Ashok R. Kelkar



Language in Action in a developing country


Modalities of Language Use



            Contemporary philosophy often sings the praises of ordinary language usage; but ordinary language is not always enough. One has to occasionally depart from ordinary language in one of two opposite directions: towards technical language which permits translation without any loss of meaning; or stylized language which excludes translation without loss of meaning. Ordinary language is poised between the two. What exactly happens when ordinary language is used? Punya Sloka Ray* provides some clue in his discussion on the formation of prose:



            “Let us begin with a dilemma. Language is impossible if the speaker and the hearer do not agree at all on what forms should carry what meanings. And yet, language is unless if the speaker and the hearer could agree completely without recourse to the meaningful forms between them. So language is usable only insofar as we do not depend upon it. Fortunately the absoluteness of the paradox is only a metaphysical make-believe… But this formulation does serve to highlight a certain quality in our handling of language… the systematic cultivation of dependence on language will be defined as poetry 1 and the systematic cultivation of Independence from language defined as prose… a movement away from poetry.2


            What will be the consequences of this three-way division or language use? One consequence is the different amenability to translation without residue. There are other consequences:


            (i)            Language varies in susceptibility to the individual variation in the way a speaker words his message and a hearer understands it: technical language shuns such variation where as stylized language welcomes it; ordinary language is different to it.


            (ii)            Language varies in susceptibility to the textual as well as the situational context in the way a particular expression is to be interpreted: technical language seeks to minimize this link with the context where as stylized language seems to thrive on the way an expression depends on (indeed seems to derive its sustenance from) the context and thus to give scope for interpretative activity; ordinary language stands in between.


            (iii)            Language varies in susceptibility to the field of interest, the universe of discourse: the sense and reference of an expression gets restricted by the field in technical language; the sense but not the reference of an expression gets restricted by the field in ordinary language; stylized language places no restrictions. As Robert Frost reminds us, a poet is entitled to all the meanings the reader can get out of his poem.


            (iv)            Language varies in the demands made on the speaker and the hearer. Ordinary language is content to muddle through and demands no more than common sense and ordinary attentiveness. The extremes of technical language and stylized language seem to meet in stretching the capacity of language; and hence they demand a certain initiation and close attentiveness from the speaker and the hearer. In seeking certain exactness, both search for the mot juste.


            The systematic cultivation of independence from this or that language on the part of the scientist, the lawyer, the specialist using technical language has a certain pay-off, at a certain cost. One talks only about certain things, but talks with precision, directness, and care. The systematic cultivation of dependence on language on the part of the poet. The novelist, the eloquent speaker using stylized language also has a certain pay-off at a certain cost. One can talk about anything, around anything, indeed past anything and draw the hearer into it with a certain precision – provided both the parties are willing to put in an effort. The strength of Ordinary language is precisely its refusal to indulge in a close cost-and-benefit calculation. One may talk away about cabbages and kings, or one may talk for a practical purpose with an eye on the main chance.


            Given the individual language user (whether he is acting as speaker or writer or hearer or reader), and given the occasion for language use, the language being used may take the technical turn towards specialized symbolism; or it may take the stylized turn in the direction of poetry; or it may remain gloriously ordinary.


            Functions of Language in Human life


            The glorious unconcern of ordinary language seems to rub off on the language user too. Language is so familiar to us that it is difficult for us to understand its nature systematically and objectively. Most of the time we look upon language merely as an instrument, something to be used and left behind, so to say. It is only when we become conscious of difficulty, as when the speaker is at a loss for words or the listener stumbles against some word or construction, that we consciously think about language. Once the difficulty is erased, we quickly lose interest in language.


            But there is an exception to this rule. Indeed there two. There is the literary artist, especially the poet, who loves to play with language even as a child does. The Marathi poet Keshavsut spoke of the poet’s “nursing the child in himself”. What sets the poet apart from the man of sensibility, for that matter from an artist working in another medium, is that he has fallen in love with language. (Falling in love with language is of course quite from falling in love with one’s own voice!) And there is the philosopher, the perpetual worrier about language, who nurses in himself his maturity. His concern with language is naturally quite different from the poet’s caring for language. Enjoyment and concern are but the two sides of caring. The poet revels in a language, systematically cultivates his dependence on that language; he is not the once to feel ashamed if the rhyming word comes first and the rest of the line grows around this happy accident. The philosopher has no loyalty to this or that language; he is after that which can survive in translation. This is quite different from what we have seen earlier about poetry resisting translation. Both the poet and the philosopher, however, are at one in recognizing that language is no medium for expressing or feelings or for seeking or imparting information and instructions, but a medium for organizing and shaping our thoughts and feelings. The two exceptions we have named are of course ideal types which may be approximated more or less in actual cases.


            It is time to turn our gaze from the exceptions to the main scene – the function of language as an instrument, the function that made language biologically possible and even renders it biologically useful. Actually we have to distinguish between two instrumental functions: the utilitarian function and the sociative function. By virtue of the utilitarian function, language is a tool for coping with life, for making a home within and wresting a living from the environment. It helps one to share experience with another for better coordination of activity, to get another to do things for himself. The environment to be so controlled may be either natural or human, as in a commonplace utterance like “Is it raining outside? If it is, get me my umbrella, will you? I’m going out.”


            Language can also be a tool for sharing life, for throwing out bridges of intimacy and loyalty, ranging from “Good morning” to “I love you”; or for maintaining hostility, ranging from “Mind your business” to “Damn you”. Recall Aesop’s parable of the tongues that join or sunder man and man? Social classes and ethnic groups, ages and sexes, regions and periods, all these get reflected in the sociative function of language. Loyalties towards such groupings often turn up in the guise of language loyalties; lines of division based on such factors have a way of turning up as a language gap or a language bar.


            As language grows upon language users, they may begin to regard it as more than a tool. To a child, language may indeed take on the aspect of a fascinating toy in the shape of a nursery rhyme or a homely riddle, for instance. Some language users never grow out of this language play; others turn language into their lifework, and keep at the riddles of concepts and ideas. These are the poets and the philosophers, the upholders of the third function of language, of its non-instrumental, spiritual function.


            The Indian Linguistic Scene


            Enter contemporary India into our deliberations on language.


            While skilled and energetic and resourceful people can constitute a nation’s principal strength, sickly and indolent people merely present a population problem. The same is true of language. It is said by some that the economically backward nations of the world tend to be multilingual, or the other way round. Of course, the finger points to India.


            Now the fact that India has many languages is neither good nor bad; it is simply the legacy of history. What is good or bad is what we make of this fact. Indians tend to leap to one of two extremes. They may decide that the multiplicity of languages is a silly nuisance, and whatever pet link language one espouses, Hindi or English or even Sanskrit, should take over all the fields of communication that matter. (A place to the local lingo may grudgingly be conceded in the kitchen council or the neighbourhood chat.) Alternatively, they decide that pride in one’s own language is not complete without an obstinate refusal to adjust to or compromise with other suppression of regional languages or intolerant pride in regional languages, would be a misuse of national linguistic resources. Nobody in his right mind would suggest that airplanes or bullock carts ought to be the sole means of transport in a huge highly populous country like India. We need airplanes and bullock carts and a host of other vehicles to fulfill the country’s needs. Decisions about language should be taken in a levelheaded manner after a thorough analysis of costs and benefits.


            For the last half-century, councils are being held for the introduction of a uniform calligraphy for Kannada and Telugu since the two scripts are essentially alike. Every time the outcome is the same: Kannada speakers recommend that Telugu speakers adopt the Kannada script; and vice versa. It has not occurred to anyone to propose that Kannada speakers start using Telugu letter-shapes when they want to do the equivalent of italicizing, and Telugu speakers do likewise with Kannada letters so that both get familiar with each other’s calligraphy. This would be a major step forward towards unification.


            Every language in India is a link language for some purpose. Thus, standard Marathi is simply the link language between different regional and social dialects in Maharashtra. A peasant from south Ratnagiri and a peasant from north chandrapur cannot discuss problems of rice cultivation if each insists on using his local dialect. If a young Tamilian can specialize in French, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be given the opportunity to learn the Marathi language and literature within the school or the college system, if he wants to. Instead of making a bugbear or a fetish of learning additional languages, we should amplify, improve, and diversify language-learning facilities. Language-planning does not spell language compulsion, but language freedom. To learn a new language is to gain the membership of a new community, a new freedom.


            Remoulding our Language Use


            What is more to the point is that we need better airplanes and better  bullock carts; and by ‘better’, I mean ‘better-suited to meet certain specific needs, to perform certain specific functions’. If bullock carts can be adapted to modern needs and can be fitted with pneumatic rubber tyres, languages certainly can be modified.

            How does one redesign language? A distant example will perhaps enable us to appropriate the point with greater objectivity. The Swedish language is full of expressions of status and hierarchy, handed down from a feudal past. In today’s egalitarian Sweden, a young Swede cannot open his mouth first determining his exact status relative to the other person. No doubt the Swedish language will one day rid itself of these limitations. Given our historical situation, we in India cannot afford to let custom take its slow course to effect such a change. Our languages, natured in an agricultural, rural, stratified, segregated, and conformist society, have to be remoulded – to enable them to cope with needs of modern society.


            It has often been observed that the Indian culture is an oral culture; we neither trust nor value the written word. What has not been observed is that, even more than being an oral culture, the Indian culture is a silent culture. Take the utilitarian function of language. Indians are accustomed to a tongue-tied mechanic or engineer and an uncommunicative physician or musician. Indeed, our society also expects, if not welcomes, such reserve. Now, one would certainly prefer silent proficiency to voluble inefficiency; but an articulate proficiency is even better. This articulate proficiency should not be looked upon as a happy accident, but consciously striven for in the educational scheme.


            It is an elementary need of the age of science and industry, of management and advertisement, that technical mastery should be made communicable through language. For a mother to get her daughter to cook, or a cobbler to get his little son to take up the family trade, is an entirely different proposition from attending a school of home craft or leather craft. A wireman or plumber has been trained solely with visual demonstration, as anyone who has attempted to get work out of a workman in accordance with precise instructions can testify.


            The situation is equally dismal at higher levels, if one turns to fields such as classical music, engineering, law, medicine, and the experimental sciences. If our technicians are only slightly better than skilled labour, our professionals are often mere glorified technicians. Not that there are no first-rate technicians or professionals in India; but they cannot or will not be ready to communicate with each other, or with their average co-workers, or with the intelligent layman. The story of the sure remedies of the grandma literally dying with her because she did not communicate them, the evidence for the back-wardness of medical or legal or musical research in India along side the notable advances in practice are both typical of the survival of the medieval approach in India. Technical education and technical advances are not possible without a liberal, skilled, and articulate use of language.


            Not that Indians are never articulate. Indeed it has often been noticed by the Englishman that while a quarrel between two English-men is apt to erupt into fisticuffs at short notice, a quarrel between two Indians has to pass through a mandatory long bout of verbal abuse before it reaches a grapple – indeed if matters come to that at all! If one studies the Indians’ verbalization in the committee room, the assembly hall, the mass meeting, or the newspaper and magazine columns, one finds that they talk too little, or talk beside the point. If they talk just right and to the point, they talk at the wrong forum. How many times has one not seen the noncommittal committee member making pungent and opposite remarks on the way back home or in the tearoom? Rather than voice when and where it counts, Indians resort to silence. Democratic cooperation within a corporate setting depends much more on linguistic communication than does cooperation within a family or neighbourhood setting.


            But there is a deeper problem. Indian life appears to be split down the middle between a deshi (native) segment, innocent of English and western models; and a videshi (foreign) segment, suffused with the English language and with Western influence. Dress and living style, games and sports, the fine arts (music and dance are deshi and the visual arts videshi), medicine, trade and commerce (commodity and handicrafts are deshi, manufactured goods are videshi ), religion is deshi), politics (nationalism and regionalism has been deshi, liberalism and socialism has been videshi), and so on. At the first blush this is a strange and even comic situation; on a closer look it is a depressing, if not disturbing.  reality.


            An Indian brought up behind the deshi curtain finds it difficult to cope with the modern scene and the modern mode of life. The minority Indian brought up behind the videshi curtain finds himself ill at case coping with traditional India and traditionally brought up Indians. Inevitably, urban life has a certain provinciality, a rural dullness and crudity. One if eager to take refuge behind clichēs and salaciousness in place of the traditional varieties and ribaldries. Rural life stands invaded by the urban rootless ness and ruthlessness. The net result is a breakdown of communication of the very urge to communicate. The religious bhakti preacher goes in for the hardsell: salvation is within easy reach; just repeat the name of God. Gone is the voice of Tukaram, proclaiming that the servants of God have to do battle day and night. The doctor doesn’t condescend to talk to the patient. The debater says his piece and goes back to sleep when the next man comes in; and this passes for a seminar or a symposium. The political worker lives cheerfully with the schizoid reality of professions of democracy and socialism, and the practice of a refurbished feudalism. The official thinks nothing of flagging a file ‘for immediate attention’ before consigning it to the dusty shelf. Even the bus conductor does not condescend to change misleading destination sign on the bus!


            English can of course open a window for our young, but it cannot give them eyes to look through that window. Ram Manohar Lohia and F. R. Leavis were right in their animadversions against rootless cosmopolitanism. As Goethe once said, one must make one’s own what one has inherited; and in the present context, this means what the contemporary Indian has inherited from his Western, no less than his classical Indian, heritage. There is no getting from redesigning our own languages, so that they become capable of expressing shared ideas and feelings – with a rhetoric that is free from stale clichēs or pretentious jargon, or insecure attempts to be ‘with it’.


            The stylized use of language has also to perform the spiritual function of language. Our languages need to be so remodeled as to offer scope for the richly distinctive expression of novel ideas and highly personal feelings in literature and in discursive prose, safe guarding the individual from the trammels of both the traditional community and mass society.


            Finally our languages also need to be redesigned so as to encompass the impersonal, standardized expression of technical and routinised contents and there by ensure accessibility to such contents in any situational context.


            The problem of remoulding our languages is different from, and in the long run more important than, the better advertised problem of the multiplicity of languages. If the neglect of Other language teaching can be costly, the neglect of Own language teaching can be paralyzing. The prospect of a future generation that commands no language sufficiently well to meet the pressing needs of a modern society is very grim indeed. The remoulding of our languages has to be done by speakers and writers of talent; and let this talent not feel frustrated because the listeners or readers are too lazy or too weak to meet talent half way. Languages cannot be redesigned in the committee room or even the classroom. But committees can give direction and indicate possibilities, and teachers can alert their students to the problems of communication. A school cannot make a Shakespeare or at Russell out of every man; but it can and should enable every student to recognize a Shakespeare or a Russell when he is fortunate to meet one. More important, he should recognize an impostor who uses verbal bombast in order  to conceal the absence of any real thought or feeling


            Concern for language is therefore not something to be left to a government agency. Concern for language must become the concern of academic experts and educationists, authors and public speakers, journalists and mass media people – indeed the concern of every citizen. The critique of language is relevant to any critique of society and culture worth name.




            This was published in India International Centre Quarterly 11:2:145-54, June 1984 (special issue on language).






*Language Standardization, The Hague, 1963


            1. What is called here ‘stylized language use’, of which poetry is an extreme case.


            2. What is called here ‘technical language use’ of which, say, the symbolic language of chemical formulas will be an extreme example.