How to decode the language of colonisation

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column on English language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Shashi Tharoor: Minister of sensibilities
Shashi Tharoor: Minister of sensibilities

Published: Thu 21 Dec 2023, 6:03 PM

Last updated: Thu 21 Dec 2023, 6:30 PM

One of the principal attributes of colonisation was the transmission of language — mainly the conquered subjects learning the language of their imperial oppressors, though occasionally it also went the other way. Since language is an instrument of self-advancement, it was embraced quite enthusiastically, as this account by Charles Trevelyan in his book On the Education of the People of India (1838) suggests:

“The passion for English knowledge has penetrated the most obscure, and extended to the most remote parts of India. The steam boats, passing up and down the Ganges, are boarded by native boys, begging, not for money, but for books... Some gentlemen coming to Calcutta were astonished at the eagerness with which they were pressed for books by a troop of boys, who boarded the steamer from an obscure place, called Comercolly. A Plato was lying on the table, and one of the party asked a boy whether that would serve his purpose. ‘Oh yes’ he exclaimed, ‘give me any book; all I want is a book’. The gentleman at last hit upon the expedient of cutting up an old Quarterly Review, and distributing the articles among them.”

Trevelyan’s account of the “native boys” and their yearning for the English language is, unsurprisingly, portrayed in a way that illustrates and legitimises their conformity and submission to the narratives of colonialism and colonial authority. Even the term “native” carries a particular connotation: its root in the Latin word nativus, meaning “born”, originally denoted not only “an original inhabitant, distinguished from outsiders or foreigners” in a non-European context, but was also inaccurately associated with “a person of colour”. Indians, Arabs and Africans were “natives”. Newspaper advertisements often sought “native servants” who had previously lived in London and “spoke English”.

The imperatives and incentives which propelled colonisation also influenced the transmission of language in a distinct manner. The term safari, a Swahili word derived from Arabic, denoting “a journey”, was employed in a colonial context to describe a tourist excursion through regions teeming with exotic wildlife, an adventure in which the natives played purely subordinate roles as servants and guides. “Going on a safari” implicitly dismissed the inhabitants of the land as though the territory was devoid of human presence.

The use of the term “tribe” also forms part of colonial vocabulary that advanced imperial policies of “divide and rule”. The word helped divide the subject populace, accentuated tribal loyalties rather than troublesome national ones and categorised the colonised into “superior” and “inferior” tribal groups. “Nation” was juxtaposed with “tribe”, and the English could justify their conquest by asserting their intention as a “civilised nation” to bring “civilisation” to the “uncivilised tribes”.

It is no accident that the English language assigns certain moral connotations to the terms “black” and “white” , “darkness” and “light”, “evil” and “good”, and has also contributed to shaping a perception of Africa as a place in dire need of salvation. Of course, individuals who have been marginalised by such terminology have in turn responded by reversing the associated interpretations, adopting slogans such as “black is beautiful” to affirm their worth and self-esteem.

Words such as “wilderness”, “backcountry”, “settler”, “New World”, and “savage“ were coined by those who sought dominance in their quest to control America. American English didn't transplant discernible characteristics from British dialects; instead, it homogenised the variations within the English language. People from all social classes in America used linguistic forms that were considered coarse by higher-status Britons. Pronunciations seen in Britain as indicative of lower social standing were accepted in America across diverse ranks and regions. Meanwhile the language diverged over time. Words that went out of fashion in England, like “fall” for “autumn”, or “gotten” for “have got”, thrived in the former colony but began to sound strange and even uneducated to metropolitan British ears.

Language was an indispensable instrument in the hands of the empire. The colonisers didn’t stop at conquering nations; they also subjugated foreign words and relocated them into their dictionaries. As James Nicoll wrote, “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. A perfect metaphor is the Hindustani word loot, which the British in India took into their dictionaries as well as their habits!


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