Words Have Wheels To Roll And Wings To Fly: Part 2

Words Have Wheels To Roll And Wings To Fly: Part 2

By: Barnali Bose, Editor-ICN Group

A delve into how European Traders communicated with Indians:


The  Portuguese traders arrived in India in 1498. By the 1600s Portuguese was a Lingua Franca in coastal cities across south East Asia

A question invariably crops up  as to how the Portuguese communicated with Indian rulers and traders.Well, this is how the story goes.Vasco Da Gama, popularly known for his discovery of sea route to India, brought some Islamic traders to act as interpreters.

The British first visited India in 1601, while travelling to Indonesia. The East India Company compiled lists of words needed to conduct trade. ‘Dragomen’, interpreters of languages prevalent in the Middle East were appointed for the purpose.

There were many travellers, traders and literati in both Europe and India who had spent long periods of their lives abroad or at sea. These people often filled the posts of ambassadors, liaisons and translators.

The royalty of most countries was also often multilingual and finding one common language was therefore not difficult. For instance, educated aristocrats and traders in India, received an Arabic and Persian education.

On the other hand, many European traders learnt Arabic and Persian for their economic interests. In this way, a common language adequate for communication was in place.

The British endeavour to communicate with the common masses:

The British found that very few Indians could comprehend their language,so they tried using gestures. The gestures were more than often misunderstood.

A very humorous anecdote is that of an Englishman who came across a man standing beside a pile of logs. He asked him what the name of the village was.

The woodcutter,thinking that the ‘white’ man wanted to know when he had chopped the wood replied, “ kal Kata.” The Britisher repeated, “Calcutta?” to which the man nodded. That’s how Calcutta is said to have got its nomenclature.

The Queen’s language comes to India:


The British traders soon became our colonial masters. It was then, that they realised, the language barrier had to be scaled.

Initially, they began to take the help of a few English-knowing Indians,that bore allegiance to them. They also tried to learn the local languages, not only  to communicate with them but to also be able to unravel political plots hatched against them.

As they expanded their empire,they decided to introduce the English language in the sphere of education so that  they could appoint English-knowing Indians to assist them in the functioning of their government.

It was Sir William Bentinck, the then British Governor General who initiated the required move in this direction. Social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy supported the introduction of English in India

Raja Ram Mohan Roy had great foresight because he realized that it  would enlighten Indians about world political upheavals and revolutions as well as enable them to brush shoulders with the British.

In 1835, Thomas Macaulay who officially introduced western education, stated, “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour,but English in taste, opinions, words and intellect.”

Despite initial resistance, the Elite  Indians embraced English to elevate their position in society.

Gradually, English language that was referred to as the Queen’s language  became popular among the educated middle- class Indians too.

The most significant parting gift the British left  for the Indians:


English continues to hold great significance even though the British  departed more than seven decades ago. In fact, the Roman script in which English is written was adopted by Indian languages like Konkani,Khasi,and Mizo.

Among the 22 official languages that India has today, English is the only one that is common to all states in India. Besides English,every Indian state has its regional language as its official language. English  continues to be an important tool of communication all over India.

Parents queuing up for their children’s admission to  elite English medium schools is a common sight. Even today, English-speaking Indians continue to rule the roost, in most of the spheres.

Being well-conversant in English is considered to be a feather in the cap though the Queen’s language has become indianised and is now better known as Indian English.

To Be Continued…..


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