Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan reviews Vernacular English

Akshya Saxena. Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022. 206 pp.

Review by Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

25 April 2024

Is English a vernacular language? What is a vernacular, and for that matter, what is a language? These are the questions posed by Akshya Saxena’s aptly titled Vernacular English. To appreciate their critical force, it’s important to note what Saxena is not asking: namely, questions that have dogged the study of Indian postcolonial literature for decades, like “Is English an Indian language?” and “Can a colonially imposed English represent Indian life-worlds?” In a much-needed intervention into the postcolonial language debate, Vernacular English shows that such lines of inquiry fundamentally misunderstand the nature of English’s presence in India and inadequately appreciate how Indians across caste and class lines relate to English.

To the first point, Saxena’s chapters consider English in India through the multimodal sites of law, touch, text, sound, and sight. This is a refreshing structure for a literature monograph, and it allows English to appear in numerous nontraditional sites, like administrative documents and protest banners. To the second point, Saxena brilliantly proposes that the affordances of English in India are best understood through the experiences of Indians who don’t necessarily know English. These Indians may not speak English, but English—specifically, vernacular English—variously speaks to them.

What Saxena terms vernacular English is “lived daily.” It is embodied, affectively charged, and ubiquitous. It is “everywhere, whether one [knows] it as English or not” (p. 2). Vernacular English captures the “democratic aspirations” (p. 28) of everyday Indians. Even those who do not regularly or comfortably speak the language—from certain Dalit poets to women exposing sexual violence in Manipur—can marshal its symbolic power in the “culture of protest” against the state (p. 147). English is thus enlisted in the production of “oppositional” discourse by subjects claiming “agency and equality” in a language in which they have also, ironically, been oppressed (pp. 67, 73).

We have heard a version of this argument before, in debates on the indigenization of English in the Anglophone world. Colonial subjects have long been governed in foreign tongues. English was made Indian before it was Indian English. Eventually, the empire wrote back. Saxena distinguishes her “vernacular English” from previous work on the vernacularization of the colonially imposed language in two ways. First, she directs attention to histories of reception beyond the conditions of formal literacy. Second, she focuses on subjects left out of the conventional history of English language education and colonial subject formation.

If, in the postcolonial phase, English was pragmatically embraced by writers saying “I have been given this language and I intend to use it,” English in contemporary India is being used by those who have been denied the language, yet undertake to claim it.[1] Caste is key to this story about the contradictions of vernacular English. English holds out the promise of “casteless modernity” (p. 83). At the same time, the “experience of English is always shaped by caste in India” (p. 61). For Dalits who have been denied English specifically and literacy generally, writing is “always activism” (p. 64). By that same token, Saxena acknowledges, “the promise of English is neither fulfilled nor really fulfillable without structural change” (p. 80). Beginning with the death of Rohith Vemula, recounted in the preface, the vernacular repeatedly comes up against the limits of institution, nation, and world.

Another generative tension resides in Saxena’s disarticulation of the vernacular from its conventional antonymic relationship to the global, in which the vernacular is construed as the subordinate, “nondominant” linguistic form (p. 11). The vernacular, she argues, has a “different, nonelitist register of power” that the global fails to capture (p. xvii). In fact, however, the power of the vernacular’s local purchase may be exactly what secures its global spread. It is well-known that English is global because of the number of people who speak it as a second language, not as a first language. Following Saxena, we might say that what makes English global is neither native speakers nor second-language speakers, but rather the number of non-speakers who nevertheless have material, corporeal, sonic, and visual relationships to English. In India, “everyone hears and mimics what is understood as English as an acousmatic sound”—whether or not they speak it (p. 116). Millions of Indians who are “confronted with English as the language of the state do not know how to read it” (p. 31). Meanwhile, millions of Indians are variously literate in English without being “comfortably bilingual” (p. 124). Balram in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger might not understand what his employer is saying in English, Saxena notes, but he understands that it is English and the key to his success.

Throughout Vernacular English, Saxena points out such scenes in which English is “largely unintelligible” to the subjects in question yet remains meaningful (p. 53). It’s a powerful point, if somewhat tested by its own implications. Will English retain its incredible symbolic power—the power of “[becoming] meaningful precisely by not being read”—as it continues to be democratized (p. 148)? Has the global finally become vernacular, or will renewed vernacularity be the precondition of a greater globality? The signal contribution of Vernacular English is not, finally, the adjudication of these terms but rather the resources Saxena offers toward a more fundamental retheorization of language itself. On the one hand, postcolonialists have tended to figure English as an extralinguistic imposition on colonial subjects. Thus, the argument for “vernacular English” can be read an argument for understanding English as a language—as opposed to a social and cultural system. On the other hand, Saxena deemphasizes the importance of a language’s intelligibility to its receivers. English is understood as “a machinic object,” “a symbol to invoke,” and “an object to fetishize” (pp. 19, xiv). In this way, the argument for vernacular English can be read as an argument for understanding English as something other than a language.

Is it possible to have it both ways? The great success of Vernacular English is that these two equally compelling arguments emerge as co-constitutive and ultimately imperative for practitioners of postcolonial studies to take on board.


[1] Chinua Achebe, “English and the African Writer,” Transition 75–76 (1997): 348.