This post responds to a new collaborative research venture between King’s College London and the Centre for Medieval Literature entitled Imperial Languages: Empires and their Imprint. The project builds on the the ‘Imperial Languages’ research strand launched at the CML under the direction of Christian Høgel in 2012 and brings together a number of partner institutions, including the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Centre for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe (CHASE). The collaboration acknowledges the role that empires have had in shaping and upholding linguistic fields but also expands its focus to look at the uses of such languages before and after empire, and at the development of secondary ‘imperial languages’ alongside the primary languages of empire. Here, MULOSIGE’s Francesca Orsini reflects on the project’s aims and interrogates the ‘zero-sum’ logic that privileges ‘imperial languages’ such as English and Sanskrit above the multifaceted linguistic milieus in which these languages operated.

Francesca Orsini, SOAS, MULOSIGE
Arch in Kootub VA 80117 Crop

Photo (c. 1858-1860) of the central arch of the Quwwat al-Islam mosque in the Qutub Minar complex south of Delhi, with an iron pillar in the foreground. The pillar is noted for its rust-free metallic composition and is dedicated to Chandragupta II (r. 380-415CE), emperor of the Gupta Empire at its zenith. The Sanskrit inscription on the pillar is written in an eastern variety of the Gupta script. The photograph was taken by Felice Beato, a British photographer of Italian origin who toured sites in North India after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. © Victoria & Albert Museum

We often think of imperial languages in the active mode. Imperial languages go, imprint, impact, in some version of veni, vidi, vici. So Elleke Boehmer’s masterful and influential account of Colonial and Postcolonial Literature smoothly identifies the British empire with English (and English with the British empire), producing a rich narrative that however assumes that English worked as an autonomous agent, and that even if it was surrounded by other languages it was uninfluenced by them though, of course, it influenced them profoundly. Sheldon Pollock’s powerful argument about vernacularization in the Indian context, according to which vernacular literatures emerged through the imprint or superimposition of the cosmopolitan Sanskrit literary model, also gives tremendous power and agency to Sanskrit in a kind of zero-sum game. How “late”, post-millennium Sanskrit bears the traces of the vernaculars and coexisted with them is a subject that has attracted much less attention from Sanskrit scholars.

Nor is this an effect of modern scholarship, either. I am familiar with the very slow and reluctant acknowledgement in the early-modern Indo-Persian archive of the vernacular languages (often generally called “Indian”, Hindi), of which we find traces largely in non-imperial locations/archives (e.g. by local Sufis) and which instead emerge potently once we start looking elsewhere.

What happens, we asked in a previous project on multilingual literary culture in early modern north India (Tellings and Texts), when we think of the “imperial” languages like Persian and Sanskrit as surrounded, immersed in a vernacular world—an argument that Robert Young has made in relation to English? What happens when we think of them as vehicles of cosmopolitan, imperial or other discourses, but also used by local actors for local audiences and for more limited purposes, and instead we follow the wide reach of vernacular languages? (Pollock’s polarization of vernacular language = local/regional and cosmopolitan = imperial is compelling, but disproved/complicated by reality.) What happens when we think of imperial languages as also oral, listened to, refashioned, and appropriated by non-imperial subjects? We can think of the use of Perso-Arabic vocabulary of rule and courtliness by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism (Shackle, “Persian Loans”), but oral and functional Latin is rich in such examples, too (Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language).

We also have Javed Majeed’s important work of on the difficulty generations of British colonial officers and lexicographers had in coming to grips with Indian languages, their orthography and classification. In his article “Modernity’s Script and a Tom Thumb Performance”, he quotes colonial linguists extolling the much more advanced and regular orthography of English with respect to that of Indian languages – honestly! And the chapter in Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World on the modern European languages that spread along with empire (English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and one could add Dutch, Italian, and Japanese among non-European empires) shows an uneven picture, dependent on the presence and strength of underlying languages as well as the attitudes and policies of colonizing powers.

Imperial Languages: Empires and their Imprint is a collaboration between King’s College London and the Centre for Medieval Literature, located at both the University of Southern Denmark and the University of York‘s Centre for Medieval Studies. The Imperial Languages Steering Group (ILSG) is made up of Alixe Bovey (Courtauld), Ziad Elmarsafy (King’s College London), Christian Høgel (University of Southern Denmark, Odense), Francesca Orsini (SOAS) and Elizabeth Tyler (York), and met for the first time at the beginning of October 2017. The project is a three-year collaboration, and an interdisciplinary workshop will be held on 19-20 April 2018 at the Courtauld as part of the the first year’s focus on ‘texts.’

The project does not currently have a dedicated website or profile, but once this information is available we will update the content on our website to reflect this.

Adams, J.N. 2003. Bilingualism and the Latin language. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Boehmer, Elleke. 2005. Colonial and postcolonial literature: migrant metaphors. Oxford University Press.

Majeed, Javed. 2012. “Modernity’s Script and a Tom Thumb Performance: English Linguistic Modernity and Persian/Urdu Lexicography in Nineteenth Century India.” In Trans-Colonial Modernities in South Asia, edited by M. Dodson and B. Hatcher. London/New York: Routledge, 95-115.

Orsini, Francesca & Katherine Butler Schofield, eds. 2015. Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature, and Performance in North India. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2000. “Cosmopolitan and vernacular in history.” Public culture 12.3: 591-625.

Ostler, Nicholas. 2005. Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.  New York: HarperCollins.

Shackle, Christopher. 1978.  “Approaches to the Persian loans in the Ādi Granth.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41.1: 73-96.