Language as the Mediator of Knowledge

With the introduction of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, came a heightened sense of preserving the English language. The original intent, as manifested in Johnson’s Preface to the English Dictionary, reveals that Johnson himself was vexed with the idea of capturing and defining all the English words circulating during that time in order to provide the English people with a point of reference for their language. Johnson endeavored nine years to provide the English people with a lexicon, and as a plea for his work to be the end-all-be-all, he urged the public to put an end to the formation of new words writing: “those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition” (Johnson 84). Johnson and like-minded lexicographers attempted a fruitlessly to wrangle the English language and cement it from ever evolving further.

The source, Johnson alleges, of the language’s pollution (the reason why it keeps changing) lies in the introduction of new speakers. He cites one of the key contaminators of the English language those that are strangers of it. Commerce, he argues is the mediator of such contamination:

“Commerce, however necessary, however lucrative, as it depraves the manners, corrupts the language; they that have frequent intercourse with strangers, to whom they endeavour to accommodate themselves, must in time learn a mingled dialect, like the jargon which serves the traffickers on Mediterranean and Indian coasts” (Johnson 86).

But Johnson articulated that such variegation of the English language would not happen immediately, seeing as

“Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen; conquests and migrations are now very rare: but there are other causes of change, which, though slow in their operation, and invisible in their progress, are perhaps as much superiour to human resistance, as the revolutions of the sky, or intumescence of the tide” (Johnson 86).

What Johnson could not foresee was the British colonization of India and their subsequent integration into the education (or lack of) of Indian studies. With the dissemination of the English language into India, theoretically, left unmitigated, new words should have been sprouting up. But the British woefully and thoughtfully mediated Indian education by denying them access to the English language. Rammohun Roy, in his letter to Lord Amherst, wrote of the disillusion he experienced when he had hoped the British would expand their knowledge, but instead perpetrated the same knowledge they had been aware of for years:

“While we looked forward with pleasing hope to the dawn of knowledge thus promised to the rising generation, our hearts were filled with mingled feelings of delight and gratitude; we already offered up thanks to Providence for inspiring the most generous and enlightened of the Nations of the West with the glorious ambitions of planting in Asia the Arts and Sciences of modern Europe. We now find that the Government are establishing a Sangscrit school…[where] the pupils will there acquire what was known two thousand years ago, with the addition of vain and empty subtleties…” (Roy 144).

What is perhaps the most interesting part of this narrative of the English language, is that the British, in attempting to purify the language and set it apart from the contaminating mouths of foreigners, were also abetting the repression of knowledge, seeing as “intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them” (Macaulay 8). Thomas Macaulay, in his letter, calls language not only the means by which the Indians can reach a higher intellect, but the means by which they too can operate on the same civilized platform as the British, considering “The languages of western Europe civilized Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar” (Macaulay 16). If we take away Macaulay intrinsic superiority over the Indians, which Macaulay self-professes if I might add (“The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education” (Macaulay 10)), what we are left with is a genuine argument that the dissemination of knowledge begins with the dissemination of language.

This is perhaps the most dangerous part of integrating language—the presupposition that one language or one race carries more knowledge than the other—into a country regardless of whether or not it is being colonized. It’s colonization status if anything only heightens the danger, conjuring feels of elitism and perpetrating the racist idea of taming the East. It is only with the willing submission of and the equal sharing of both languages can the dissemination of language and therefore the dissemination of knowledge escape the clutches of racism. But we all know how that turned out, didn’t we?

-Sara Nuila-Chae


One thought on “Language as the Mediator of Knowledge

  1. The main idea is, “With the introduction of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, came a heightened sense of preserving the English language.” I would like to suggest adding more detail regarding Roy such as who he was and why did he want to learn more about the English language.

    Extra Credit 24/25/3


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