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Braj B. Kachru: Language warrior rests his case

Braj B. Kachru challenged orthodoxies of the English Studies establishment.

Braj Kachru, kashmiri, kashmiri pandit, kashmiri professor, university of illinois, indian american professor, kashmiri pandits in us Professor Braj B Kachru. Photo taken from University of Illinois website

Linguistics, English and India Studies have lost one of their most charismatic leaders. Professor Braj B. Kachru successfully challenged the orthodoxies of the English Studies establishment on both sides of the Atlantic which looked upon Indian English and other non-native varieties as erroneous approximations of standard or native speaker English. Through half a century of scholarship and advocacy, he demonstrated their systematic structure, natural evolution and functional vigour, earning them respect as vibrant expressions of distinct cultural identities.

Today, “World Englishes,” the field of study he pioneered and dominated, is a burgeoning discipline with a global following. Kachru was also a respected and influential scholar on the languages of India, especially, sociolinguistics and multilingualism. He also wrote a grammar of Kashmiri, and a history Kashmiri literature. He worked closely with many Indian writers and intellectuals, such as Raja Rao.

Born in Srinagar on May 15, 1932, Kachru was educated at the University of Allahabad, Deccan College, Pune, and the University of Edinburgh. He was Professor of Linguistics, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Center for Advanced Study Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He died on July 29, 2016, at Urbana. His wife Yamuna Kachru — an authority on Hindi grammar and English discourse — passed away in 2013. They have a daughter, Amita, a physician in Santa Rosa, California, and son, Shamit, a professor of Physics at Stanford, and two granddaughters, Sasha and Ila.

Professor Kachru authored and edited over 25 books and numerous research papers. He was the author of The Indianisation of English, The Alchemy of English, Asian Englishes: Beyond the Canon, A Reference Grammar of Spoken Kashmiri. He edited or co-edited The Other Tongue, The Handbook of World Englishes, World Englishes: Critical Concepts, Asian Englishes, Language in South Asia, among other titles, which have become standard reference works. He was associate editor The Oxford Companion to the English Language and contributor to the Cambridge History of the English Language. The Collected Works of Braj B.Kachru have been published by Bloomsbury, London, in three volumes so far.

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With Larry E. Smith of the East-West Center, Honolulu he co-founded and edited the journal World Englishes (now in its 35th year) and co-founded the professional organisation, International Association of World Englishes (IAWE), serving as its president from 1997-1999. In all his research, publication, advocacy, and institution-building enterprises, he worked closely with his wife and colleague, Yamuna.

Kachru was also a gifted administrator. In a 50-year career at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — one of the leading public universities in America — he served as head of three academic units. Under his leadership (1968-79), the department of Linguistics came to be ranked as the third leading department in the US. His pluralistic vision ensured that its faculty comprised cutting edge Chomskyian theorists, classical scholars, experts on non-Western languages and applied linguists. He insisted that linguists should address not only the structural and theoretical aspects of language but also their social and cultural dimensions. He encouraged the study of linguistic theory with its applications to areas such as second language teaching, discourse structure, and analysis of literature. He championed the teaching and scientific study of Asian and African languages, and the dynamics of multilingualism. Subsequently, as director of the Division of English as an International Language (1985-91), he transformed it from a service unit into a research entity. Finally, as director of the university’s prestigious Center for Advanced Study, he redefined its mission and gave it expanded visibility and influence (1996-2000).

Professor Kachru left an indelible impression on everyone he met, from students to luminaries of the field. He was a meticulous scholar, a passionate and inspiring teacher and public speaker, a charismatic and witty raconteur with an outrageous sense of humour. He was also a kind and caring mentor, a warm and supporting colleague, an imaginative institution builder and a confident, fearless, visionary intellectual. At Urbana, he and Yamunaji were an institution. They trained generations of well-rounded linguists. They will be missed worldwide by his extended family of scholars and students.

First published on: 09-08-2016 at 00:04 IST
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