that all the funds appropriated for the purpose of education would be best employed on English education (Khubchandani, quoted in Phillipson).

In 1837, an important decision was taken to replace Persian as the official language of the courts with English. By 1944, people with English education would be preferred for government jobs. This is how, gradually, Persian was deliberately obliterated in a systematic way and perks were attached with English to make it a sought after language in India.

Phillipson quotes an interesting excerpt from Daniel Defoe’s novel, ‘Robinson Crusoe’. The narrator describes his meeting with a native boy as such: “I was greatly delighted with my new companion, and made it my business to teach him everything that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially make him speak, and understand me when I speak, and he was the aptest scholar that ever was.” Read this passage again very carefully and see that the native boy was given education to make him useful, handy and helpful for his master. The boy was taught to speak in order to understand his master.

Macaulay’s vision of education for the Subcontinent was to prepare a class of persons, “Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. We need to be aware of this intention and make a conscious effort to reverse the discourse. As Raja Roy, an Indian philosopher and novelist, suggests, “One has to convey in a language not one’s own but a spirit that is one’s own.”

The writer is an educationist.

Email: [email protected]


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