Why Do I Speak English?
The header of my Twitter profile contains a quote by Michel Foucault that I reference often. Like most great philosophers, he took a hundred words to say what could be said in ten, so I can save you some bother with a summary: everything has a history, and that history is often fragile and random.
Everything has a history. Here is an experiment: think of literally anything. Your relationship with a family member; the shape of your coffee mug; the format of your last email; the vegetables in your last meal. Anything. Whatever it is you thought of — it has a history that made it that way. And that history was not inevitable, no matter how fixed it may seem in the present.
Elsewhere I have applied this lens to the subject of climate, to point out that many of the behaviors that we must change for the sake of the planet are not as innate and immutable as we often believe. Please read my book on the subject, if it is fighting the climate crisis that interests you.
Here I want to speak briefly about language, and specifically language in India.
Language is identity. Language is not external to us; it is how we construct the self. English is my first language and therefore integral to my identity and self. But that is a pretty odd thing — I grew up in India! And so I have wondered for a long time: how did it come to pass that I speak and think in English?
At one level the answer is obvious: “The British had an empire, English happened, thankyoubye.” This tells us almost nothing, and is an example of what Foucault was getting at in that quote: we take some things for granted, or have simplistic explanations, in ways that totally obscure all the historical contingencies.
So I wanted to understand the specifics. Who made decisions? Why did they make them? Was there a big bang moment from which we can draw a straight line to, say, the number of Indian immigrants in CEO positions in the United States?
Unsurprisingly this is one complicated story. I am not going to give you much of it here. I want to talk about just one strange thread: John Stuart Mill, the noted philosopher of utilitarianism, played an important — and surprising — role in the adoption of English in India.
Note 1: Obviously I don’t get to sit around and do historical research as part of my day job, and I’d never have the discipline to do so on my own time, so I am very grateful for the learning journey I am on at Stanford for helping me find some answers to questions that have gnawed at me for much of my adult life.
Note 2: Since this is a blog essay, it is not footnoted and cited as a research paper would be. But I need to acknowledge my biggest debt, which is to a scholar named Lynn Zastoupil, whose work on Mill and India is indispensable. The views expressed👇 (and👆!) are mine alone.
The story begins with the East India Company, the progenitor of the British empire. The empire was accidental; the Company was founded as an import/export business. British agents in India engaged in what would today be called entrepreneurial behavior — growth mindset! — leading to regional alliances and the formation of a standing army to protect the Company’s mercantile interests.
These activities were affirmed officially in 1765 when the reigning Mughal, Shah Alam II, recognized the Company as the diwan of Bengal. As diwan, the Company became responsible for revenue collection in this part of the fraying empire. The Company’s possessions continually expanded over the following decades. Voila: empire.
The East India Company’s mercantile origin meant that policies on the welfare of its subjects, including the matter of education, only became foregrounded after 1784. In that year, the Company was brought largely under the control of Parliament through Pitt’s India Act, bringing greater scrutiny of the Company’s supposed civilizing mission.
A divide almost immediately emerged between two camps: “orientalists” and “anglicists.” The orientalists, taking their cues from Warren Hastings (1732-1818), sought to have native learning and English education sit side by side; the anglicists viewed native learning as irrelevant and obsolete. The orientalists mostly prevailed until 1835.
In February of that year Thomas B. Macaulay (1800-59), a member of the Governor-General’s council in Calcutta, published his famous Minute on Indian Education, which is the best articulation of the anglicists’ view.
Macaulay wrote with great vigor, and some of his phrases have reverberated through the centuries. Here I’ll share the most famous one, which also helps make his goals clear. He wanted to create an elite, “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
In March of 1835, Governor-General Lord William Bentinck (1774-1839), supported by his council and armed now with the logic of Macaulay’s Minute, unilaterally enacted a dramatic change in the native educational policy. All government support of native scholarship was discontinued and freed-up resources were to be allocated to the dissemination of the English language through the support of English literature and science.
These actions were taken without the approval of the London headquarters of the East India Company. When London became aware of these changes, a written response became necessary. The bureaucrat tasked with responding? John Stuart Mill.
Wait a second. John Stuart Mill?! Yes, John Stuart Mill. What is not especially well-known about Mill is that he spent thirty-five years in the full-time employment of the East India Company.
This was not a cozy sinecure that Mill occasionally occupied as a distraction from philosophical thinking. According to Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker, “he was such a demon for work that, growing overheated through feverish memo-writing, he would gradually strip off his clothes and work gravely at his stool without waistcoat or pants, as his colleagues watched in prim Victorian wonder.” I acknowledge that the world does not need the visual of a pants-less Mill, but the point is that this was a serious job that he took seriously.
This zeal and assiduity helped Mill rise through the ranks quickly. By 1835, at the age of just 29, he had been responsible for handling Company communications from London to India on education policy for several years. It is at this moment that he was called upon to write the Company’s response to Bentinck and Macaulay. He did so in a document known as the 1836 Despatch.
The Despatch is a startlingly un-bureaucratic and impassioned document in which Mill forcefully argues for the orientalist position. He links his purpose to the higher cause of improving the lives of the native population, not simply extracting value from them: “if the object of our measures be the intellectual and moral improvement of the people of India, institutions for the cultivation of the Oriental language [are necessary.]”
While Mill agrees with Macaulay that a learned class needs to be created that serves as “interpreters” between the colonial power and the masses, he believes this class will be entirely alienated, rendered “enemies” of the masses, under the Bentinck-Macaulay scheme.
To be clear: Mill was certainly in favor of encouraging English study — but not “at the expense of the support hitherto afforded to Oriental instruction.” Throughout the document there is a surprising level of respect for India’s teachings and traditions — the polar opposite of the feeling one gets when reading Macaulay’s Minute.
Despite Mill’s eloquent pleading, the Despatch did not have an immediate effect. It was never sent as an official instruction to Lord Auckland (1784-1849), Bentinck’s successor as Governor-General. Some of Macaulay’s wishes did come true — his desired “class of Indian persons” exists today, in India and in the Indian diaspora (and I belong to that class).
But the 1836 Despatch did moderate the extreme approach of the anglicists. Its spirit and themes can be detected in what was to come, including the famous Wood’s Despatch of 1854, which is arguably the fons origo of the Indian educational system of today. Classical and vernacular education continued to be supported, not extinguished, during the remainder of British rule.
I am skipping the details that I dug up and wrote about in my research paper. But we don’t need those details to say this: the status and use of English in India today is not an atemporal, natural law. It was formed, contested, and revised by people. And contestation and revision continues today.
And so I have a counterintuitive take on this question: will the widespread use of English in India (and for future members of the Indian diaspora) continue?
English is certainly influential in present-day India and remains one ticket to social mobility as the language of the elite. But one could imagine that, a century from now, India becomes more akin to continental Europe in that a vernacular language becomes dominant in pedagogy and society, with English serving mostly as an essential tool of modernity for a largely bilingual population.
Does that feel inconceivable? Farsi was as widespread in the late 18th century in India as English is today, and its influence did not begin fading for more than a century. Things change. History happens.
And to finish with an even more bizarre idea. Just last year, three Sanskrit universities were gazetted as “central universities” in India. It may seem unthinkable that this dead liturgical language could be brought to life again. But there is a compelling recent example of something very similar: Hebrew.
The point is this: everything has a history, including how English plays a role in my sense of identity and self. That history is peculiar and random, doesn’t lend itself to simple bullet points, and could easily have been very different. This is worth remembering as we think about the future.