Barbarous multilingual devil worshippers

Barbarous multilingual devil worshippers

Barbarous multilingual devil worshippers

I’ve just run a search for the terms “multilingual” and “multilingualism” in the National Library of Australia’s archive of Historic Australian Newspapers, 1803-1954. In the process, I have learnt that the adjective “multilingual” was used for the first time in an Australian newspaper on October, 25, 1882 in the Tasmania-based The Mercury in a review of the then-most-recent issue of The Calcutta Review. This is the sentence in which “multilingual” appears for the first time in an Australian newspaper:

[T]hough individually weak in mind and body, [they] were numerous. They were barbarous multilingual worshippers not so much of many gods as of many devils.

Doesn’t sound good! Not what I’d hoped that “multilingual” would collocate with. It’s clear that “multilingual” is anathema to the author and devoid of any positive connotations.

Curious what this is all about? Well, the author asks why the “Aryans” (i.e. Indo-Europeans) of India are so much less civilized than their European counterparts despite the fact that they were “the cousins of our European forefathers” some millennia ago. Well, it turns out to be the fault of the “barbarous multilingual Aborigines” of India who lived there before the “Aryans” arrived on the subcontinent and in the “fusion” that followed they dragged those fine Aryans down to their level.

The text is a typical specimen of the prevalent colonial European worldview of the time, which was based on the assumption that cultures formed a cline, and that each culture was located somewhere on a specific point on a general path of human development from savagery to civilization, with Europeans sitting pretty on top of that hierarchy.

While the 19th century pyramid of cultures is well-known, this example was the first time I’d come across a text where multilingualism served as a criterion for savagery as opposed to civilization. Civilization, by implication, can be assumed to be monolingual.

To me, this little exercise in corpus linguistics is a stark reminder of the wider colonial system in which the monolingual mindset developed. While monolingualism may not exist theoretically, practically the belief in monolingualism is part of the chronicles of colonial and post-colonial hierarchies and exploitative systems.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • golnaz

    Dear Ingrid ,

    Hello ,

    I would like to know if there is any connotational meaning there by means of colors in map ? Does warm color indicate a negative connotation while cold colors positive ?


    • Hi Golnaz,
      interesting question & completely out of the left field (and, no, I’m not biased against “left” 😉 … the map is from the Wikipedia entry for “Indo-European languages” as you will have noticed if you clicked on it. So, the grey means nothing more than “non-European” — a fairly frequent background choice and no deeper meaning. The Indo-European languages are all marked in what would be considered warm colours; strong colors for background and to maximize difference, too, seems unremarkable.

      • golnaz

        Hi Ingrid ,

        Thanks for replying me .Well i asked that left field question (wink ) beoz the name of my country (Iran ) Was also in the map with the flashing red color .


  • aditi

    thanks you for the post. not only does it throw light on the history of/and attitude towards multilinguals, but it also throws lights on the early days of historical linguistics, and coming into terms with the conclusion that the Indians could be cousins of the white Europeans. I wish the write up could throw more light of the author and the article (the title for example).

    • Thanks, Aditi. The review in The Mercury I used doesn’t have a title nor an author. However, the article under review must have been published in The Calcutta Review in 1882 (or 1881 if we assume that it took a while for the issue to get from Calcutta to Tasmania). The title of the article is not mentioned, either, but the author is: H. G. Keene:

      The place of honour in the magazine is occupied by a paper by H G Keene, who, with the aid of Herr Zimmer’s recent work, gives a discriminating disquisition on the early manners and customs of the Indian Aryans.

      I’ve googled H. G. Keene and he is also the author of the 1887 book The fall of the Moghul Empire of Hindustan but couldn’t find out more about him without spending a bit more time. If anyone has more background on H. G. Keene and Herr Zimmer, send it on 🙂

  • Khan

    Thanks Ingrid for a lucid read

    Here is one example of monolingual mindset originating in colonial discourse from Orwells Burmese Days:

    Butler! yelled Elllis, and as the butler appeared, go and wake that bloody chokra up!
    Yes, master.
    And butler!
    Yes, master?
    How much ice have we got left?
    Bout twenty pounds, master. Will only last today, I think. I find it very difficult to keep ice cool now.

    Dont talk like that, damn you- I find it very difficult! Have you swallowed a dictionary? Please, master, cant keeping ice cool- thats how you ought to talk English too well. I cant stick servants who talk English. D you hear,
    Yes, master, said the butler, and retired.

    I would like to make a brief comment about linguistics realities and social realities. I think they are not always complementary to each other.