Hindoos, Hindu, Spelling, and Theory

by Michael J. Altman

Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about “Hinduism in nineteenth century America.” But it’s really not. It’s not about Hinduism at all. It can’t be because the idea of “Hinduism,” a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. That’s kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term “Hindu” to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term “Hindoo.” Hindoo–that double O of colonialism.

So, here’s the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

long-s-us-bill-of-rightsOn the one hand, you could argue that though the sources read Hindoo, it makes sense for the scholar today to write Hindu, even when talking about the 1820s. There are all sorts of terms that we alter when we bring them into the present from the past. No one puts the long S in their scholarly prose, for example. So, maybe Hindoo to Hindu is just like taking that long s out of Congress in the Bill of Rights?

But maybe it’s not. It seems to me a Hindu is actually someone quite different from a Hindoo. That is, a Hindu is someone tied up with this world religion called Hinduism. There is the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or World Hindu Council), and the Pew Research Center tallies up the number of “Hindus” in America. But in the early nineteenth century, a Hindoo was a product of the American and British imagination. When I discuss what Americans thought about India and the people who lived there and these things they did that Americans thought were religion, I am not talking about people in South Asia. I’m talking about representations of people in South Asia. These Hindoos are imaginary. “Hindoos” and their religion were invented by Europeans and Americans. During this period, people in India did not present themselves to an American audience. Rather, they were represented by American and European authors to an American audience and in that process they were represented as Hindoos.

Perhaps the one exception to this would be the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy who wrote in English to an American and British audience. However, Roy self-identified as a “Hindoo,” as in his work “A Defence of Hindoo Theism.” Swami-Vivekananda-Hindoo-Monk-posterEven as late as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Americans represented Swami Vivekananda, the South Asian who garnered an audience throughout America, as a “Hindoo Monk.” Vivekananda and Rammohun Roy served as transitional figures as Hindoos became Hindus. That is, as South Asians went from imagined representations to immigrants representing themselves in American culture. In 1893 Vivekananda was a “Hindoo monk” but by 1930 he is part of a “Hindu Movement” in Wendell Thomas’s book Hinduism Invades AmericaVivekananda goes from Hindoo to Hindu, from a South Asian represented by Americans in Chicago to the founder of a movement representing itself in America.

Here’s the shift from Hindoo to Hindu in one handy Ngram. The lines cross in the year 1884:


For most of my brief career I’ve fallen back on the term “Hindu religions” to describe whatever it was that Americans and the British were trying to describe in their writing. But I’ve decided to eject that term from my work going forward because it implies that there is something there that is essentially “Hindu” before someone labels it as such. There is no there there, however. There is only the discourse about whatever people in South Asia seem to be doing to Europeans and Americans. So, I’m going back to Hindoo, colonial Os and all, to emphasize that nothing is “Hindu” or “Hindoo” until someone categorizes it as such. And then, once categorized, my job is to unpack the conflicts, arguments, ideologies, claims, and competitions behind that categorization. But I am curious to hear from others on this question–and similar questions about, say, “evangelical” or other such categories. Is this all simply a word game?

Michael J. Altman is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His areas of interest are colonialism, theory and method in the study of religion, media studies, and Asian religions in American culture. Trained in the field of American religious cultures, he is interested in the ways religion is constructed through difference, conflict, and contact.

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2 Responses to Hindoos, Hindu, Spelling, and Theory

  1. Chris says:

    “Is this all simply a word game?” Simply?

    Years ago, while at work, there was an incident. Clearly, the incident itself wasn’t meaningful because I don’t remember it, but I do remember what my manager said to me as he watched my face change. Before I blurted out whatever was brewing just behind my eyes my manager said to me “Don’t say nothing, won’t be nothing.” The meaning was clear: ‘Yes, something has happened and yes, you are not happy with it, but it won’t be important unless you say something that makes it important.’

    Since then I have played with that phrase in my mind. I had told a friend about it and she responded with “That’s so ghetto” which forces the question: What is ‘ghetto’? Did she mean “protected place; refuge” or was she referring to a racialised place, or perhaps she meant “inner city area that is economically depressed.” It’s possible that she was referring to a type of language common to Rap music, used by people with affluence but meant to reflect ‘life on the streets’ (assuming there is a single experience that can be encapsulated within this, or any, expression). Of course, I didn’t ‘call’ my friend on her use of the term and it didn’t become ‘a thing’ – I didn’t say anything and it didn’t become anything.

    The point I would make is that this is not “simply a word game.” There is nothing simple about it. And it is not merely a word game, either. It is accepted that language is a symbolic system, that language stands in for meaning, objects, etc, that we interpret language to construct ideas in our own minds, hoping to reconstruct the idea that was intended by the delivery of the language. As critical scholars we tend to look beyond the ideas intended and seek to reveal the unintended, but the underlying structure remains: language is a system of symbols to be interpreted. Implied within that paradigm is a reciprocal relationship – that language creates meaning and meaning creates language and, more braodly, our experiences of our world construct our language and our language constructs our worlds.

    I doubt that any of this comes as a surprise to anyone, this is all well-trodden ground. But I would want to bring to mind that there is nothing simple in our word games, and that all of life is a word game but not merely so. That is to say: I would not wish to diminish your efforts regarding ‘hindu’ and ‘hindoo’ as being simply, or merely, games with words.

  2. Robert Mathiesen says:

    One should consider this matter in light of the changing professional standards for converting all Sanskrit or Hindi words, as written in Devanagri script, into the English alphabet. Since in English “oo” and “u” have somewhat different pronunciations in many contexts (/uw/ versus /juw/ or /jiw/ or/iw/) the two possible spellings are not phonetically equivalent. At one time English “oo” (and “ee”) were thought — for English readers! — to be a better fit to the Sanskrit and Hindi vowel sounds in question. Later on, linguists were were unwilling in principle to let a sequence of symbols stand for a simple vowel in their phonetic and phonemic analyses, even if the resulting transcriptions (with “u” and “i”) misled naive monoglot English readers. — The different connotations that the two spellings now have cannot have developed until both spellings were in competition with one another.

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