Language in Action in a developing country
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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.