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Oah no! Linguistic Dominance in Kim

About the Author: May Dong

May Dong is a senior at Swarthmore College, studying Biology and English Literature. She enjoys combining her love of both majors into bad puns and occasionally, essay writing. May has written feature articles for the Swarthmore Journal of Science, where she makes scientific topics palatable to a general audience. She’s unsure whether she wants to follow in the footsteps of Mary Roach or Abraham Verghese, but hopefully, she’ll figure it out soon.

By May Dong | General Essays

In Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, the very first scene is one where the eponymous character, a young Irish orphan living in India, resolves a linguistic mismatch. A Tibetan lama asks a policeman for directions to the Lahore Museum in Urdu, but the policeman speaks only Punjabi, thus rendering the lama “helpless” (Kipling 12) until Kim steps in to translate. Unsurprisingly, the theme of the power of language continues throughout the novel, further complicated by the introduction of English to the mix of Urdu, Punjabi, and Hindi. English, unlike the other languages, is above the fray; all Indic languages are relegated to the status of ‘vernacular’ while characters struggle to attain English and ultimately Englishness. Kim shows us parallel structures of linguistic dominance: the linguistic hierarchy of Kipling’s colonial India, with English at the top, is mirrored by the framework of the novel, which aids and abets the dominance of the English people and language in India. Since the novel revolves around Kim, it is easiest to see the interplay of language and power through his character. In the aforementioned scenario, Kim has power because he can speak, apparently, both Punjabi and Urdu. However, his linguistic capabilities are not the only things that give him power. Although the narrator tells us that Kim is on and not just of India. Given Kipling’s pro-colonialist attitudes, it makes sense to interpret this interaction as a justification for British rule of India: the native people cannot even communicate amongst themselves and must look to the British to understand one other.

Power, however, is always relative. Compared to the bazaar boys and the Punjabi policeman, Kim has power thanks to his race and his ability to translate. Relative to white men, however, he is powerless before he studies English in school. Kim “learned to avoid missionaries and white men of serious aspect” (Kipling 9), so it isn’t until he encounters the Mavericks, those “first-class devils, whose God was Red Bull on a green field” (Kipling 8) of his father’s drunken prophesying that he interacts with other white men. Kim sneaks into the camp to investigate and is caught by Reverend Bennett, who, believing Kim to be a thieving native boy, “nearly choked the life out of him” (Kipling 115). Bennett tells the Catholic priest, Father Victor, that he would “‘have chastized him and let him go, because I believe him to be a thief. But it seems he talks English’” (Kipling 116). Their surprise at the mismatch between his appearance and his language is what piques their interest. However, the men take “no heed” of what Kim says because his English is “clumsy” (Kipling 122), the “tinny, saw-cut English of the native-bred” (Kipling 115). It isn’t until Father Victor remembers meeting the original Kimball O’Hara, Kim’s father, that they believe the story of his origins. The lama, who understands no English, is completely powerless to keep his chela with him in the quest to find the River of the Arrow and gain enlightenment. Once Victor and Bennett understand that Kim is the son of one of their very own regiment, they immediately strip him of his agency and try to incorporate him into the State—the Masonic Orphanage, the Military Orphanage, the army, any institution that he might fit into. It isn’t until Kim has studied the English language and culture at St. Xavier’s that he can take back control of his own life, slipping back to the freedom of the Grand Trunk Road for his summer holidays.

There is also a hint that Kipling’s writing of dialect is situational, dependent on how much power a character has at a given moment. When Kim speaks to Mahbub Ali in English, his speech is not written “terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazaar” (Kipling 7), the policeman asks for Kim, “‘friend of all the World” (Kipling 12), rather than any of the other bazaar boys, despite the fact that they also speak Urdu as seen when they converse with the lama. It seems likely that Kim’s Britishness is the differentiating factor: he can speak at least rudimentary English and is white, making him a friend of all the world with a particular accent. “Oh, Mahbub Ali, but am I a Hindu?” (Kipling 31) he asks the horse-trader, using grammatical and apparently unaccented English to surprise and tease the Mahbub. In contrast, his first encounter with the British leaves him completely dialectical, full of “oah, yess” (Kipling 123) and “no-ah!” (Kipling 127). It is unclear how much of any character’s dialect is real and how much is performed, whether Kim’s powerlessness dictates how stereotypically Indian his speech should be or whether he is playing to the expectations of those in power.

In Rudyard Kipling’s colonial India, language always divides and, for the British, conquers. Kipling portrays several ideal archetypes of colonial administrators: the curator of the museum at Lahore; the District Superintendent of Police, Colonel Creighton; and Lurgan Sahib. The Kulu woman (Kim’s women almost always go unnamed) praises the district superintendent of police after he teases her, presumably in Hindi or Urdu, though it is never mentioned, for going about unveiled. According to her, men like the superintendent should be “the sort to oversee justice” since they “know the land and the customs of the land”. Other Europeans, “all suckled by white women and learning our tongues from books, are worse than the pestilence. They do harm to kings” (Kipling 104). Clearly, there is something meritorious about British people who speak Indic languages. Does that relationship work in reverse? In other words, is it equally laudable for an Indian to speak English?

The answer to that question lies in Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a Babu, or Indian cleric, who is in the employment of the British Secret Service under Creighton. The Babu, a “hulking, obese” man “whose stockinged legs shook with fat” and “the gait of a bagged cow” (Kipling 213), is something of an antic figure. He speaks a heavily accented English that caricatures an upper class Englishman: his language is over- ornamented, he prefaces too many words with “jolly dam,” and gets his idioms slightly wrong. Shortly after their first meeting, Hurree Babu accompanies Kim on the train from Lurgan Sahib’s house to St. Xavier at Lucknow. On the way, the Babu lectures Kim in “volleying drifts of English” (Kipling 218) interspersed with Latin, despite their shared language of Hindi and Kim’s incipient English, which only allows him to understand enough to catch “the general trend of the talk” (Kipling 218). The Babu’s use of English here is a pretension, allowing him to temporarily outrank Kim, whom he knows will likely one day be his superior due to his race. In a moment of social self-awareness, the Babu later admits to using language as a status symbol when the two of them discuss secrets of the Great Game. Kim warns him that they shouldn’t be overheard speaking English since he has just been dyed to disguise himself as Indian. Hurree Babu reassures him that it is “all right. I am only Babu showing off my English to you. All we Babus talk English to show off” (Kipling 244).

When Hurree Babu speaks English, he is a show-off; when the English speak Indian vernacular, they are worthy to oversee justice. The racial double standard is highlighted again in the context of the Royal Society. Both Colonel Creighton and Hurree Babu share the secret dream of induction to the Royal Society. Creighton secretly has the “ambition to write ‘F.R.S.’ after his name,” but he has already “bombarded” (Kipling 233) the Society with his monographs on Asian culture making him something less of an outsider. When Lurgan Sahib tells Creighton of the Babu’s aspirations to be inducted to the Royal Society for his ethnographical papers, he thinks it “very curious” (Kipling 232) or perhaps absurd that the Babu should want such a thing. It is with amused incredulity that he informs Creighton of Hurree’s activities over the past several years: “He applies to the lama for information on lamaism, and devil-dances, and spells and charms… Holy Virgin! I could have told him that yee-ars ago,” showing yet again that white men in Kipling’s India are better Indians than Indians themselves could ever hope to be.

Perhaps the most famous line concerning Hurree Babu’s Westernization is from foreigners, the Frenchman and the Russian, who sneer that the Babu represents “the monstrous hybridism of East and West" and who has “lost his country and not acquired any other” (Kipling 318). The European foreigners are clearly the villains, and thus any statement they make is likely meant to reinforce the enlightenment and humanity of British rule compared to that of other nations, such as Russia. However, the sentiment is merely a crueler version of Kipling’s portrayal of the Babu as an oily impersonator of Britishness. Does this standard apply to Kim? Has not Kim, born and raised in India, living as an Indian, “lost his country and not acquired any other?” Is he also a monstrous hybrid? Although he has no connection to either of his parent’s homelands, never even dreaming of Ireland or England, Kim and the characters around him constantly note, he is “a sahib and the son of a sahib” (Kipling 122), a term Kipling uses to signify whiteness (the term comes from Urdu with the original meaning of ‘friend’ or ‘mister’, but came to be associated with the British in colonial times (“Sahib”)). Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is always referred to by the title ‘babu,’ which originally indicated a high-ranking man of education but took on the derogatory connotation of over-Anglicization. Despite the fact that he is Kim’s superior as a result of his higher rank in the British Secret Service and his age and education, Hurree is not a sahib and will never be a sahib. As Anne McClintock notes, “passing ‘down’ the cultural hierarchy is permissible; passing ‘up’ is not” (70). The differences in Kipling’s portrayal of Kim and Hurree Babu show that this rule applies equally to race and language.

It is not only the characters that interact with questions of language and power. Kipling, writing from the perspective of an Anglo-Indian, had internal biases that he naturally incorporated into the text. Some of these prejudices are overt (“Kim could lie like an Oriental” (Kipling 36)); other, subtler biases are expressed through the structure of the novel. When the reader first encounters the eponymous protagonist, Kipling tells us he “spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother- tongue”— English— “in a clipped uncertain sing-song” (7). The narrator doesn’t clarify, however, exactly which of the many possible Indian languages Kim knows best until later in the story, in the home of Lurgan Sahib, where it is revealed off-hand that Kim was “thinking, as usual, in Hindi” (Kipling 201). The only reason the narrator bothers telling us what language Kim thinks in is because the next moment he thinks in English for the first time. In other words, Kim’s Indic language is unimportant until it is supplanted by English, when his previously neglected birth-tongue reasserts itself in his consciousness thanks to his new Anglo-Indian education.

Hindi-as-vernacular would be too neat a statement; however, Kipling has bafflingly also defined the vernacular to mean Urdu. Colonel Creighton speaks to Kim “in the vernacular” (Kipling 154) at the Mavericks camp. Soon after, on the train to Lucknow, the Colonel explains Kim’s future as a surveyor in “fluent and picturesque Urdu”(159). Further cementing this association between ‘the vernacular’ and Urdu is the same scene in a 1922 edition, which instead states that the Colonel “always spoke in Urdu” (Kipling 187). Whether his characters are native speakers of Urdu or Hindi does not seem to be very important to Kipling, which is curious given the cultural knowledge that he applies to other aspects of Kim, such the distinction between Muslim and Hindu colors or the proverbs about different races and castes. Instead, it seems more important not that a language is the vernacular but rather that it is a vernacular, any language of the people of India that is not English.

The origin of ‘vernacular’ is from the Greek word varnas, meaning native or home-born slave (“Vernacular”); the word is rooted in subjugation and superiority of one race. When the ‘vernacular’ is used as a catch-all term for any language that the native people of India might speak, it symbolizes Anglo-India’s disregard for the language, customs, and culture of the Indian subcontinent. The ‘vernacular’ and the Indic languages it is composed of are only important when they might be useful in furthering the goals of the Empire.

One might argue that Kipling’s use of dialect is harmless, and that it simply helps color the reader’s impression of India. However, this construct diametrically favors the British: the ‘Urdu’ that we read is no more than a quaint English meant to represent Urdu. When colonialists speak Urdu, the narrator can only tell us whether their speech is “fluent and picturesque” like Creighton’s or whether they say things that are “grossly insulting” through “sheer ignorance of the vernacular” (Kipling 191). We have to trust the narrator’s interpretation and translation. Furthermore, characters, especially Kim, switch back and forth between Indic languages frequently. Kipling makes no comment on Kim’s manner of speech in any Indic language, and even neglects to mention which one it is. The only language that Kipling allows the reader to scrutinize is English, giving the Empire the tacit advantage in the reader’s understanding.

Another question Kipling doesn’t answer is why Kim’s dominant language is Hindi to begin with. Kim’s early childhood took place in Lahore, where the language most frequently spoken in casual settings was Punjabi (Mir 31). Urdu was spoken in official contexts, but only because the British introduced it circa 1858 (post-transition to Crown rule) as the official administrative language (Mir 30). Unless the “half- caste woman who looked after him” (Kipling 7) spoke Hindi, a hypothesis the text provides no evidence to support or deny, there is little reason why Kim should speak Hindi and not Punjabi most fluently. Although we have already established that Kipling played fast and loose with native languages, this particular blunder is quite suggestive. While Hindi would have been somewhat unusual in the Punjab, it was spoken commonly in the Bombay of Kipling’s childhood (Pai 1804). It reminds us that the India we see through Kim is not the India seen through the eyes of a street urchin for whom the Great Game is truly a game but through the eyes of an influential colonialist nostalgic for the India of his youth.

While the connection between linguistics and power in Kim seems glaring to readers in the present-day, it seems that Kipling’s contemporaries did not notice his inconsistencies in language, taking such vagaries as part and parcel with the unfamiliar and exotic setting (described by Kim’s review in the New York Times as “the mysterious, poisonous, fascinating East” (“KIM.”). Indeed, a contemporary review of Kim in the Times noted that Kipling was one of the first to bring the Western reader to India with such depth; the average reader would likely be unfamiliar with the different languages of the Indian subcontinent (“Kim.*”). Given his readership’s general ignorance of India, Kipling’s responsibility to convey an accurate picture of the state of colonized India was great. His lack of discretion surrounding Indic languages transmits that sentiment to the reader back in the heart of the Empire: not even the most ardent Anglo-Indian can understand India, and furthermore, at some level not even the most passionate truly cares.

Is all hope lost, then? Must Indians in Kim be resigned to either loss of pride in English or lack of power in their vernacular? One example to the contrary is Mahbub Ali, who plays the Great Game. Mahbub never speaks English, though based on his interaction with Kim he understands it. He is undoubtedly one of the characters with the most dignity, set in his ways and deeply rooted in his culture. Because of his power in the Hind and his vital network of men, he does not need to learn English to play a key part in the colonial drama. Mahbub understands, perhaps, that the English language is at once a weapon of colonialism and a tantalizing opportunity, bringing power to those who speak it yet holding at arm’s length those who learn it. Language, both in Kipling’s India and in Kim, is the greatest hegemonic force of all.

Works Cited

“Babu.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.

“KIM: Rudyard Kipling's Fascinating Story of India.” The New York Times, 28 September, 1901, pg. 2.

“Kim*.” The Times (London, England), 01 Oct 1901, pg. 8; Issue 36574.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. 1901. Penguin Books, 1994.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge, 1995.

Mir, Farina. The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial

Pai, Pushpa. “Multilingualism, Multiculturalism and Education: Case Study of Mumbai City.” Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism. ed. James Cohen, Kara T. McAlister, Kellie Rolstad, and Jeff MacSwan, Cascadilla Press, 2005, pp. 1794 1806.

“Vernacular.” Oxford English Dictionary Online.