Thu, 17 Feb 2011

India Faces a Linguistic Truth: English Spoken Here

While my interest in language and linguistics attracted me to this article, what astonished me was the description of the sprouting of a new religious motif:

Chandra Bhan Prasad has built a temple to the Goddess English in an impoverished village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
In Mr. Prasad’s temple, there is an idol in robes, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Very soon, Mr. Prasad said, he would encourage young Dalit couples to include a ritual in their wedding ceremony in which they would sign the letters A, B, C and D on a piece of a paper. “That would be a promise they make that they will teach their children English,” he said.

I get the distinct impression that Mr. Prasad is not doing this because he believes (in a religious sense) in the "Goddess English" - he's doing it more for nationalistic and cultural reasons:

He also plans to adopt an Islamic tradition and fix a loudspeaker in the temple from which a recorded voice would chant the English alphabet, from A to Z , every day at 5 a.m. All these are just symbolic gestures, he said, and the best he can do in the absence of genuine political support for making English the national language.

I think he may be surprised: over time, in a country like India, with a strong polytheistic tradition, if Mr. Prasad's plan works, and Goddess English worshipers have fulfilled their vows, taught their children the English language and improved their socioeconomic status as a result, she, and not Prasad, will get the credit. The Goddess English will have taken her place alongside Krishna and Shiva in the local pantheon. And will be no less real than they are.

Heathen theology can be a bit muddled at times by things like this, but if you step back and and take a long look, you'll realize that the Goddess English exists now, and has always existed. It's a new name, granted, but the power of language (and writing) has always been a spiritual power - Prasad did not so much create a goddess as he recognized one and gave her an new name and new rituals, to empower his folk.

And that distills the essence of heathenry about as well as anything I've run across.

English is the de facto national language of India. It is a bitter truth. Many Indians would say that India’s national language is Hindi. They would say it with pride if they are from the north and with a good-natured grouse if they are from the south. But this is a misconception. The fact is that, according to the Indian Constitution, the country does not have a national language.

(link) [New York Times]

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