Professor Braj B.
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 his
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
"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,"
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