The Power of English: the Case of India

Annika Hohenthal, Department of English, University of Turku, Finland

The British were given a lot of political stature due to their political power, and they were required to adopt a pose that would fit their status. Language became a marker of the white man's power. Kachru quotes E. M. Forster in A Passage to India (Kachru 1986: 5):

"India likes gods. And Englishmen like posing as gods". The English language was part of the pose and power. Indians accepted it, too (ibid).

English was used in India and elsewhere in the colonies as a tool of power to cultivate a group of people who identify with the cultural and other norms of the political elite (cf. Macaulay's Minute). European values were, naturally, considered somehow inherently better whereas the indigenous culture was often considered somehow barbaric. English was considered as a "road to the light", a tool of "civilization". The Europeans thought that they can bring emancipation to the souls; they considered this as their duty. They sincerely thought they would contribute to the well-being of the native people in the colonies, and their language was elevated into being almost divine (6).

English provided a medium for understanding technology and scientific development. Non-western intellectuals admired accomplishments of the west. European literature was made available in colonies. Macaulay shows his ignorance towards the native languages in India by saying (cited in Kachru 1986a: 7):

I have never found one amongst them (the Orientalists) who would deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.

In India, English gradually acquired socially and administratively the most dominant roles: the power and prestige of language was defined by the domains of language use. Ultimately the legal system, the national media and important professions were conducted in English (Kachru 1986a: 7). In the words of Kachru, skilled professional Indian became the symbol of Westernization and modernization. Raja Rammohan Roy was committed to the idea that the "European gentlemen of talent and education" should be appointed to instruct the natives of India. English came to be used by Indians, as well. (Kachru 1986a:7).

By the 1920s English had become the language of political discourse, intranational administration, and law, a language associated with liberal thinking. Even after the colonial period ended, English maintained its power over local languages (8).

English was eventually used against Englishmen, their roles and intentions as it became the language of resurgence of nationalism and political awakening: the medium, ironically, was the alien language. Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), for instance, although struggled to create consensus for an acceptable native variety as the national language, expressed his message to the elite in English (8).

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