Andre Beteille: Language and civilization

A FEW years ago at a dinner in Tokyo, hosted by the Japanese anthropologist, Prof. Chie Nakane, I said somewhat light- heartedly to a Cambridge academic seated next to me that I did not think the English were a particularly civilised people. My Cambridge friend took up the banter and asked me to give him a defensible definition of a civilised person. I accepted his challenge and said a civilised person was simply one who was at home in at least two different languages: having one language makes us human, being at home in more than one is what makes us civilised. Prof. Nakane, who had been listening to the interchange with amusement, turned to me and said, `Ah, that is a very Indian way of looking at civilisation’. I was a little embarrassed because the Japanese are, if anything, even more inept than the English at handling languages other than their own.

The Japanese do very efficiently many things at which the Indians are rather inept, but the latter have an undeniable advantage over the former in the matter of languages. My Japanese students in Delhi often told me that while in Japan the students were very hard working, in India they were more intelligent, but what they really meant was the Indians were more articulate. It is a fact that an Indian can make a public speech at the drop of a hat whereas, I am told, in Japan even a seasoned politician finds it hard to speak at a stretch for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Indians owe their aptitude for languages not to any superiority of racial or genetic endowment but to specific social and historical circumstances. They have for long lived in an environment which has tolerated and even encouraged a diversity of social and cultural practices, including linguistic practices. The linguistic diversity of India is truly remarkable. In the past when a family, a kin group or a community moved from one region to another, its members acquired the language of their domicile without giving up the language of their ancestors. Bilingualism was widespread in both rural and urban areas, and even among the unlettered. In a village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, where I did fieldwork in 1960s, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi were spoken in some homes, in addition to Tamil that was spoken and understood by all.

To be sure, people do not learn new languages only because they are available for learning. Sometimes they are obliged to learn them out of compulsions of one kind or another. But when the compulsion arises, a favourable disposition towards other languages goes a long way in meeting it. Although a favourable disposition towards other languages has been part of the Indian cultural tradition, it faces threats from various quarters. The politics of language tends to create hostility towards other languages in the name of attachment and loyalty to the mother tongue.

It is self-limiting to view other languages as threats to one’s mother tongue and a mistake to believe that human beings were created to express themselves or communicate with others in only one language. English has now come to occupy a pre-eminent place throughout the world. It is read, spoken and understood by more people than any language has ever been in human history. No doubt, the spread of the language in the 19th century was driven by the expansion of the British empire. Had some other nation, instead of the British, extended its power, some other language would have been the predominant language of the 20th century. The fact is that the predominance of the English language has outlived the dissolution of the British empire, and there is little indication of a decline in its influence for the foreseeable future.

Learning English became very important for education and employment from the middle of the 19th century. A new middle class began to emerge in the presidency centres in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras and it gradually spread its influence throughout the country. Its members found places for themselves in a new occupational system, in the services of the government, and in law, medicine, teaching and other professions. The new middle class played a momentous part in shaping the economic, political and other institutions of contemporary India. Facility with the English language contributed much to the formation of all those modern institutions we value today, although it did not come easily or without cost.

In some parts of the world the existing languages declined or died out with the advance of dominant languages such as English, French and Spanish, but that did not happen in India. On the contrary, literary and journalistic writing in Bengali, Marathi and Tamil was enriched by the influence of English. The two great literary figures of 19th century Bengal, Michael Madhusudan Datta and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, not only acquired an effective command of English but also tried their hand at literary compositions in that language. Their mastery of the English language and literature enabled them to experiment successfully with new literary forms in their own language.

Knowledge of the English language was sought because it gave access to gainful employment, but that was not its only attraction. It opened a window to a new world. English books and periodicals brought on the doorstep of the Indian intelligentsia a whole new system of ideas, beliefs and values. Its social and political categories were different from the ones to which educated Indians had been accustomed for centuries. It is not as if reflective Indians never thought about equality, liberty or progress, but they thought about them in a language whose concepts and categories had become set in a particular mould. Their growing intimacy with a new language and idiom stimulated them to rethink their old categories and explore new ones.


For all its troubles with alien rulers, an alien language and alien ways of life and thought, the Indian intelligentsia did not turn its back on the modern world. Modernisation is today inescapable, but it is not a painless process and it penalises latecomers severely. Modernity does not presuppose a homogeneous world in which everybody does the same thing, thinks the same thoughts and speaks the same language; on the contrary, it requires and encourages knowledge and appreciation of alternative ways of life. India is fortunate in having an educated middle class whose origins go back 150 years in time. This middle class is now very large and differentiated. Despite regularly losing many of its ablest members to outward migration, it is replenished by increasing numbers of professional persons who are able to draw upon more than one intellectual tradition. The accumulated intellectual capital of this class is an asset whose value to society is not sufficiently appreciated and whose role is often thoughtlessly denigrated by the intelligentsia itself.

Differences of language divide people from one another, but there is nothing inevitable about these divisions. Politics may be used for either deepening the divisions or building bridges across them. The main point to bear in mind is that loyalty to language need not be singular since the same person may be attached to more than one language. This has been a common practice in India for a long time, and there is no reason why it cannot become more extensive in the future.

Their social tradition has given Indians an aptitude for languages that is sometimes better appreciated by others than by themselves. Prof. Max Gluckman, a British social anthropoligist of South African origin, once told me that the best English he had ever heard spoken was by an Indian, Srinivasa Shastri. But, whereas I could pronounce English names clearly and easily, Prof. Gluckman had the greatest difficulty in pronouncing the name of the silver-tongued orator. That of course confirmed the point he was making, that the British were hopeless when it came to languages other than their own.

About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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