If insularity regarding the nation state is already being countenanced in English, how much more is it likely to happen at the level of the native language?
A confessedly well-intentioned article in a recent edition of the Hindustan Times by the present secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, Professor K. VijayRaghavan, advances the proposition that India as a nation will never attain to the highest echelons of science and technology unless it matches its success in sloughing off political and economic colonialism by doing likewise with intellectual colonialism through a single measure – attenuating the centrality of English. Professor VijayRaghavan is far too intelligent a polemicist to be caught in the appealing trap of the either or. He simply suggests that if the brightest minds cannot be allowed to put forth their best ideas in the linguistic medium in which they function optimally, then they will always be second class citizens when deploying the language of another, one that has been foisted upon them, in this case, English. Instead, the author argues, why not allow for equal weightage of English and the student’s native language such that there can be a ‘free-flowing mix’ between languages. Not for him the cop-out of the alleged monumental difficulty of the task – no, he proclaims, with focus and investment, such a specious contention can be dismissed out of hand.
Is Professor VijayRaghavan right, however? Much as one’s impulse would be to agree with him and set about the task of making arcane knowledge available in everyone of the 22 official languages of the country, the gargantuan nature of that undertaking is precisely the fact that there are 22 languages. These, of course, are the result in the main of a political decision taken over 60 years ago dividing states on the basis of dominant tongues set to scripts with various degrees of difference, which in turn trumped the variations accruing to over 700 dialects. That centralisation was attempted in the afterlude of India’s independence has been evinced time and time again by the cack-handed manner in which efforts have been sought to impose Hindi on an often recalcitrant South (we’re all Madrasis anyway, aren’t we)? When Professor VijayRaghavan speaks of Germans thinking in their own language and yet speaking fluent English such that they can work in that free-flowing manner of which he writes in terms both aspirational and wistful, the point to be made is that German dominates the German landscape in a way that Hindi does not India’s. The Germans do not have to think particularly about Pomeranian or Prussian variants, and when was the last time that the French had to contend with having to explain the intricacies of the Higgs-Boson in Provençal Occitan (please note that the only Nobel given in that language was in fact for literature when Frédéric Mistral won it in 1904, rather than for any scientific discovery) or for that matter the Spanish in Euskera for the benefit of the Basques (we shan’t even attend to the comparable matter in Barcelona given the fissure lines making themselves increasingly manifest around Catalonia), or the Finnish giving the time of day in scientific altar-speak to the Lapps? To his credit, Professor VijayRaghavan speaks about the possibilities of the highest expression of scientific literacy in Rajasthan, Kerala and Orissa (a careful selection of the North and West in one move, and then the South and separately, the East) and yet the question is still begged – who will bell the cat? Having studied French off and on for three decades, I am often staggered at how impoverished the language is when it comes to expressing scientific thought in contemporary time. This, despite the fact that German and French were the scientific lingua franca of the 19th century (a fact which rather undercuts Professor VijayRaghavan’s claim regarding Germany – after all, they did have a strong scientific culture in the first place in their language, with English displacing it only latterly), something that was underscored to me when I was compelled, as a requirement for my doctorate in the History of Science, to pass examinations in both. Professor VijayRaghavan, therefore, suffers from the crime of presentism – English dominates now, as Germany and French did two centuries ago, and before them, Latin. It is possible that English itself may be supplanted – perhaps Mandarin will take pride of place in time to come, again, a language that has rather brutally extinguished the possibilities of other local contenders in a scientific sense through Han domination in China. If that happens, all the intellectual dazzle that emerges from a Telangana or a Meghalaya will still have to suffer the indignity of translation, this time into a language with which we as a nation, do not even have facility because we weren’t historically colonised by our north-eastern neighbour.
So are we left, willy-nilly, with English, then? I would hazard yes. For a reason that goes far beyond the global dominance of the language itself. It is rather to do with the cultural baggage that appears to attend the use of the vernacular, such as I have witnessed as a teacher in an ostensibly selective central governmental institute. Global examples relating to the dissemination of science have been met with student calls for a preponderance of Indian examples even when there are none to be had. If insularity regarding the nation state is already being countenanced in English, how much more is it likely to happen at the level of the native language? At a moment in time when the role of the mythic appears to hold sway over our collective consciousness, where like in the motion picture ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, the father proudly claims that every extant invention has emanated from Hellenistic sources, we have, in far more pernicious ways trumpeted likewise across a swath of arenas – aviation to surgery. Hence, while I would dearly wish to hasten to champion Professor VijayRaghavan’s position, ground realities must give me pause. It is only when the context arises for the development of a societal objectivity, which can place scientific, medical and technological development across regions in a manner that evokes curiosity rather than cultural cannibalism, that Professor VijayRaghavan’s hope will stand a fighting chance. Even then, I suspect that the more esoteric terms in science will continue to be in English (if immediately inflected by its US hegemonic variant), used as such in other languages, rather than afforded neologisms in them. This is simply because English isn’t simply an imperial language; it has the concomitant advantage of being able to accommodate the possibilities of that imperium in a manner that none of our state languages can, because they do not enjoy that advantage. They never did, except in some dim distant past, where vestiges of old Tamil can be found in say Bahasa Indonesia. However, I suspect, that this is not the needle in the haystack that Professor VijayRaghavan seeks.
John Mathew is an Associate Professor of History of Science at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune.
An associated Confluence article on this topic can be found here.