The (English) language weapon

Last semester I taught report-writing to a group of M.Tech. students in one of the Science Centres of the university where I teach. A task that proved to be challenging not merely because any additional teaching in Jan–April, the shorter semester of the year, is always difficult. When I volunteered, along with a couple of colleagues, as I always do for work of this kind, I should have asked why they approached the English department (which is primarily a Literature department, where Language teaching is infra dig) and not the cell that does this kind of remedial work across the university. I found out in the first class, when the Director of the Centre announced that he wanted the students to learn from me how to write like Jawaharlal Nehru.

Okay. If you’re done guffawing, let me explain. As part of their course-work, these students are expected to explore a small geographical region in or around Hyderabad, describe its topography, and then tabulate the nature and quantities of naturally occurring mineral ores in the region. Now, while I wasn’t expected to bother with the technical descriptions of the mineral deposits, I was expected to help them with the first part of the report — an evocative depiction of the terrain, poetically describing its natural bounties, and thereby inspiring people who read the reports (presumably bored examiners, for whom marking such reports is a loathsome chore) to leap out of their chairs and take the first means of transport to said region and soak up Nature’s goodness. (Instead of going to the spa they’d probably booked for their end-of-year detox regime.)

Quite apart from the fact that I cannot teach something I’m incapable of (writing like Nehru) or even that Nehru’s writing (nay, the man himself) does not appeal to me as a model, I was surprised that a professor in the Sciences was eschewing the reigning style of scientific discourse — factual, concise, clear and focused — for a literary, ornate, intensely personal style. And then add to this the particular difficulty the students themselves presented — all of them, without exception, needed (and I’m being compassionate here, not condescending) to go back to school. To get them to write simple, grammatically correct sentences in three weeks (which was all the time I had) was going to be Sisyphus-ean enough. To get them to develop a ponderous, literary style — hell, we can’t make postgraduate students in English do that!

The Director’s opinion about what kind of English is desirable just confirms for me the disconnect between the views of the supply and demand sections for English in India. I’ll return to this point, but let me digress for a bit.

The scientific and the literary — these are often spoken of as essentially different, even antithetic, styles. Scientific writing, it is often held, requires a standardized language with every word having just one referent, i.e., unambiguous language, shorn of metaphors. Whatever one may think of such a style, what fascinates me is the manner in which English has been made capable of such a style, so that today it is the undisputed language of science.

In a study+ of scientific language from Newton’s Opticks to the present day, Michael Halliday, a British linguist, describes the evolution of scientific discourse as one in which events are described using nouns rather than verbs. Over the centuries, he says, descriptions of physical phenomena changed from the format

“a happens, so x happens”

to the form

“happening a is the cause of happening x”

Thus events and processes are represented in language as states or things (nouns).  Halliday calls this the “grammatical metaphor.”

This is not merely a stylistic change. Whether an idea or phenomenon is represented as a process (verb) or a thing (noun) reflects different ways of viewing the world. Writers are interested in stories and so they represent the world as consisting of activities, actions.  Scientists, on the other hand, think of the world as consisting of objects of study. Speaking of the world as ‘things’ allows them to objectify the natural world, to present it as consisting of objects ‘out there’, to be studied independent of scientists and their investigations. Hence the frowning upon the use of ‘I’ and the promotion of abstract, logical argument.

Both the Royal Society (established in 1660) and the first English scientific journal Philosophical Transactions (inaugurated in 1665) played key roles in promoting and consolidating this style of writing in English for science, so that English eventually upstaged first Latin and then German as the dominant language of scientific discourse.

Fascinating book. But to get back to what I started out with . . .

I have often felt that one of the best examples of logical thinking and clear writing by an Indian is B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste++.  In fact, I believe the text should be compulsory reading at school to teach our children how to write logically and clearly. But of course our children will only read extracts from Gandhi and Nehru, for ideological reasons, not because stylistic or linguistic skills are anywhere on the agenda for our curriculum designers. (Ambedkar’s writing is rarely, if ever, taught even in postgraduate courses on Indian Writing in English or in supposedly critical courses on Hindu thinkers. So this is a lost cause, I know.)

The disconnect: what we need and what we get. I was reminded of this yet again last week when I was co-opted (how I love the murky sound of this word!) into one of those tiresome industry-academia interface charades that achieve little other than squandering public money. So there I was on the dais,  furtively jotting down ideas that kept cropping up,  (I’d been given just a day’s notice for my presentation) when my ears pricked up at what was being said by the Centre Head of one of the world’s biggest MNCs in Hyderabad. I listened, astounded, as he told the large gathering of college principals and teachers that appending Bonjour/ Guten Morgen/ Danke/ Merci before and after your English sentences is enough to procure business deals. It was certainly news to me that the French and the Germans are such dolts! I’d have thought that a powerful, influential business head would know better than to make such irresponsible statements to a bunch of academics desperate to make their institutions more market-geared.

But this is it. This is the academia-industry divide at its best. Or worst. The academic world is oblivious to, even disdainful of, market needs, strangely unperturbed by the storming of its ivory towers by short-sighted, profit-oriented “training” institutes.

Industry, branding “unemployable” the huge majority of young men and women academia churns out, has its own notions of the “professional needs of business” mass-producing PowePoint-based training programmes, supremely unmindful that language learning is an organic process, and that cross-cultural communication does not mean knowing how to say “Good morning” in a dozen languages.  But since academia simply cannot get its act together, the market seduces.

Every week I make up my mind to quit. But I always wake up the next morning bravely determined to change everything.

+Halliday M.A.K. & Martin J.R. (eds) Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power.  University of Pittsburgh Press. Basingstone, Falmer: 1993.

++ The text of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is available online here and here. If you haven’t already, do read Gandhi’s criticism and Ambedkar’s response. The contrast in thinking is startling.

+++ Some  interesting posts on English in India at kufr: 1, 2, and 3



  1. apu said

    Very interesting post. I think many people think that the more elaborate and difficult to understand the English is , the better it is. Simple writing is confused for simple ideas…

  2. Prasanth said

    Back after a long time.

    That’s one powerfully condensed post spanning the whole gamut of problems faced by English departments across the country.

    It is fascinating to hope and wish that some day there would be a seminar/workshop/brainstorm on the role of English departments in the country which goes beyond the usual ELT suspects and interrogates the role of ‘literature’ departments as well.

    Perhaps, that has already happened and perhaps, I am falling victim to the same old fallacy that there is no issue that a seminar cannot solve.

    Even so, I cannot help thinking that unless there is some concerted action in defining/reevaluating the role of these departments, often the biggest in colleges, the kind of trash suggested by the corporate honcho will still get top billing.

    sigh. Anyhow, do struggle on. It would be sad to lose a voice like yours.

  3. Thanks apu. Good to hear from you. Long time. (Though I do follow the good stuff you write at UV.:-) And I agree with you.

    Prasanth: Glad Chennai hasn’t dampened your enthu for blogs! all well?

    Hmmm, you know the inside story – the Lang vs. Litt debates. But I’m running out of optimism, really. ):

  4. anu said


    Hello, there are too many things in this post that is delightful to me -to ponder and wander….. but i’ll stick to the part of scientific writing, for all the objective reasoning and attempt to present it as such, we cannot separate from being a participant in the observation of the phenomenon, if the language appears to convey that distancing has been achieved, good for those linguists who pioneered that style. It is also convienient to write short sentences because we are too lazy or wrapped in the process of observing. Scientific writing comes under massive fire for not being legible to the lay person, it has developed into a inner circle language -which is quite ridiculous if you think that they are in fact trying to decode the phenomenon, for whom, themselves?

    Anyway the biographies tell a different story, some very beautiful writing does exist written by some scientists -they are exceptions of course.

    Lovely post and keep waking up trying to change everything 🙂

  5. anu:

    Welcome! Very pleased to see you here. 🙂

    Yours if of course a practitioner’s perspective, and so might differ from a linguist’s. You’re right about scientiic writing being too dense for the lay person. But isn’t that true for any discipline? Every discipline has its own jargon which is perhaps deliberately meant to keep the lay person out!

    “if the language appears to convey that distancing has been achieved, good for those linguists who pioneered that style.”

    Actually it was scientists (of the Royal Society) who pioneered that style, not linguists (who merely study different styles – the miserable fools, I know!)

    Popular scinece writing is markedly different from that of scholarly journal articles (Maybe coz they’re meant for different audiences?) Take for instance one of the first monographs published by the Royal Society – Robert Hookes’s Micrographia (1665). It’s of course a collection of his lectures but has a very engaging narrative style.
    E-book available here: (The engragings are fabulous!)

  6. anu said

    I was thinking of Homi Bhaba’s rebuttal to criticism of the expectation that social science has to be presented in lay perceivable terms whereas science can go on about their jargon laden presentation without excuse.

    As a practitioner, i will say this, writing is the last in the assembly line of the production of facts, the preceding ones are more engaging and the last takes on a irritation value job to be done, as most often we are dealing with middle truths, rarely do we have a story to present and the demands of the profession are that we publish as we go, as the whole enterprise feeds into each others work, so the grand story if ever comes out much latter -if someone gets a grant to just write that out -then we have beautifully presented readable story.

    The keeping out happens because of intense competition within the community and for most, presenting work to public is akin to seeking publicity, very immodest -infra dig. Carl Sagan changed that considerably.

    The older Brits present very well, engravings and all. Learning here…. thanks

  7. Hmmm. Learning all round; thanks anu!

  8. gaddeswarup said

    I was wondering about your comment in Kuffir’s blog to a queery of mine:
    “>> I wonder how many from the poorer castes and tribes were in the power structure or had a voice before the arrival of English language in India and how many after.

    Exactly. We all know that there is no significant change. Is even that insiginificant change attributable to English? We simply do not have enough data on the issue. I’m inclined to believe that English is yet another weapon hijacked by the elite, that it has created yet another elite caste. The solution is to make this weapon accessible to all. Given the existing power structure, is that even possible? Translation is another means. It is a huge untapped market …”
    But here the voice you quote is Ambedkar’s in English. My impression is that Ambedkar made a difference. Around 1968, when I first visited UK, USA I did not meet any dalits. Now I see a few, many of them inspired by Ambedkar.
    Perhaps , at least part of the dissent should be in the medium which power structures use. how much overall difference it made I do not know.
    May be, as you said in another comment in Kuffir’s blog:
    “However. I’m increasingly beginning to believe that the answers you get depend on the questions you ask. That the statistics you get depend on your elicitation methods (and target groups). “

  9. gaddeswarup:


    I completely agree with you that using the medium of power against itself can be a very effective means of dissent.
    I also concede that perhaps English has made a difference to the lives of some Dalits. The point is that it hasn’t for the vast majority because it’s beyond their reach. In fact, one of the curious things about the way the “brahminized classes” [to borrow kuffir’s phrase :)] wield power is that they’re always changing goalposts. Thus: At one time English was the ticket to higher ed, better jobs; but when some Dalits do manage to acquire English education, in part due to reservations, the goalpost becomes “quality of English.” A cursory acquaintance with any university dept in India will make this point amply clear.

    I’m not of course claiming that English is the only instrument of power in this country. It’s just one and very often it’s part of a mesh of larger inequalities. I’ve said on kuffir’s blog (don’t remember where; which means I s’pose that I should stop hogging comment space there!) that English is one example of how we both promote and decry colonialism. So, yes, English in India is complex and paradoxical, rather than an unambiguous power equation.

    Regarding Ambedkar: my respect for him has very little to do with his being Dalit. It’s the clarity of his thinking, and thereby writing, that I admire. I believe he’s one of the few true intellectuals this country has produced. In any case isn’t he an atypical Dalit? PhD from Columbia, erudite and steeped in Western learning . . .I’d say he’s the exception that proves rather than disproes the rule!

    Thanks much for the interesting comment.

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