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The Masters' Tongues:
Dialectics Of Language

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” -Audre Lorde(Lorde 1984)

​English as a Tool of Colonialism

This work investigates the power of the English language from a post-colonial standpoint, specifically how language functioned as a tool of colonial power. English became a tool of colonization as the British empire grew. English was used by the British to create a discourse of British superiority, in relation to the inferior natives of the colonies. This discourse was validated by dubious claims of eugenics, industrialization, and rituals of civilization.

This kind of discourse was crucial in constructing the power of the British colonizers. Foucauldian discourse analysis focuses on power relationships in society as expressed through language and practices and it is based on the theories of Michel Foucault. Besides focusing on the meaning of a given discourse, the distinguishing characteristic of this approach is its stress on power relationships. These are expressed through language and behavior, and the relationship between language and power. (Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language 1969)

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

Installation view of The Masters' Tongues: Dialectics of Language, Macalester College, Minneapolis, MN

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up of The Masters' Tongues: Dialectics of Langugage

Gauri Vishwanathan found a passage by J. Farish of the Bombay Presidency in historical state archives, and presents it in her book, “Masks of Conquest.” The passage states: “The natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possibly have.” Viswanathan argues forcefully that the curricular study of English has to be understood in the imperial context of the British Raj (Vishwanathan 1989).

Foucault also created the term, “biopower” to highlight how language and linguistic communities can be biopolitical techniques. Biopower marks dynamic networks of relations of force that are exercised, challenged, and simultaneously codified to construct the social human as a “population.” Technologies of the nation state, like language, culture, and history, are techniques or instruments for creating, disciplining, and recognizing the epistemological limits of biopolitical populations. (Foucault 1978)

Antonio Gramsci writes in his “Prison Diaries” that “the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership… It seems clear that there can, indeed must be hegemonic activity before the rise to power, and that one should not count only on the material force which power gives, in order to exercise effective leadership.” Fluency in the English language was one of the devices the British used to dominate the people in their colonies and to exercise leadership. (Gramsci 2011)

Counter-Memory of the English language

This is the counter-memory of the English language, that it was a tool of colonization. Michel Foucault coined the term, “Counter-Memory” to describe a modality of history that opposes history as knowledge or history as truth. For Foucault, counter-memory was an act of resistance in which one critically examines the history and excavates the narratives that have been subjugated. (Foucault, Nietzche, Genealogy, History 1977)

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up showing the rust on individual tongues

I would argue that English became a particularly potent tool to colonize the minds of the people of India and other British colonies and instill in them an identity of being genetically inferior, uncivilized, and unindustrialized. Till today, the ability to speak fluently in English is a marker of superiority in many of Britain’s erstwhile colonies, including India. Unsurprisingly, to gain fluency in English in a country where English is not its mother tongue requires access to elite schools and considerable financial resources.

Anna Corradi writes, “Until the 19th century, the British were the major superpower, and their method of colonization included establishing schools which taught English language and Western culture to locals who needed to be ‘modernized.’ Most former British colonies now use English as their official language (e.g. India, Ghana, and South Africa)” in her article, “The Linguistic Colonialism of English” (Corradi 2017).

English Now

English is the official language in 54 Commonwealth countries, all of which were former colonies of Britain, in addition to 25 territories that are still under British governance. Each of these 79 states has mother tongues other than English, however, English is the official language in these nations. In the Anglophone world, 3 countries, Britain, America, and Australia, have English as their mother tongue, as well as the official language. Arguably, this is continuing evidence of colonial and neo-colonial power.

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

Close-up showing the rust on individual tongues

Postcolonial Englishes

Colonialism and neo-colonialism spread English globally which has resulted in the emergence of a diverse range of postcolonial varieties of English around the world. Edgar W. Schneider presents a dynamic model to show the evolution of postcolonial Englishes in sixteen different countries across all continents as well as a history of American English. (Edgar W. Schneider 2007)

The emergence of English dialects such as Spanglish (Spanish + English), Chinglish (Chinese + English), Hinglish (Hindi + English), Caribbean patois, and many more such variations signal an interesting turn of events. I would argue that the emergence of these dialects of English is a subversive sign of colonized people asserting their cultural identity back onto the colonizer’s language. I believe that this is an interesting turn of events and creates agency for non-native speakers of English to combat neo-colonialism.

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

Viewers engaging with The Masters' Tongues installation, Union Art Gallery, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

The Anti-Memorial

This anti-memorial is comprised of 79 cast iron tongues to represent the 54 Commonwealth countries, all of which were former colonies of Britain, and the 25 territories that are still under British governance. Each of these 79 states has mother tongues other than English, however, English is the official language in these nations.

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

I allowed these cast iron tongues to rust over several months. The rust continually changes the tongues in subtle ways and makes the work durational. While rust can be seen as deterioration, in the case of iron, it makes the metal stronger by creating a hard outer shell that protects the metal.

James E Young describes an anti-memorial as, “Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet.” (Young Fall 1997)

Close-up showing the rust on individual tongues

Why Iron?

Iron was the metal of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which was one of the driving forces of colonial power. Iron was used to make factories, domestic objects, railroads, ammunition, ships, and big buildings. Therefore, Iron seemed like a very appropriate material to make a work about the tools of colonization.

Iron is also a beautiful material at every stage – when it comes out of the foundry cast, and when it rusts. I was very drawn to it as a material, for its sensibility as well as for cultural references.

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

Another close-up of The Masters' Tongues installation

I also felt that for the purposes of this project, the rust is symbolic of the gradual changes and local adaptations in the English language. It brings home the point that post-colonial appropriations of the master’s language can undermine and do subvert at least one of the master’s tools.

The Masters Tongues, by Pritika Chowdhry

Viewers engaging with The Masters' Tongues installation, Union Art Gallery, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

English as a Tool of Resistance?

In this post-colonial world, it is interesting to observe that English as a language has changed in each of these countries. Over time, English has become hybridized by the accents, colloquial phrases, patois, and sounds of the local mother tongues of each country that have been incorporated into the spoken and written English of each country. Immigrants to the West also similarly change the English language as they appropriate it for their own purposes.

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Installation view of The Masters' Tongues: Dialectics of Language, Macalester College, Minneapolis, MN

More importantly, the post-colonial literature, colonial historiography, and other significant cultural texts coming out of the former colonies definitely allude to a new era in which the master’s tools have been fully appropriated as a tool of resistance by the peoples of former colonies. This is a very heartening turn of events indeed, especially for a post-colonial artist like me. So to counter Audre Lorde’s statement, maybe, just maybe, the enslaved can and do appropriate the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Bibliography

Corradi, Anna. 2017. The Linguistic Colonialism of English. April 25. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://brownpoliticalreview.org/2017/04/linguistic-colonialism-english/.

Edgar W. Schneider. 2007. Postcolonial English: Varieties around the World. Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. "NIetzche, Genealogy, History." In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, by Donald F. Bouchard, 160. Cornell University Press.

—. 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Tavistock Publications Limited.

—. 1978. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France. Picador.

Gramsci, Antonio. 2011. The Prison Notebooks. Columbia University Press.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Vishwanathan, Gauri. 1989. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India.

Columbia University Press.

Young, James E. Fall 1997. "Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, CounterMemory, and the End of the Monument."

The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4 855.