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Professor Braj B. Kachru
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Braj Behari Kachru, famous for his theories on how native languages shaped English, grew up in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, northern India, where he spoke only Hindi and Kashmiri until he was 16.


A Love for Language
Cultural forces defined this linguist and his language.

There are books everywhere in his small office at the UI, spilling from bookshelves onto worktables, the plush visitor's chair, and the floor. Even his computer monitor wears a journal, like a hat. A self-confessed book addict, he reads and rereads them all. Every now and then he writes one of his own and the international academia sits up, as it has for three decades. Indeed, books are his passion. But language is his life.

Braj Behari Kachru is a well-known figure in LAS's Department of Linguistics. Since arriving on campus in 1965, Kachru has written more than a dozen influential books, coedited the trailblazing journal, World Englishes, and attained some of the University's highest honors, such as being designated a Jubilee Professor and serving as head of the Linguistics Department and director of the Center for Advanced Study. His research specialty, sociolinguistics, is one of the department's research pillars.

Though now a world-renowned authority on the English language, the India-born Kachru spoke only Hindi and his mother tongue, Kashmiri, until he was 16. But he had the advantages of a highly educated family that was part of the Kashmiri Pandit community renowned for its achievements in language, literature, art, and, above all, education. Indeed, the term "Pandit" means "revered teacher" in Sanskrit. Kachru's brother and father, too, were educators.


"It's a complex situation," says Kachru, reflecting on how his heritage has shaped his own pursuits. "Minority communities need to be superachievers to have security in jobs and money. Since they are a minority, they do not find it easy to preserve their identity." Culture and identity are critical to him and to his linguistics.

Kachru was born in 1932 in Srinagar, a city in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, into a lively, extended family that eventually consisted of 18 siblings and cousins. Under this joint family system, the parents share in all the children's upbringing and treat them equally; however, Kachru was brought up under special circumstances. His mother died when he was five, after which Kachru's father and aunt reared him. Because he was diagnosed with a rheumatic heart—later proven wrong—he was not allowed to exert himself physically nor attend school with his cousins. Instead, he was tutored in art, music, and Hindi. He delighted in the stream of famous educators, poets, critics, and academics who visited his home to share his father's love of Kashmiri literature.

In 1947, at 15, he began working toward a bachelor's in English. Later, he received his master's in English from the Institute of Linguistics in the western city of Poona, part of the Rockefeller Foundation's Postgraduate and Research Institute.

"That's where he got interested in phonetics, and that's where we met," says Kachru's wife, Yamuna, who was a UI linguistics professor until retiring last year.

From Poona, Kachru headed to Britain to begin a doctorate in Indian English at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, where he met Robert Lees, who offered him a position at the UI starting in 1963. Kachru accepted, but first returned to India for a year to establish a linguistics program in the Department of English at Lucknow University. Yamuna joined Kachru at Illinois in 1969.

In the early 1980s he coined the term and philosophy for which he is most famous: "world Englishes," which describes the dispersion of English across the globe. "The term was controversial in the beginning," says Marguerite Courtright, a Kachru student and teaching associate in the Department of English as an International Language. "There were purists who believed that there should be only one standard English—British English. The rest, they said, were deviant. The concept of world Englishes allows for varieties in English usage; it allows for diverse Englishes."

Kachru postulated that "there were many varieties of English molded by the influences of the different native languages. World Englishes follow different rules from the Standard British English," Courtright explains. In India, as in most post-colonial nations, speakers "weave both English and the native language into their conversations without consciously realizing which language they are using," says Kachru.

Though he still feels umbilically connected to India and visits each year, Kachru's family has broken with their homeland of Kashmir. In 1985, Jihadic Muslims began a policy of ethnic cleansing. "No Pandit lives in Srinagar anymore," says Kachru. "They...are migrants in their own country." As happened to Kachru when he left India, his family is now struggling to retain their cultural and linguistic traditions as they redefine them.

by Anupama Chandrasekhar, a graduate student in the College of Communications
Summer 2001

Source: http://www.las.uiuc.edu/alumni/news/01summer_love.html

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