The British Empire

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tungemål
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The British Empire

Postby tungemål » Fri Mar 01, 2024 8:12 am

I'm reading a book on the British empire called "one fine day". In 1923 the empire reached its maximum extent, at the same time ideas and developments were underway that would lead to the 'dismantling' of it.

Highly recommended if you're interested in history! It is very nuanced and non biased. I just finished the colorful description of India.

Of course there were many justifications for continuing the empire - world peace, progress, medicine, trade, racism (they are not able to govern themselves).

And now to relate it to language.

- To what extent is the empire the reason that English is now the world language?

- a potentially controversial question: with all these foreign cultures becoming part of Britain, did it spark an interest in foreign languages (hindi, chinese, smaller indigenous languages), and if not why not?
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Re: The British Empire

Postby jeffers » Fri Mar 01, 2024 9:37 am

tungemål wrote:I'm reading a book on the British empire called "one fine day". In 1923 the empire reached its maximum extent, at the same time ideas and developments were underway that would lead to the 'dismantling' of it.

Highly recommended if you're interested in history! It is very nuanced and non biased. I just finished the colorful description of India.

Of course there were many justifications for continuing the empire - world peace, progress, medicine, trade, racism (they are not able to govern themselves).

And now to relate it to language.

- To what extent is the empire the reason that English is now the world language?

- a potentially controversial question: with all these foreign cultures becoming part of Britain, did it spark an interest in foreign languages (hindi, chinese, smaller indigenous languages), and if not why not?


From what I know of Indian history, the initial contact sparked a lot of interest in Indian languages, culture, religion and philosophy. Some western scholars did a lot to preserve and disseminate Sanskrit writings, for example. So there were positive effects.

One of the interesting things is that the British rulers in India tried to set laws appropriate to the religions of the areas they ruled. This sounds like a great approach, but the unintended consequence of this is that they set in stone religious rules which weren't necessarily followed by the majority of the locals. This was because the British christians, being followers of a "religion of the book" just assumed other religions worked this way. A clear example of this was the book the "Laws of Manu", which was written around the 1st to 3rd century CE, and gave detailed rules for how the different castes should act and interact. Until the British arrived, this was not a well-known book. Although caste was a strong factor in society, it was possible for people from one caste to change their status, and move up the hierarchy. The British took the Laws of Manu as scripture in the western understanding of scripture, and wrote the caste system into law. From that time, caste became a fixed thing and the consequences are still being felt in modern India.

This example is my own summary of the excellent book, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age by Susan Bayly. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Society-Politics-Eighteenth-Century-Cambridge/dp/0521798426/. Before that time I had heard Hindus say that "the British empire invented the caste system", and while this isn't exactly accurate either, this book opened my eyes to the fact that when the British empire put religious rules into the lawbooks, they set obscure and often ignored rules into stone, and so people could argue with justice that the British empire created the modern caste situation.
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Re: The British Empire

Postby niphredilorn » Fri Mar 01, 2024 3:12 pm

jeffers wrote:This example is my own summary of the excellent book, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age by Susan Bayly. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Society-Politics-Eighteenth-Century-Cambridge/dp/0521798426/. Before that time I had heard Hindus say that "the British empire invented the caste system", and while this isn't exactly accurate either, this book opened my eyes to the fact that when the British empire put religious rules into the lawbooks, they set obscure and often ignored rules into stone, and so people could argue with justice that the British empire created the modern caste situation.


Great recommendation! I've added this to my (too long) list of books to read.

I know 0 formal arguments about the British Empire's connection to English being the universal language, but I would think the post-WWII take off of English would be more influenced by the rise of the United States? Although English being predominant there is ultimately because of the British Empire...
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Re: The British Empire

Postby rdearman » Fri Mar 01, 2024 5:31 pm

niphredilorn wrote:
jeffers wrote:This example is my own summary of the excellent book, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age by Susan Bayly. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Society-Politics-Eighteenth-Century-Cambridge/dp/0521798426/. Before that time I had heard Hindus say that "the British empire invented the caste system", and while this isn't exactly accurate either, this book opened my eyes to the fact that when the British empire put religious rules into the lawbooks, they set obscure and often ignored rules into stone, and so people could argue with justice that the British empire created the modern caste situation.


Great recommendation! I've added this to my (too long) list of books to read.

I know 0 formal arguments about the British Empire's connection to English being the universal language, but I would think the post-WWII take off of English would be more influenced by the rise of the United States? Although English being predominant there is ultimately because of the British Empire...

Doubtful that is the only reason. There were a significant number of English speaking countries which were part of the British empire which began to emerge as powerful economic forces after WWII including Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore,, Botswana, Canada but also the USA. But there were also a lot of former colonial countries which still retained English, like South Africa, Bahamas, Jamaica, Malta, Bermuda, etc. In Europe there were already a lot of countries with advanced English language skills such as all the Scandinavian countries.

The impact of American cinema and British music as exports should probably not be underestimated in this regard. Similar to the rise in the learning of Japanese and Korean in modern times because of the cultural exports of those countries, RE animes and K-pop and K-drama.

tungemål wrote:To what extent is the empire the reason that English is now the world language?

Probably the top reason. After all if not for the British Empire then Americans would be speaking French or Spanish. :D Plus although the Empire died, the Commonwealth emerged for trade and diplomatic ties between old empire countries.

tungemål wrote: a potentially controversial question: with all these foreign cultures becoming part of Britain, did it spark an interest in foreign languages (hindi, chinese, smaller indigenous languages), and if not why not?

From what I can see in the UK, it sparked about zero interest.

I remember reading once a discussion among historians as to why many French colonies didn't learn french and abandoned it but English colonists did learn and keep it. They suggested it was because the English never imposed the language on people but they did give the best jobs and most authority to natives who spoke English. While the french forced people to learn french. So they suggested that the carrot works better than the stick in that regard. And as far as keeping English there is a clear economic drive since even after the dismantling of the empire the commonwealth remained for trade among former empire states.

Recently even a couple of none ex-empire countries joined the commonwealth to enhance trade activities.
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Re: The British Empire

Postby Le Baron » Sat Mar 02, 2024 12:43 am

rdearman wrote:Probably the top reason. After all if not for the British Empire then Americans would be speaking French or Spanish. :D Plus although the Empire died, the Commonwealth emerged for trade and diplomatic ties between old empire countries.

Wily old British. When 'giving up' the colonies after WWII they quickly saw a way to relinquish the self-imposed responsibility of colonial administration, whist retaining the 'special relationships'. I've read quite a few 'memoirs' where during conferences the FO had advised French diplomats to plant the same idea in their leaders' minds, but to no avail. France has always maintained a more costly and tighter control, plus self-imposed responsibilities (unwanted by these places) and as you mentioned always made the language mandatory, foolishly trying to suppress local languages.

Perhaps by not pushing the language - maybe even denying it to certain groups of people - English looked more covetable. Certainly no threat to the local languages which were generally left alone. To that end there never seems to have been a movement to angrily jettison English as a 'boss' language.

However an interesting contrasting case is Indonesia. The Dutch held onto that for over 300 years, into the 1950s and now you'd be hard-pressed to find a Dutch speaker there. They didn't widely impose the language and seem to have cared principally about profit extraction.
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Re: The British Empire

Postby tungemål » Sat Mar 02, 2024 9:48 am

rdearman wrote:In Europe there were already a lot of countries with advanced English language skills such as all the Scandinavian countries.

I don't think that's accurate. Norway in the 19th century leaned towards German and French - that was the languages of high culture.

I just checked - English was made compulsory in school only in 1969 in Norway, and in the 60s also in Sweden.
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Re: The British Empire

Postby DaveAgain » Sat Mar 02, 2024 10:10 am

tungemål wrote:- a potentially controversial question: with all these foreign cultures becoming part of Britain, did it spark an interest in foreign languages (hindi, chinese, smaller indigenous languages), and if not why not?
Loan words certainly entered the language, and fads of various kinds arose, but people who didn't have to travel out of the anglosphere had no need to learn a language.
rdearman wrote:I remember reading once a discussion among historians as to why many French colonies didn't learn french and abandoned it but English colonists did learn and keep it. They suggested it was because the English never imposed the language on people but they did give the best jobs and most authority to natives who spoke English. While the french forced people to learn french. So they suggested that the carrot works better than the stick in that regard.
The "future of French" thread induced me to watch a number of YouTube videos about the Sahal region. In one, a French man promoting his book, highlighted a difference between the French and British administrations in Africa:
...maintenant je vais rebondir sur le début fort intéressant dans l'intervention parce que moi j'ai vécu moi en ancienne colonie anglaise j'ai vécu une grande partie de ma carrière africaine dans les anciens territoires britanniques et ce que vous dites mais tout à fait exact et je l'ai expliqué dans plusieurs de mes livres et ben j'ai résumé cela par une phrase nous Français nous avons laissé des certitudes et les Britanniques ont laissé des habitudes c'est à dire que nous nous avons inculqué des principes idéologiques tandis que les Britanniques n'ont pas touché à la mentalité de l'homme africain mais ils ont laissé des modes de vie et des modes de comportement et non pas des modes philosophiques
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Re: The British Empire

Postby Le Baron » Sat Mar 02, 2024 4:53 pm

It has always baffled me why France is seen as a 'philosophical' culture. It's also something very self-identified in France, where the newspapers have low-grade 'ponderings' from the Bernard Henri Lévy types who say very little of actual substance. Most visibly France Culture runs programmes with Alain de Botton style questions. Trivial things dressed-up as important, like 'the philosophy of catching buses'. Where some self-important writer talks in pretentious riddles and promotes a book.

Britain's culture is not very philosophical, not in that sense. Neither is the Netherlands, though you do get a handful of the pseudo-philosophers, who behave like psychotherapists or run hilarious self-help 'clinics' frequented by people with more money than sense. There's one in Utrecht called 'Denk Dieper'; though if the 'clients' were thinking deeper they'd never have given their money to these charlatans in the first place.

But anyway...when I was at an econ conference near Paris some ten years ago, a fellow said to me 'ah...but in economics you anglo-saxons, only think of practical things in plodding empirical ways, you can't think outside the box!' It really infuriated me. I reminded him that 1) A huge swath from Wales across the north of the country up to the north east was NEVER under either Angle or Saxon rule and I am from a place nothing to do with the 'anglo-saxons', if we can talk about any modes of life they imparted at all, and 2) modern economics was founded in the dull UK as a moral science, i.e. a branch of philosophy by first Adam Smith and latterly J.M. Keynes.

I've gone off into a rant. :lol:
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Re: The British Empire

Postby tungemål » Sun Mar 03, 2024 5:52 am

Le Baron wrote:However an interesting contrasting case is Indonesia. The Dutch held onto that for over 300 years, into the 1950s and now you'd be hard-pressed to find a Dutch speaker there. They didn't widely impose the language and seem to have cared principally about profit extraction.

That's interesting. Also the Philippines. They didn't adopt Spanish, probably because there were too few Spanish settlers, unlike e.g. Mexico. Australia ended up English because it was populated by Brits.

Papua New Guinea developed an English pidgeon.

I guess for India and the african countries, with all those local languages, they needed a common official language, and English was already in use in administration so...
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Re: The British Empire

Postby Le Baron » Sun Mar 03, 2024 1:23 pm

tungemål wrote:That's interesting. Also the Philippines. They didn't adopt Spanish, probably because there were too few Spanish settlers, unlike e.g. Mexico. Australia ended up English because it was populated by Brits.

Papua New Guinea developed an English pidgeon.

I guess for India and the African countries, with all those local languages, they needed a common official language, and English was already in use in administration so...

Similarly the history of Sranatongo shows that it was English which stuck most and formed the language. It is primarily an English creole with a more superficial layer of Dutch loanwords, and also a layer of Portuguese prior to the English. And that once it was set the following long colonial existence under NL never really altered it.
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