Centre for Research in Communication and Culture


12 Feb 2019

Javed Majeed delivers the Third Macaulay Lecture

On 9th January, Javed Majeed (Professor of English & Comparative Literature, Kings College London) delivered the 3rd Macaulay Lecture at Rothley Court Hotel on the subject of ‘Macaulay and the question of the English language in India’. An audience of over 30 members of the university and the local community were engaged by Prof. Majeed’s easy erudition and attractive articulation.

Prof. Majeed began with a discussion of two keywords of ‘family’ and ‘caste’ and their place in Macaulay’s writings, illustrating throughout with vivid extracts. Macaulay’s understanding of the Indo-European ‘family’ of languages and Sanskrit’s place in it, shed new light on his in(famous) 1835 minute on education in India. On the other hand, in Macaulay’s mental universe, the term ‘caste’ migrated from India to England. Their related axis produced a key tension in Macaulay’s writings between the ‘global’ and ‘insular’.

Another aspect of ‘family’ explored by Prof. Majeed was the idea of ‘kinship’ between languages. The linguistic affinities of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin were at odds with the instrumental use by Macaulay (and others) of a ‘racialisation of people’. This historical reality of a ‘family tree’ – a concept central to the discipline of linguistics – was a difficult backdrop to Macaulay’s minute. His feeling of ‘animus’ against Sanskrit could then be a defensive reflex or ‘family quarrel’. Macaulay also used the term ‘family’ to reflect on ‘family likenesses’ between constitutions in western Europe as a backdrop to examining the development of the British constitution as unique. In his understanding, a unifying code of law alongside a constitution could create fraternal-like ties to ground a people’s sense of themselves. At the same time, the term ‘family’ was used to reinforce the differences between the Irish and English in Ireland. These different usages of the notion of ‘family’ reflect how the colonial experience had altered English and especially Anglo-Indian families in India, making the term increasingly malleable.

The ‘language of difference’, then, came to Macaulay from caste, religious, regional and ethnic-linguistic identities that abounded in India. Macaulay’s exposure to the Indian experience of ‘caste’ led him to apply this term in the British context to reinforce differences between Saxonsand Celts and rulers and subjects in Ireland; here Macaulay used ‘the term caste to reinforce the language of race’. Macaulay used the language of caste in India as well as in the British Isles to absorb his anxiety about a collapse of social hierarchy and the destabilising effect of rapid social mobility. It can almost be argued that social hierarchy trumps race for Macaulay.

In linguistic terms, Macaulay contrasted an ‘unpolluted’ with an ‘enriched’ English via the Indianisation of English. Today, as Prof. Majeed noted, ‘Hinglish’ is an identifiable dialect in urban India, but this search for an ‘unsullied authenticity’ continues to have many avatars, as seen currently at the cultural heart of Hindutva’s fascist politics in India. Prof. Majeed concluded that Macaulay’s ‘language of difference’ vis-à-vis India went deeper vis-à-vis Ireland. If, in the case of the former, Macaulay desired English as a ‘link language’ mediating differences, in Ireland it tended to ‘reinforce differences’. To him, the ameliorating effects of law and language were possible in colonial India but not in Ireland.

The lecture stimulated a lively question and answer session, with topics ranging from Macaulay’s attitude to Ireland, Indian languages, Robert Southey and Macaulay’s resonances today.