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If the whole world speaks English, will it still be English?

May 25, 2010

Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker:

In 1834, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British historian and statesman, arrived in Madras. He travelled north to Calcutta, then India’s capital, to assume the role of Law Member of the Governor-General’s Council. “We know that India cannot have a free Government,” Macaulay had written to the Scottish philosopher James Mill the year before. “But she can have the next best thing: a firm and impartial despotism.” A few months later, Macaulay wrote a memo on Indian education, which stated, “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 taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The implication was obvious: Indians must learn the language of their occupiers.

With Macaulay’s backing, schools instructed Indian students in English, a language that offered “ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations,” whereas Sanskrit and Arabic offered only “false taste and false philosophy.” By 1840, according to Macaulay’s biographer Robert E. Sullivan, “English was the dominant language in Calcutta.” In 1857, English-speaking universities opened in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. Macaulay’s vision of an independent class of Anglophone Indians was being realized. [More]

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