Doing Sociology in English in India: Towards a new Tower of Babel?

Since I was a child, the Tower of Babel has been my favorite story from the Genesis. When I first arrived in India I realized how the country resembles a bewitching Babel, embodying a maze-like, per se linguistic microcosm. Its 1.3 billion inhabitants, who speak more than 19,500 different languages and dialects, would be unable to understand one another, if it wasn’t for Hindi and English. While English has been taking over as “instrumental language” in various domains of Indian society—like bureaucracy or higher education—debates on whether English must become the linguistic bulwark of Academia in general—and the dilemma of “Doing Sociology in  English” in particular—have been fired up by Veena Das or Giri. Against the Janus-like ‘Englishization’ of the discipline, Sociology must be done in the local language, this article holds. Here is why.

Language has always been a controversial issue in India. In what language will—or rather, should—the 1.3 billion Indian citizens communicate? A kaleidoscopic constellation of regulations, policies and laws intended to be an answer this question, probably one of the most crucial in the newly independent India. In the Indian Constitution (1950) Hindi in Devanagari script was declared the official language of the union. Unless Parliament decided otherwise, the use of English for official purposes was to cease 15 years after the constitution came into effect, i.e., in January 1965. It was the Official Languages Act of 1963, however, that provided for the continued use of English for official purposes along with Hindi. Nota bene: as Hindi language is spoken in 13 different dialects, the one the Constitution is talking about is the “Sanskritised” variety of Hindi spoken in Delhi-Agra. Clearly, although Hindi is the de jure official language, English has been elected de facto to official language in India.

It is undeniable, this scenario is nothing but convoluted; though, the best is yet to come. Here is today’s linguistic landscape of India, in a nutshell:

  • 22 are the official languages of the Republic of India—Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu;
  • 99 are the so called “non scheduled languages”—namely, those languages that, albeit being used in the country, do not have the official status by the government of India;
  • 3 are the languages to be taught at school: Hindi, English, and the school’s state language, as written in the Three Language Formula.

Let’s be honest: in India, the progressive taking over of English as a “The” language in general is rather problematic. When it comes to an academic milieu like Sociology, this momentum is even more irksome for various reasons.

First, encouraging knowledge-making in English implicitly echoes memories of English as a tool of colonial exploitation and political consolidation. Not only that: English as the idiom of the colonizer; English as language of power in the domains of education, administration, literary creativity and English as passe-partout for religious and cultural ‘enlightenment’ in international and intra-national interactions. Emancipation from English does not represent a merely linguistic craisis: it is a fracture of identity. Doing sociology in local language brings about re-appropriation, it means setting your own rules in the process of thinking, discussing and delivering knowledge. The fact that then knowledge must be translated, in order to be accessible to the non-speakers of that particular Indian language is an horse of a different color; it is the production that must be in local language, thereby been inherently rooted in the soil.

Second. When Sociology in India is in English, English becomes a merely instrumental language. Instrumental and Language do not really go hand by hand: if instrumental is related to mechanical measuring, language is really the voice of our genes; it is what shapes the way we think, the way we are. From being a rich, west Germanic language with more that 171 thousands words, English would become a mechanical, market-oriented instrumental language—the new Lingua Franca at the service of the globalized market. Here, Englishization as a Janus-like creature comes across as overbearing: is the dichotomy English as a shortcut to global competitiveness vs. English as a detour from linguistic regionalism bridgeable?

As bad things come in threes, doing Sociology in local language is pivotal also for a third reason. Knowledge-making in English in post-colonial India entails not only that English language as such—in its richness of nuances—would be killed; English would also be the killer of various languages and cultures—of, in a word, localism. Let’s take, for example, Marathi. Spoken by around 70 million people of Maharashtra, Marathi is an Indo-Aryan idiom and one of the 22 official languages of India—which boasts one of the oldest literature of all modern Indian languages, dating from about 900 AD. झपूर्झा (transliterated, Jhumpajhā) and कातरवेळ  (Kataravēḷa) are, admittedly, two Marathi words which do not find exact translation in any other language. Albeit not having a literal meaning even in Marathi, Jhumpajhā refers to the acton of losing oneself in something, say while dancing. One doesn’t remain him/herself while dancing or performing an art: that state of mind is called Jhumpajhā—झपूर्झा. How poetic. Kataravēḷa, on the other hand, signifies the timespan between evening and night—to be precise, after dusk and before darkness. Is there an English word that properly depicts this scene?

Doing Sociology in English implies losing these subtle, unique nuances of a language; it is the origin of a linguistic, and cultural, sunset. Doing Sociology in English, rather than in Marathi for example, suggests that by undergoing a process of anglicization, standardisation and even jargonization that would exclude Jhumpajhā or Kataravēḷa from the big picture, Marathishould remain the language of the street, while English, the idiom of Academia. On the other hand, what it is likely to happen is that Marathi in its pure elegance would be perpetuated only by intellectuals, thereby becoming prerogative of few, the elite. This is actually already happening. While neighborhood, government schools are by definition English-medium—in an effort by the government to make the whole education-cycle in English—private, exclusive Marathi-medium schools are fiercely popping up. A growing gulf between the so called high and low culture is what might follow, exacerbating the social contrasts India is famous for. 

In conclusion, how do we safeguard the prosperity of such a linguistic diversity? Doing Sociology in local language is a beginning. In a world in which American-English knowledge-making is our mantra, doing Sociology in Indian local language not only is a cultural deed towards the preservation of language diversity; it is a political choice against a possible world with only one language, and an act of rebellion against a new Tower of Babel.

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