The Linguistic Hegemony of Empire: A Language of Power

On the first page of Johnson’s Preface to A dictionary of the English Language, Johnson indicates a distaste and a frustration with his difficult task of working to comprehend, understand, and taxonomize the English language. He notes that “wherever [he] turned [his] view, there was perplexity to be disentangled,” “choice was to be made out of boundless variety,” and “adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity” (Johnson 1). For Johnson, English far from a perfect, ornate language capable of moving souls and spirits.

While this represents a lexicographer’s desperate, frustrated attempts at wrangling in language (tying it to signs and signifiers, phrases and definitions), essayist, Englishman, and colonial thinker Thomas Babington Macaulay sees English as the only reasonable platform for education within the British colonies. Forgoing and disregarding the problematic, wordy overgrowth that is the process of linguistic evolution, Macaulay expresses concern that teaching the natives of the British colonies (i.e. India)in their native tongue would be a inconsequential waste of colonial resources, noting that the languages of colony, such as Sanskrit and Arabic, “may become useless” and the sciences of those languages “may be exploded” (Macaulay 2). For Macaulay, these languages are simply the platform for “bad” knowledge: “the dialects among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information” (2). Not only do their languages contain little worth knowing, but these natives are “so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them” (2).

The question then becomes: what information is Macaulay privileging as knowledge worth knowing?

It is certainly not the spiritual practices of India, as Macaulay believes that the indigenous “waste their youth in learning how to purify themselves after touching an ass or what texts of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat” (7). It is certainly not the poetry, given that Macaulay believes that no many would argue that “the Arabic and Sanskrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations” (3). And, it is certainly not the history of India, because Macaulay thinks that “all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England” (3).

So, it is not that the language of Sanskrit or Arabic is naturally worse than the dialect of English, it is simply the ideas that these languages promote and disseminate. Put simply, Macaulay believes that the culture, history, and spirituality of this colonized culture are intellectually worthless; it’s just that the language of these beliefs, truths, and ideologies is part-and-parcel. For Macaulay, the ideas of a society, and the language upholding those ideas, are elements by which a society can be judged. This is to say: Macaulay thinks the language is bad, because the ideas are too.

This is a very convenient, and safe, ideological position for the colonizer to take. As you take away the language, you take away those messy, subversive ideas that make colonial subjects so difficult to subdue, suppress, and repress. While there is no intrinsic value to English as a language, the language of the colonizer must be the language of power, for the colonized must think, feel, and reason with the language of the colonizer, for this is the only way for the colonial psychology to dig its claws in the colonial psyche.


—Nathaniel Schwass


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