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All hail goddess English?

By Dennis Baron

Global English may be about to go celestial. A political activist in India wants the country’s poorest caste to improve its status by worshipping the English language, and to start off he’s building a temple to Goddess English in the obscure village of Bankagaon, near Lakhimpur Khiri in Uttar Pradesh.

English started on the long path to deification back in the colonial age, and in many former British colonies English has become both an indispensable tool for survival in the modern world and a bitter reminder of the Raj. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay recommended to fellow members of the India Council that the British create a system of English-language schools in the colony to train an elite class of civil servants, “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” who would help the British rule the subcontinent.

The philologist William Jones, who visited India almost 50 years before Macaulay, had a much more positive view of Indian language and culture. “Oriental” Jones, as he was sometimes called, praised Sanskrit as “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either,” and he demonstrated that Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek all shared a common Indo-European ancestor. But Macaulay didn’t think much of India’s ancient linguistic heritage, and he told the Council, “A single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Macaulay argued that British support for India’s traditional Arabic and Sanskrit schools gave “artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology.” In their place he recommended English-language schools that would civilize India, as European languages had already civilized Russia: “I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.”

Today Indian nationalists shun Macaulay for his condescending, Eurocentric view of language and culture, but the Dalit activist Chandra Bhan Prasad wants millions of India’s Dalits (the former untouchable caste, before caste discrimination was outlawed), to learn English and let their local languages “wither away.”

Prasad celebrates Macaulay’s birthday, Oct. 25, as “English Day.” But to make English more attractive to ordinary Dalits, he’s created Goddess English, whose image is modeled on the Statue of Liberty, though the goddess wears a floppy hat instead of a crown, carries a copy of the Indian Constitution (the days of the Raj being long gone), and holds aloft a fountain pen. Prasad argues that “Universalism [is] central to the soul of Goddess English,” while India’s indigenous languages are both divisive and discriminatory. For him, speaking English is the way for Dalits to exchange their hereditary poverty for high-status jobs in science and IT, which is why his statue of Goddess English stands on a personal computer.

Outside the Dalit Goddess English temple in Bankagaon, worshippers can buy Goddess English idols for their home puja rooms (Goddess English is preferring fountain pens to ballpoints or rollerballs, and Windows PCs to Macs).

As Macaulay predicted, English became a high-status language in India, where it is an official language alongside Hindi and the several state official languages. English-language schooling is seen by many Indians as essential for success, although as few as 5% of the population actually speak English. The rest of the world seems to agree that English is the language to acquire, but worshipping English in the form of a three-foot high statue draped with garlands and paraded through the neighborhood every October 25 may seem a little over the top, even in a country with a Hindu pantheon that may have up to 330 million deities.

Although though there are no temples dedicated to English in the United States, many Americans do treat their language as sacred. Grammatical errors are often characterized as moral flaws, if not sins against an imaginary goddess English whose mysteries are impenetrable to mere mortals. We bow down before our English teachers as a priestly class who judge us for the words we use and who freely wield their red pens as instruments of correction if not excommunication.

And we revere the language of our civic documents, decrying as heresy the Spanish translation of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the “Pledge of Allegiance,” even the election ballot. A proposed federal law would require new American citizens to read and understand the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the federal laws in English, despite the fact that many natural-born citizens probably couldn’t pass a test on these documents. H.R. 997 would also prescribe English as the only language that American laws can be written in, not that they’ve ever been written in anything else. Interestingly, the most vociferous of those who want to enshrine English as official see no irony in the fact that they themselves can only read the sacred texts of their own religion in English translation (a practice reflected in the apocryphal claim attributed since 1881 to a variety of English-only advocates, “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me”).

Although he had no patience for Sanskrit, Arabic, or the other languages of India, Thomas Babington Macaulay didn’t for a minute expect to convert millions of Indians to English. Desirable as that might have seemed to him, there simply wasn’t enough money to school everyone in the civilizing tongue. Instead Macaulay planned for British-trained Indians to serve as translators, leveraging their knowledge of the west to improve the indigenous languages and, in turn, the lives, of their speakers:

It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. 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 Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. [emphasis added]

In Macaulay’s view, the wisdom and science embodied in English would have a trickle-down effect on local languages, improving them instead of replacing them, with the ultimate goal of educating those unfortunates who found themselves outside the inner circle of anglophones. What English schooling created was not quite what Macaulay anticipated, a class of English-speaking Indians who were anglophiles to some extent (as evidenced by the Indian passion for cricket), but who remained in the long run Indian, not British, “in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” One product of Macaulay’s educational “reform,” as it turned out, was an English-speaking intelligentsia committed to Indian independence, not continued service to the crown.

In the end, language doesn’t form people; people form language. And they form it not by listening to their teachers—though teachers are not without influence—but by turning language into a vehicle for their hopes and dreams. Whether or not the Dalit Goddess English draws crowds of worshippers to her temple, which is still under construction, and whether or not Indians throng to the next October 25 English Day Parade in Lakhimpur Khiri, UP, English will continue, at least for a while, to be a global language with more converts than native speakers. It will remain a language not beamed from London or the American heartland to a world waiting to be instructed, but a language with multiple homes and multiple owners, each with a different stake and a different goal. And Thomas Babington Macaulay, the Goddess English, and bills to enshrine English as the official American language–a move which will backfire just as Macaulay’s plan did–all of these notwithstanding, English will remain a language with more heretics than high priests.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site,  The Web of Language.

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