Braj B. Kachru
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
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
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
"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
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