Sunday November 18, 2018

Linguistic hegemony and cultural imperialism through English

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How the west has established its cultural hegemony in the world through the English language is aptly depicted in two examples cited by Professor Alastair Pennycook in his book ‘The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language’.

Pennycook talks of the Voyager aircraft drifting in its lonely trajectory in 1977 in search of other life-inhabited galaxies, carrying recorded messages of greetings to aliens in fifty-five of world’s languages. But the principal message of greeting was delivered in the so-called universal language ‘English’ by none other than the then UN General-Secretary, Kurt Waldheim:

‘As the Secretary-General of the United Nations… I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet.’

Meanwhile, on the planet earth from a small radio in a township shack in Johannesburg’s Soweto, Johny Clegg and Savuka crooned thus:

Bits of songs and broken drums
Are all he could recall
So he spoke to me
In a bastard tongue
Carried on the silence of the guns

It’s been a long time
Since they first came
And marched thru the village
They taught me to forget my past
And live the future in their image

Chores They said I should learn to speak
A little bit of English
Don’t be scared of a suit and tie
Learn to walk in the dreams of a foreigner
I am a third world child

(Third World Child, Johnny Clegg and Savuka)

The irony and contraction in the two events happening at the same time i.e. the UN General Secretary’s speech and the South African singer’s song could not be more evident. For while Waldheim sends greetings on behalf of the people of ‘our planet’ in English, the singer recalls how they were taught to forget their past, told to learn to speak a little bit of the universal language and ‘walk in the dreams of a foreigner’. How could English be called the universal language when the majority of people in the world do not speak it?

Professor Joga Virk told NewsGram that these facts amply demonstrated that Indian people needed to deeply reflect upon the present linguistic situation in India, so that a correct language policy could be put in place.

Verily, the plight of local languages throughout the world is more or less the same. The imperialists use similar modus operandi everywhere i.e. of subjugating native populations by attacking their culture, language, self-esteem and replacing them with their own.

Henry Kissinger, at the time of the Turkish invasion in Cyprus in September 1974, while addressing a group of businessmen in Washington, said:

“The Greek people are anarchic and difficult to tame. For this reason, we must strike deep into their cultural roots. Perhaps then we can force them to conform. I mean, of course, to strike at their language, their religion, their cultural and historical reserves, so that we can neutralize their ability to develop, to distinguish themselves, or to prevail. Thus, we can remove them as an obstacle to our strategically vital plans in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, to all this neuralgic territory of great strategic importance for us, for the politics of the USA.”

British colonialists also had the same plans to establish their cultural hegemony in India. They gave India its independence in 1947 after 200 years of rule, but not before dividing the country along the lines of religion and imposing its language on the Indians. So much so that almost 70 years after attaining freedom, non-English speaking people who speak in their mother tongues are seen as inferior beings by their fellow countrymen. English defines classes as local Indian languages struggle hard to survive.

With one’s proficiency in English linked to one’s livelihood, it has become a necessity to learn the language.

Is it a well thought out and well-designed strategy to create a huge, lucrative market for Anglo-American commodities by using Anglophonic education as a weapon? Or is it just something we have to accept as a reality?

Author NS Ndebele in his paper on the English language and social change in South Africa writes, “The very concept of an international or world language was an invention of Western imperialism.”

After spending a considerable amount of time in India, the British realized in the eighteenth century that India could not be conquered militarily and that it could only be achieved through dividing them along the lines of religion, caste and above all language. The idea as first put forward by Lord Macaulay to the British Parliament on 2 February 1835 was to establish hegemony here by shaping popular consciousness, disassociating people from their cultural roots and traditions of solidarity and replacing them with their own.

Today, the majority of children in India are not being taught in their mother tongues but in a foreign language i.e. English. As a result, they are neither good in their own language nor in English.

Dr Joga Singh, Professor and Former Head of Department of Linguistics in Punjabi University, Patiala told NewsGram in a telephonic interview that one significant reason for India lagging behind countries such as South Korea, Japan, and China, etc. was the intrusion of English language in Indian education and other important domains.

The way English is occupying the language domains, the life of Indian mother tongues is under a severe threat,” Mr Singh said, adding, “The English medium instruction is producing a generation which has no appreciable mastery either over their mother tongues or over English; they cannot connect intimately with their own culture, tradition, history and people. It is not wrong to call these children as English children, for by the time they complete their schooling their competence in English is more than their mother tongues, it is meager though in English too.”

The Professor told NewsGram that these facts amply demonstrated that Indian people needed to deeply reflect upon the present linguistic situation in India, so that a correct language policy could be put in place.

“Restoring all linguistic domains to Indian mother tongues is essential not merely for saving and developing Indian languages, but it is essential for saving India. We may differ on certain points. But all Indian mother tongue lovers and the ones who have a correct understanding about language issues agree on one point that education at least up to school level must be in the child’s mother tongue. Let us all join to achieve this goal first.”

Once English is delinked from our education system, administration and Indian languages given due respect and restored to their deserving place, it would slowly start losing its relevance, he opined.

Also Read: India is free, but Indians are still colonized

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English Words: How Words from Different Languages Find Their Way into English Dictionaries

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English words, English language, entries English dictionaries
English Words: How Words from Different Languages Find Their Way into English Dictionaries, Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Every year there are new English words that get incorporated in English language from other languages. When something fantastic catches your attention, what would you exclaim—jhakaas, bombat or semma? Is a cunning guy chaalu, chatri or shaana? Would you call your friend yaar, macha or bondhu?

The world of words is the most extraordinary of things as it gives expression to everything under the sun. Every single word that we use daily stands, often without our realisation, for something unique, something that the given word is used to give expression to.

But while most words are common in speech, there are several that have rarely been written down.

For 54-year-old lexicographer Peter Gilliver, words like “spuggy” and “netty” were perfectly ordinary as he had been familiar with them since his childhood, but he was surprised that neither of them had made their way into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

“I can recall some words which my grandmother used, like ‘spuggy’ meaning a sparrow, or ‘netty’ meaning a toilet, which were very familiar to me, but which are little used outside the northeast of England, where grandma lived,” Gilliver, the OED Associate Editor, told IANS in an email interview.

He said he brought these words with him as “just about everyone, who comes to work for the OED, brings some regional dialect words, which they learned when they were young, and which are not familiar to people from other regions”.

There are now entries in the dictionary for both words, which exhibits that their history can be traced back over 100 years, actually 200 years in the case of “netty”.

“I think there must be similar words in every region of the English-speaking world, which are very familiar to people living there but little known outside the region; we are glad to learn about such words, so that we can research them and consider adding them to the OED,” Gilliver said.

Closer home in India, almost everyone can certainly recall a moment when a word in their native language—the language they’ve known and used for years at home—baffles people from other parts of our own country.

Again, most such words are common in speech but some are rarely written down and so they can easily escape the attention of dictionary editors.

There are also many English words, commonly used in India, that haven’t found space in English dictionaries.

English words, new entries in English dictionaries
English Words: How Words from Different Languages Find Their Way into English Dictionaries, Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Angus Stevenson, OED’s Head of Content Development, said that their dictionaries of current English, in particular the online text, contains many hundreds of examples of Indian English as well, and many that derive from Hindi and other Indian languages.

“We are particularly interested in words such as ‘air-dash’, ‘batchmate’, and ‘calling bell’, which are genuine examples of an Indian variety of English, and would very much like to expand our coverage,” Stevenson said.

Yo may also like to read: If you look carefully at English you will see Sanskrit hidden everywhere: Jeffrey Armstrong

“We are planning projects to gather and define words from Indian and other under-represented areas of English—for example, we cover South African English but have not yet attempted to describe the English used in other parts of the African continent,” he added.

The first English dictionary goes back to at least the 16th century and the era of the Renaissance, which was a time, somewhat like our own, in which there was a huge amount of rapid change, and many new influences on the English language.

“The first Oxford dictionary of English was the OED, first published between 1884 and 1928.”

The OED claims to draw on expertise from all around the world. Their lexicographers are not confined to the UK, according to Judy Pearsall, Dictionaries Director at OED.

“The OED focuses on usage wherever in the world English is spoken and used. We have a large team of editors in the UK, but we also have consultants and colleagues from a much wider field and we rely on the whole team to ensure that our outlook is global and outward-facing, just like the English language itself,” she said.

With the rise of social media networking, usage of acronyms and abbreviations are also on the rise. What is still the need to have dictionary words?

“For us at Oxford Dictionaries, words are ‘dictionary words’, as long as they are used, and that includes abbreviations and acronyms,” said Pearsall.

Also readThe Indian influence on English Language

“The OED looks to include terms that originated on social media, such as LOL, just as much as any other words.

“We regard all of them as part of the language, and recognize that people use and need both,” she maintained. (IANS)