Subaltern means subordinate. It is a popular word in cultural studies to denote the “marginalized” people. Derived from the ranks used in the Army, the word subaltern has various associations in the present context. Theoretically, it refers to the people who are socially, politically, and economically outside the hegemonic power structure of the establishment. This establishment can be a “state”, a “nation”, a “colony”, or a “demographic group”.
If we talk about the present Indian society, then the elite class, which consists of the intellectuals, the nobility, the aristocratic and the patricians, has always enjoyed superior economic status and has also claimed superior intellectuality. In the race to attain elite status, they used the English language as their weapon against the non-elites. Due to their hegemonic supremacy, they were able to give English an undue advantage over all other regional Indian languages and dialects. The use of English became a tool of the elite class to gain an upper hand over the non-elite rustic class, whom the elite marginalised to subaltern status. The global supremacy of the English language worked in the favour of the elites. They emerged as a hegemonic group with a sustained advantage over the weak marginal group. Furthermore, all canon literature and technological research were only available in English.This made it difficult for the non-English-speaking classes to break the hegemony of the elites. To sum up, the subaltern didn’t speak English.
Now, the revolutionary idea is: What if they do? If the subalterns conquered the English language, they would, in general, be breaking the hegemony of the elites. They would actually not only enter into a realm of highly potent discourse but also be the key beneficiaries of the regional advantage which they already possess. If the non-elites have to stand, they can use the same tool as a shield. Learning English would not only be a defensive mechanism, but also an aggressive step toward liberation from the elites’ reckless oppression policy.This would end the era of hegemony and the word subaltern would also cease to exist. Nevertheless, the English language would still have retained its importance.
Prof. Jayesh Mehta’s Blog
Assistant Professor of English