Mind Your Language

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 4, 2003

By Rashmee Z Ahmed

LONDON: Lord Melvyn Bragg , 64, is a man who has made his living — and his reputation — out of the English language. A BBC broadcaster, award-winning novelist, arts controller at London Weekend Television and one of British prime minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party-appointed life peers, his TV series, ‘The Adventure of English’, has just explored India’s unique contribution to making English the way it is today.

He met Rashmee Z Ahmed in the plush maroon cocoon of the British parliament’s House of Lords.

In taking the world, yet again, through the adventure of the English language over 1,500 years, many would say you’ve merely reworked an old idea. Why did you do it? 

My inspiration is a man who was in India, William Jones, a judge who founded the Asiatic Society. He was an amateur as I am. And as you know, he uncovered the fact that Sanskrit has a deep background. He was very excited about that. He studied and wrote a book. And I suppose I thought that if he could be a judge and write a book, I can be a novelist and write a book.

So you’re a latter-day William Jones, sans an Asiatic Society? 

I haven’t made anything as significant a contribution as William Jones. But I think I have brought the connection with Sanskrit to the foreground in a way that a lot of other writers have not. It fascinates me because I have a unified idea of life.

The tenaciousness of the English language is a terrific story. Most of the basic words that are used globally in this country or India are still old English. I find that a fascinating fact. That’s why it took me a long time to go through the Sanskrit, the Germanic, the Danish, the Norse, the Latin, and the unique, rich mix that became English around the 16th century. And then it became even richer when it went to America and India.

When it went to India formally rather than having emerged from there? 

There were various stages of the English experience of India. When the English (people) first went to India, they had put a fingernail on the edge of the continent and were begging to trade. At that stage, the English were rather attractive, it seems to me, because they learnt local languages, local customs, they even married and got on with being subservient really to the Mughal empire, hoping to get a break.

English as a language didn’t figure. It was when the Mughal empire collapsed and the East India army began to take over, that they started using English and demanding the use of it. The history of English in India is very interesting indeed.

It was the only place where it started off as a complete non-entity of a language and ended up being powerful. Then Gandhi cursed it as one of the things that enslaved India. Curiously enough, he didn’t blame the English so much as the Indians themselves for using it.

But Gandhi’s urgent pleading failed. 

They tried to legislate to try and get rid of it and failed miserably. And it flourishes in Indian newspapers, Indian novels, in philosophy, in business. The Times of India sells 300 per cent more copies than The Times of London.

In that context and with Britain currently agonising over all these jobs migrating to India, many find it rather amusing that the English actually taught the Indians the source of their current misery. This wasn’t in my head at all. That’s just become a headline in this country the way it certainly wasn’t six months ago.

But with various British employers complimenting Indian workers’ command of English, do you think the English people may have got a touch complacent about the way they learn — and teach — the language they feel they own? 

I suspect you’d like to think that. As they (the employers) say, the Indian workforce they recruit is much better educated than the English one. The cost factor is massive and central. That’s principally why the jobs are going. The rest is papering over the cracks… Indians are better-educated, yes. But they’re not more intelligent.

Will there ever be a time when any part of the non- Anglo-Saxon world would be allowed cultural ownership of the English language, not in contributing new words to the Oxford dictionary, but in deciding, say, rules of grammar?

Cultural ownership is a very challenging term, so I must tread carefully. Anglo-Saxon would include the Americans. You’ve described English as a feisty fighter, conquering the globe. Would its current world dominance have been possible had it not emerged from one empire and become the language of another? It’s very difficult to argue with that.

But there is a particular malleability and accommodating-ness about the English language, partly because of its curious compact in the first few hundred years with old English, old Norse, Latin, Greek, Norman French, Germanic, which helped it on its way.

So it would have flowered anyway, even without empire? 

I don’t know. But I think what we have by the time of Shakespeare, by any account, is afantastic language. Had it done no more, it would still have been a great language.

So, where next for English, considering everyone now talks about the sun rising in China and presumably its native tongue? 

Chinese is growing, Spanish is making a comeback in America. But I think for the next few decades, English will remain a powerful language.