Ashok .R. Kelkar



Socio-Economic and Political processes

Language pollution


Language is so familiar to us that it is difficult for us to get to know it really- that is, 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 – say, the speaker is at a loss for words or listener stumbles against some word or construction – that we consciously think about language. Even so we are most intent on setting the matter right. Once we have done that , we have no further interest in language . No, we needn’t be apologetic about this reluctance on our part to take notice of language. It is as natural as a healthy person’s reluctance to pay any medical or for that matter any cosmetic attention to his body.


But there is an exception to this rule. Indeed there are two. There are those of us who take an intrinsic interest in language. There is the literary artist, especially the poet, who loves to play with language even as a child does (doesn’t the poet “nurse the child in himself ”as Keshvasut  the Marathi poet said?). 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 different from falling in love with one’s own voice.)  And there is the philosopher, the perpetual worrier about the language, who nurses in himself his maturity .His concern with language is naturally quite different from the poet’s, but that he cares for language mustn’t be in doubt. Enjoyment and concern are but the two sides of caring. The poet revels in a language, systematically cultivates his dependence on that language – he’s not the one to feel ashamed if the rhyming pair comes first and the rest of the lines grows around this happy accident. The philosopher has no loyalty to this or that language- he is quite different from poetry which notoriously resists translation. Both the poet and the philosopher, however, are at one in recognizing that language that language is no more medium for expressing or evoking feelings or for seeking or imparting and instructions but a medium for organizing And shaping our thoughts and feelings.


            The two exceptions we have set up—the literary artist and the philosopher—are of course ideal types that may be approximated more or less in actual cases. Literary art and philosophy turn out to be relevant to any critique of society and culture, of agencies and activities. When a disciple asked Confucius what the master’s first step would be if he took over the administration of the government of the states of  Wei,  he said (Analects 13:3:2,5)— “What is necessary is to set names straight. If names be not correct (he goes on) language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language is not accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Language is part of the patrimony a society has inherited. “Railways are our national property, don’t damage or destroy them,” says the Indian government to the people and rightly so. We have to keep reminding one another that language too is national property. A damaged railway can be set right, but reviving a language that has been choked to death, restoring it to a state of health is a most difficult thing. Language is more than a tool, it is a nurturing power. One can enact laws against pollution of food, water air. But who’s going to lay down the law against pollution of language?


            And what is language pollution? One swallow doesn’t make a summer; an unsuccessful linguistic transaction doesn’t make language pollution, but it could be the harbinger of it. Repeated linguistic miscarriages may lead to a focus of pollution; and such a focus stands subsequently in the way of successful linguistic transactions. The fable of the shepherd boy who cried wolf once too often is the parable of language pollution. But I am anticipating. Before we try to understand language pollution, we must understand linguistic failures, or rather the conditions of successful linguistic communication.  


            Under what conditions is a communicative transaction in language successful? Under what conditions is a linguistic message apposite? A communicative transaction between a sender (speaker or a writer as the case may be) and a receiver (listener or  reader). These two are of course part of a large communicative situation, the given state of affairs in which the message is embodied. Let us call this whole domain the Pragmatic Domain (P for short). The message is at the same time about some thing, it relates to some topic in some universe of discourse, the chosen domain. Let us call it topical domain (T for short). Finally, the message is but one out of a great many messages that confirm to the same linguistic system. In order to send or receive the message, we must know the language system. (L  for short).


            A successful communicative transaction is that in which the message fits appropriately all of these three (listing the last mentioned first).


1.      The Language (L)

2.      The Topical Domain (T)

            3   The Pragmatic Domain (P)

            In other words, the message should be apposite in all three respects, it should be L-apposite, T-apposite, and P-apposite. If it is L-apposite, it will be well- formed according to grammar, phonology, and semantics, i.e. grammatical, pronounceable, and usable. If it is T-apposite, it will have a acceptable reference i.e. will be taken as true if it is a statement, acted upon if it is a mand. (we are using the term mand  as a cover term for requests, commands, demands, and the like). If it is P-apposite, it will be felicitous in expressing the speaker’s intent and impressing the receiver. Thus, if some one successfully communicates with another by saying “The fuse has blown”, the listener “gets” it, i.e. he figures out that something is being reported and also what that is, he then spots the blown fuse and accepts the message, and finally, he comes to see the point of this report and sets it right. (The point of the report will of course depend in part on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. With a different relationship, the  listener may come back with “I see , set it right then” or with “Yes sir, shall I set it right ?”)


            What if the message fails to be opposite? It can do so in either of two quite different ways—it can be straight off in opposite or worse it can be vacuous. The logical relationship between opposite, in opposite, and   can best be exhibited as follows:


                        Message in                               Significant-----------                opposite

                        Relation to---------

                        L, T, P.                                    Vacuous                                   In opposite



            So, before a message can be opposite (or in opposite for that matter), it must be significant.


            To begin with, the message should be L-significant. Other wise it will lack coherence and won’t be tenable for the sender or intelligible for the receiver. Many a conscientious teacher of English in India has often wondered how to go about “correcting” a pupil’s composition because it is little better than L-vacuous gibberish. It does not deserve to be called even ungrammatical or grammatically in opposite. Secondly the message should be T-significant. Otherwise it will lack correspondence or relevance to the chosen domain, the universe of discourse, whether it is a statement calling for verification or a mand calling for implementation. If someone asks you to clean the window and if the window is already clean, what can you do? By not proceeding to go through the motions of window- cleaning you won’t be disobeying the mand, because the mand is T-vacuous in the first place. Finally, the message should be P-significant. Otherwise it will be pointless and not even infelicitous. It will simply lack any relevance to the domain given. This is why a dialogue between two hard- of- hearing persons often becomes amusing.


            Now, although we are neatly and philosophically separating L, T, and P demands of significance and oppositeness, in the actual traffic of linguistic communication they are not always so separated. Thus ‘getting’ the message may cover any or all of the three modes; ‘truth’ may refer to internal coherence (especially of long- drawn message of several sentences), external correspondence (especially of a short, snappy one sentence message), or even pragmatic felicity (especially as based on truthfulness on the speaker’s part).


            At the same time it is also open to us to refine further upon the basic three- way distinction. L-oppositeness, as we have already hinted at, can be split up further – into phonological pronounce ability, grammatical and lexical admissibility, and semantic usability. “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” fails for example, on the third count, but not the first two. T-oppositeness, again as we have hinted at, has to be defined a new for statements and for mands. In interpreting statements like “he’s bald” or mands like “make him look bald” we may have to move from two- valued logic (so, not so) to a three- valued logic (quite so, not quite, not so) to handle its T-oppositeness. P-oppositeness cannot be the same obviously for a love letter and a love poem though a sentence like “I can’t live without you” could appear in either of them. Moreover, the felicity conditions that we lay down for each kind of communication may be of varying degrees of exactingness.


            In setting up this rather elaborate conceptual framework aren’t we giving up the appealing simplicity of the law of the excluded middle (“either p#or not-p”)? Hardly. If someone says, “The moon is round the earth is flat”, nothing that we have said so far permits us to say that the statement is true in its first half but false in its second half. Given that ‘and’ guarantees the truth (T- oppositeness) of both the partners, the message of endangered even if one of its two corollaries (namely, “The moon is round” and “The earth is flat”) is in danger. So the statement held together by ‘and’ is false (T- in opposite)’.


            Again, consider the use of ‘bald’ in ordinary English (and not in some fancy medico- legal jargon defining ‘bald’ as, say, “With less than 5 square centimeters of occiputal surface covered by hair”). Such an ordinary use of ‘bald’ demands, let us say, 2 degrees of in oppositeness (not quite, not so). This does not mean that as applied to a given case (i.e. in a given topical domain) the statement “He is bald” is neither opposite (“quite so”) nor in opposite to the lower degree (not quite) nor in opposite to the higher degree (not so).


            Given that ‘stopping an action’ presupposes a previous performance of it statement that “he has not stopped beating his wife” as applied to a hen- pecked husband or, worse a confirmed bachelor is not T- in opposite but T- vacuous. But then can’t we say “He has not stopped beating his wife, because he never beat her” (OR, ‘…because he hasn’t got a wife in first place’). If we say those things, then at least in saying those things we are using the words “stop” in a sense demanding a weaker pre supposition. ”He stopped it”, then, presupposes here not “He was surely doing it earlier” but “He was presumably doing it earlier”. Granted this reassessment of the proper use of ‘stop’ (its L-apposite use), the bare statement of “He has not stopped beating wife”   (without any continuation introduced by a “because”), when made of a hen-pecked husband or a bachelor, is not T- vacuous, but only fatuous (i.e. P- vacuous) even as “The moon is made of cheese”will be a fatuous in adult company. (“The moon is not made of cheese” is perfectly felicitous coming from or to a child.)



            Consider now the following exchange between a boy going out for his Divali shopping and a father.

“How many crackers shall I buy?”

“You can fill this basket at the minimum cost”.

OR: “You can buy the maximum with this much money”.

OR: you can buy the maximum amount of crackers after spending the maximum amount of money”.


            A little thought will show the boy with some head for bargaining and some diligence can obey the first mand. (minimizing cost given the amount of goods) or the second mand maximizing goods given the amount of money), but cannot obey the third mand. No matter what he does, he is open to reproach. The mand is ultimately T-vacuous. (And a T-vacuous mand cannot ordinarily be P- opposite or felicitous.)  And yet we cheerfully swallow the slogan of promoting “the greatest number” (usually ending up with greatest good of the given few”).


            A linguistic transaction is P- opposite or felicitous if what the message proposes as topic-relevant is indeed also relevant in the given pragmatic domain. The following exchange is by no means inconceivable or even improvable in an Indian village.


            Greetings! My cow has gone astray. Have you seen it?

            What colour is your cow?        


            Is it possibly lame- like?

            Yes, she’s lame in the foreleg?

            Is it the left fore leg?

            O, yes where did you see it?

            Ah no, I haven’t seen any cow.


            If we find this dialogue a little odd, that’s because it has a very poor fit with the communicative situation. The opening question. “Have you seen it?” gets appropriate response at the very end—“ I haven’t seen any cow” –which pulls the rug from under what goes in between rendering it infelicitous or P- in opposite. But now consider another distinct possibility:


            Greetings! My cow has gone astray. Have you seen it? Won’t you sit down and chew some betel leaf? New-one. Certainly. But have you seen cow? Here you are. I suppose you’re done with the threshing? But tell me if you’ve seen a cow or not?


            If the dialogue took a wrong turn in the first case, it is wholly off the track in the other case, wholly pointless or P- vacuous. And yet, you might remonstrate, what is so infelicitous or pointless about these exchanges? They are quite representative of the Indian countryside where we have set them. Even the man looking for his cow may not find reason enough for feeling annoyed. True, a city- bred man in his place may take a different view.


            Now, setting whether a piece of discourse is L- opposite or not isn’t too difficult. (Writing a grammar to account for the judgment is quite another matter.) Deciding about its T- oppositeness is not an easy task but not ordinarily a hopeless one, at least one can propose tests for the purpose. But a unanimous and straight- forward answer to a question about P- oppositeness or even P- significantness is a near- impossibility in many cases. In the first place the very criteria of felicity will depend upon the given pragmatic domain. A given dialogue will score differently is sorts of communicative situations. Even in the same there may not be any unanimity. Of course it is quite possible that our city- bred innocent finding himself Indian village may get wise to the village ways. After a few week’s stay, he may, for instance, be able to time his beating- about- the-bush beautifully. He may even get completely reconciled to the new felicity norms. But then he may not become of the village. In spite of his surface skill he may say to himself or to another city- bred man or even to the villagers are really nuts. In sum, instead of possessing a single set of norms like the other villagers or village- assimilated persons, he’ll be in possession of a double standard: he’ll judge a piece of discourse according to the village norms (other wise he can’t operate) and then he’ll judge these norms themselves by another set that he feels are his own.


            Before we move on to the question of language pollution, we must remind ourselves that the three kinds of oppositeness and significance can and need to be distinguished from each other. Thus, an ill- formed and infelicitous (a white lie), and so forth. At the same time, they are certainly not unrelated to each other. An L- vacuous piece of gibberish will automatically be T- vacuous also. Persistent T- in oppositeness may end up in P- in oppositeness and even P- vacuousness. Something strongly condemned as obscene or inauspicious may become lost to the language, I. E. become obsolete and, therefore, L- vacuous. A someone has very shrewdly pointed out, that children learn language at all is tribute to the general truthfulness of adults in their hearing.





            A linguistic in which the message is in opposite in one or more ways is a faulty transaction. If such faulty transactions are persistently tolerated, in opposite discourse is in danger of being re-categorised as opposite. Indeed an opposite. Indeed an opposite message is in the danger of ending in a failure (nobody responds to “Wolf” even though the wolf is there). That is where pollution begins. Bad money has managed to drive out good money.


            Let us now begin with an example that is somewhat less simple than the ‘crying wolf’ parable. A book or a stage performance or a film is reviewed in the newspaper. The review may be favourable or unfavourable. At the same time the review may be careful, Knowledgeable, and responsible; or this may not be the case. If an action is performed with care, knowledge, and responsibility, we call it a good action. If not, we call it a bad action. A good review is presumably one that is careful and so forth: often we hear people calling a review good or bad and mean respectively a favourable or unfavourable review. What is even more disturbing is that the listener makes the same mistake and no good misunderstanding results. The final upshort is that some one who calls an unfavourable but responsible review good and a favourable but irresponsible review bad stands in a minority of one. How ever can such a mess come about and persist? Well, if the reviewers can be careless, uninformed, irresponsible, so can be their readers. But, to go deeper, the displacement the L- in opposite use comes about in the first place probably because of some such logic what is bad is not liked, what is unfavourable is not liked, so what is unfavourable is bad. But the damage done does not end there. It is quite human for the author of the book to brand an unfavourable review as a bad one. But even others who cheerfully equate the two haven’t wholly forgotten the L- opposite use of good/bad in relation to reviews. Consequently, a timid reviewer feels reassured that if he makes his review favourable it is less likely to be thought of as bad review and be disliked by its readers. This is language pollution.


            Unfortunately, such examples are by no means rare. Some malapropisms casually gleaned from the Marathi press in recent months are “disappointing” for “disappointed” (nirāshājanak for nirashāpūr´a), “distinctive” for “discriminating; analytic” (prithagātma  for prithakkaraņashīl), “unproduced“ for unproductive (anutpādit for anutpādak), “impracticable “ for “unpractical” (avyavahārya for avyavahāri). Indeed such carelessness is likely to cause permanent damage to some useful words – “existentialist” (astitvavādī), “rhythm “ (laya), and “phoney” (bhankas) are cases in point. This last (bhankas) was Marathi slang for “discourse deemed to be significant but in reality vacuous”—certainly a badly needed and forceful tool. Now it is being used fashionably as an objective for anything that the speaker dislikes. The other two are what Fowler calls vogue words.


            Another casualty to language pollution is the word “informal” (anaupachārik). Perfectly formal occasions are so impudently and so regularly being dubbed as “informal” that one is at a loss for a description appropriate for the genuinely informal occasion. Some consolation can be found in the fact that most people have sense enough to avoid like plague the expression “on this informal occasion today”. When the occasion is genuinely informal. They obviously realize that it will be infelicitous. A self-consciously informal gathering will be about as convincing as a beggar shouting that he has lost his speech. But then what gives them the gumption to call formal occasions “informal”? Well, it is probably borne out of a native assumption that some of the favourable associations of “informal” in a modern society will rub off to the formal occasion that they are so keen to get over with in a lacklusture fashion.


            Such deceptive issuing of cheques in the absence of the requisite bank balance is wide-spread. Who says language is a means of conveying one’s thoughts? It is more means of concealing thoughts or, even better, a means of concealing that there aren’t any thoughts. (For this last, here are two prize specimens—“Ladies and gentlemen, we have gathered together in this great hall. You all know very well the occasion that has brought us here. The occasion is…..” Here’s another from a research paper—“The student whose mind is wholly engrossed in a mathematical problem is not aware of what is happening around him.” Reports of inquiry committees, ofcourse, specialize in this kind of discourse.)


            There are variations on the theme of linguistic smoke- screening. Indians accept as ancient wisdom “nabrūyāt satyam apriyam” (speak not the unpalatable truth). (It is interesting that the next hemistich is hardly ever cited---‘nasatyam ca priyam brūyāt’. And speak not the palatable untruth.) Concealing one’s true mind in favour of what will be palatable to the other person and to oneself; leaving message at the level of an implied presupposition or entailment if it wouldn’t stand the light of the day; skillfully floating a statement for which one has no evidential support, working the clichés harder when one has nothing really to say; following the maxim “Never use a four letter word where a fourteen-letter word exists” in order to impress the audience; imitating Yudhishtira’s policy in the Mahabharata episode where he said “could be an elephant or a man” in answer to a query because he didn’t wish to let out that the warrior bearing the same name as the elephant was still alive; preferring convenient ambiguities to inconvenient perspicuties; preferring mystification to a confession of ignorance. (“I don’t know” is one of the hardest sentences to utter.) It is surprising how many different ways there are when one isn’t too particular about finding the shortest distance between two points. I am not suggesting that in public places have the prerogative of using these ways. The father describing his marriageable daughter as “gavhaļ” (wheat- colour, tawny) when she’s dark; the advertiser trying to clear off second—rate stuff; the advertiser for a film, or a stage production, posing as a reviewer; the lawyer fighting a weak case; the insider in law, government, scholarship, religion, art criticism intent on impressing the layman; the poet or the journalist  who has nothing to say; the leader or the god-man seeking control over the minds of men and not wanting to lose that control—all of these look upon language as an instrument and are anxious to blur distinctions between T- opposite and T- in opposite and between T- significant and T-vacuous.


            Sacrifice T- oppositeness, and P- oppositeness also becomes a casualty. And of course we want to consider P- oppositeness or felicity here at a different level. We have already seen that the criteria of felicity/ infelicity, relevance/ pointlessness are multiple and variable according to the context and the level. Broadly speaking, at the superficial levels what for the speaker (or the listener as the case may be) is to be regarded as felicitous or P- opposite. Consider the following exchange.


            How do you do?

            Fine, thank you.

            (OR:) I had a little temperature this morning, even now I have a headache.


            For all we know the first reply may be T- in opposite and the second T- opposite. Yet there can be no doubt as to which is P- opposite and which P- in opposite. Of course there are those who will go in for the second reply, not realizing that “How do you do” is not a question comparable to the doctor’s “How are we this morning?” but rather a signal comparable to gestures of greeting. It seems to say something like the following—“I know you, we’re members of the same society, can’t see why I can’t show interest in your well-being.” We may greet a postman with this question not when he comes to our doorstep on his rounds but when we recognize his familiar face in a public park.


            But once we decide to get to the bottom of linguistic transactions we have to leave his notion of P- oppositeness behind. We would rather define as felicitous that communication which promotes the welfare of the sender and the receiver, which helps to bring about a harmonious relationship between the sender and the receiver and their shared environment. Once we accept this notion of felicity we feel like raising basic questions: Why does the bride’s father feel the need of making light of her dark complexion? And why doesn’t the groom’s father want to gloss over his son’s dark complexion? What is a Marathi- speaking clerk trying to say by calling himself a “klark” and his wife “vaiph” rather than use the plain Marathi words? And what does he gain there from? And what about the Indian villager who would waste the time of the owner of the stray cow or who would think of nothing of pointing the wrong way to a stranger who has lost his way? But to raise these questions is to mount a radical critique of the health of society and culture in the manner of G.K. Chesterton. I have in mind here one of the father Brown stories where the amateur detective wouldn’t take “Nobody” for an answer to his question “Who passed through this door in this interval of time?” It turns out that those who said “Nobody” in good in faith left the mere postman out of account was a “Nobody”. Quite a sermon to hang by an ordinary “manner of speaking”.


            At the movement, however, we have a more limited concern--- the health of a language. In the Marathi novel Sushīlechā dev by V.M. Joshi a self- proclaimed atheist uses the expression “God Knows”. On being twitted about it, he quite reasonably defends himself by pointing out that it was only an idiom and not to be taken as its face value. At a deeper level, however, one can question the wisdom of carrying this dead-weight of rejected pre suppositions for an indefinite length of time. Are we really sure that the faded metaphors and worldviews have faded out of any hold upon us? Once we reject the practice of description “untouchable?” Gandhiji suggested harijan (God’s people), S.M. Mate a social worker from Maharashtra suggested “untouched” (in the past), more recently dalit (oppressed, downtrodden) has recommended itself to some. Each of these alternatives implies a certain view of the matter, so the choice is hardly a mere linguistic choice. The subjection of women, untouchability, status differences and tensions between castes and religious groups, fatalism—each of these has left deep traces (some would call them scars) on the face of our language. If we reject these ways of life, we have to embark on a new sort of purification of language. Reformers have inveighed, and rightly so, against the standard. “The applicant’s caste and subcaste” on printed application forms. They should be equally active against expressions like lāņ·ā (the curtailed one, an oblique sneer against the circumcised Muslim), rāņ· , (a widow) (to begin with), a whore, (finally) (any woman), a·ānī kuņabĭ dupā rabe (the ignorant  kuņabī  works twice-a proverb criticizing someone who foolishly wastes his labour and comparing him to a member of the farm-worker caste in Maharashtra). True, such a linguistic purification is by no means sufficient, but it is a precondition for the healthy growth of the next generation. In recognizing this we are simply recognizing that language after being a victim of pollution may itself become an insidious pollutant,


            Linguistic purification is only a negative goal. In positive terms, we must also seek to preserve expressions of values that we wish to preserve and promote. Much has been said bemoaning the threatened loss of many expressive and forceful turns of language from non-standard urban and rural dialects before the juggernaut of literacy, industrialization, and urbanization. It has also been said that such expressions ought to be accepted and assimilated into the standard language through belles letters school texts mass media. We shall, therefore, do no more than remind ourselves (at this point in the argument) of the above avenue of linguistic enrichment.


            The standard language itself is undergoing some socially significant changes. It doesn’t take a student of linguistics to notice the redistribution of the three second person pronouns in Marathi-t,ū , tumhī, and āpaņ. Their use can be plotted against two axes- the axis of social status as governed by age, sex, education, honour, competence, power, caste and the like and the axis of social nearness as governed by kinship, friendship, neighbourliness, shaped occupation, play, and the like. The emphasis on social equality has led to the attribution of the first axis. English underwent a similar process and ended up with a single you. Hindi seems to be heading in the same direction, I have heard parents in the white collar or bābū class addressing each other and their chidren with the honorific āp and the children using the same pronoun with each other and with mammījī  (the affected substitute, for the native word) where the intimate tu once reigned supreme. Do we really ant to follow suit in Marathi and thus rob ourselves of gestures of intimacy and affection, honour and regard? English is feeling the loss only now. Shakespeare effectively rings the changes on you and thou to convey the changing relationship between two characters. Present-day English is now framing elaborate conventions governing the choice between, say, Mr. Joseph Smith, Mr. Smith, Smith, Joseph, Joe, Joey.


            The pronouns are an obvious case. Even the innocuous numerals reflect the cognitive habits of a culture. Where the scientist has to have “plus or minus 5 percent” to convey approximation, the layman is content with “three or four”, “thirty to forty”, “three to four hundred” (that is 14%) So far, so good. But about the Marathi expressions “hundred to fifty,” “five or fifty,” to the rather rural “few/ many o’clock” that distinctly take us back to the age of the bullock cart!


            The expressions language pollution and language purification are more apt to make us think of indulgence in or avoidance of grammatical solecisms or lexical borrowings, of the characteristically French worry about “tolérances” (grammatical deviations “permitted” by the Académic francaise) and “franglais” (the inundation of contemporary French with English loanwords). In short, we are apt to confine attention to L- oppositeness. I think we have succeeded in showing that the health of a language (and by implication of a society) has far more to do with T- oppositeness and P- oppositeness, with truthfulness and felicity of expression.






            A communicative failure can cost an Individual heavily as it cost the shepherd boy of our parable. But what is more to the point is that its evil effects can cost many more than the individual concerned. Here is another revealing parable related of a saintly Arab who possessed a very fine horse he wouldn’t part with. After failing in his attempts to buy it from him, a man poses as a crippled wayfarer and looks for the horse- owner’s help. As soon as the saint compassionately puts him on the horse, the other all but makes off with the horse when the horse-owner shouts after the rogue. “Tarry a while, my friend. I have only one favour to ask of you now. Don’t you boast of the ruse you used in getting the horse from me. If you do that, nobody is going to help a genuinely needy wayfarer in future.” A bad deed casts its shadow over a wide area.


            Language pollution is an extensive phenomenon. I can but give broad hints on the symptoms of this disease, the extent of its spread and predisposing factors, and the consequences that one has to guard against. It could be the topic of a whole symposium. Limiting ourselves to the Indian scene, we can indicate three main sources of language pollution in India.


            Some cases of pollution are bound up with the traditional, older way of life. Religion, farming, the caste system, the village set-up, handicrafts, classical language learning and some of the areas in which older ways still hold their own—but they do so at a price. A certain coarseness and loss of nerve has overtaken these. A case in point is the religious kīrtan or pravachan session of devotional singing or edifying discourse. One now misses the old fervour and confidence. Gone is the voice of Tukaram boasting “rātradina āmhā yuddhā prasi´ga” –we (servants of God) have to do battle every day and night. In its place we hear the hard sell- salvation is now within easy reach, thanks to the way of bhakti all that you need to do is repeat the name of God. Tradition, then, is the first breeding ground of Indian language pollution.


            An Indian brought up in these ways finds it difficult to adjust himself to the modern scene and the modern mode of life. Inevitably urban has a certain provinciality, a rural dullness and crudity about it and rural life stands invaded by the urban rootless ness and ruthlessness. The net result is a total loss of faith in linguistic communication itself. A bus conductor does not condescend to change the misleading destination sign on the bus. An official sticks a flag “Immediate Attention” on the file and cheerfully consigns it to the dusty shelf without so much as a by-your- leave. A doctor minimizes talking to the patient. A debator doesn’t even pretend to attempt conversion or illumination—he does his bit in the seminar lime- light, and goes back to sleep when the next man comes in. A series of disconnected harangues passes for a symposium and nobody objects. The tyro poet or critic is anxious to prove that he knows the ‘in’ thing—modernist style. The political worker lives with the schizoid reality of professions of democracy and socialism and practices of a refurbished feudalism without any sense of travail. (I have in mind here not only politics in the narrow sense but any sort of politics—group politics in a university or a firm or a co-operative, for instance.) So much for the second breeding ground of language pollution— the hybridization and corruption of the newer ways of life.


            But we mustn’t forget that the newer ways by themselves are also sources of pollution in the third place. For evidence we have to look at large cities, offices, colleges, newspapers and other mass media, the performance of popular speakers and writers, god men and artists, and the minority culture seeking to express newer sensibilities. The new poetry and the new fiction in Marathi and other Indian languages have made us conscious of the dangers and pitfalls of the Machine Age civilization. We are going to sample three problem areas.


            First, the question of  public obscenity. (Private obscenity and carnival obscenity are of course nothing new.)  I was intrigued for a long time by a question. There was a good deal of obscene suggestiveness in the speeches and writings of  the late P.K. Atre and it was steadily on the increase. Now the very same people who tolerated it, indeed found it delectable, were up in arms against Vijay Tendulkar’s play Sakhārām Bāinar (sakharam, the book- binder). Indeed Atre himself took cudgels against the obscenity seen by him in new poetry and fiction. Now was that a contradiction in the pure and simple or only the semblance of one? Now obscenity has been defined in any number of ways; that’s not our present concern. For my purpose two of these proposed definitions, should suffice:


            (i)         Obscene is that which invades your private world of feelings,

            (ii)        Obscene is that which titillates your feelings, inducing you to indulge them for their own sake.


            It then occurred to me that the Erotic (shriņgāra rasa) is not the only one with an obscene counterpart any of the known areas are liable to this sort of an obscene extension. Some years ago, there was a rash of tear- jerkers on the Marathi screen, and, more recently, the epidemic has shifted to the stage. What is this if not an obscene version of the pathetic (karuņa rasa)? The horror films of the West would be the obscenely horrific (bhayānaka rasa). Make- believe modernist poetry indulges in the obscenely disgusting (bībhatsa rasa) to be distinguished from the obscenely erotic. The imagery of filth has nothing to express beyond itself. It does not make the reader lose his sleep. Indeed it is as much sleep- promoting as cheap pornographic pulp. People were angry with Sakhārām Bāiņar for the simple reason that it was not obscene at all. It did not permit them to sit back and smack their lips. Once we so broaden the range of the term ‘obscene’ and examine our catch, two interesting things strike us. First, obscenity is achieved by a specific use of language: not words, but sentences and sequences are obscene. Secondly if a word that is habitually used in obscene contexts its power to shock is gradually lost—even as a term of abuse cases to insult if excessively used. The law of diminishing returns applies here too.


            The second symptom of language pollution is the clichē. Clichēs are, to quote Fowler, “such hackneyed phrases as, not being the simple or natural way of expressing what is to be expressed, have served when first used as real improvements on that in some particular context., but have acquired an unfortunate popularity and come into general use even when they are not more but less suitable to the context than plain speech.” Harmless examples of this phenomenon occur when someone proposes a vote of thanks. Advertisement offer another source, though less harmless. The next step is to let a clichē do the thinking for the speaker who does not even know “what is to be expressed.” Popular songs presidential addresses, leading articles, stage reviews are some dependable sources for gleaning hackneyed phrases. Indeed someone who has the gift for the happy phrase cannot resist the temptation, after he has arrived, of lifting from his own earlier writing. I didn’t see why this shouldn’t be condemned as a form of plagiarism.


            The word ‘clichē’ is French for a stereotype printing plate. It has gained currency in English, from which Marathi writers borrow it occasionally for want of a ready translation equivalent. Marathi of course has many translation borrowings from English--- asprishya, for instance, translating English untouchable. Now why does one prefer a translation loan like non- violence to a straight loan like ahimsā? Actually there is a dilemma—the straight loan may not mean anything, the translation loan may mean too much or too little. Even if the translation is not wholly wrong, the expression lacks the contextual enrichment of the original—non- violence cannot mean to an English speaker all that ahimsā means to an Indian. Even so a translation loan serves its purpose. But what about a misleading translation loan which falsifies the original concept? In such cases one would rather avoid language pollution by resorting to the direct loan. Thus, it is much better to use tragedy and romantic in Marathi to use translations that mean “lament- play” or “beautyist” (shoka- natya or saundaryavadi). A translation loan in such cases may merely mislead or, as in cases like “chemistry fitted with organs” (sendryiya rasayam), be merely puzzling.





            So much for the pathology and aetiology of language pollution, what sort of therapeutics can be proposed? Obviously language pollution cannot be put on the same footing as environmental pollution—who can lay down the law for whom? But language pollution originates in faulty communication and something can be done by the government and other organizations to check faulty communication.


            L- appositeness was made a public concern in France—we have alluded to the Academic francaise and the activities of the French department of Public Instruction. The nineteenth century in India saw the standardization of the major regional languages. Marathi was no exception. Major Thomas Candy, lexicographer and education officer, played an interesting role. Thus, he was the one who decided that the completive nonfinite ending ūn is more elegant than o̤n and that “Black sea”  should be translated to Kā½ā samudra but “Pacific” should stay (Hindi regularly translates it to Prashānt while Marathi has had Pyāsiphik). Gandhiji inspired the undertaking of a Gujarati spelling dictionary (jonī kosh) while Marathi slogged its way through public debate and resolutions to a standardized orthography. The achievements of Dr. Johnson and Noah Webster for the English Language are well-known.


            T- appositeness is the concern of a variety of legislations. Price- tags, content-labels use of copy-right material, trade-marks, brand-names are all subject to regulation. Brand-names were originally conceived as legally protected devices to protect the consumer. They can however, be forms of legalized confidence tricks, as when the same salicylic acid is sold under a variety of brand-names some of which win out in the advertisement battle. The consumer gets a comforting illusion of free choice.


            Legislation has made P-oppositeness also its concern choice witness the law of libel, of public obscenity and abusive language, and of military and administrative secrets. Is that all that government can do? A government certainly claims to be able to do more— It is always eager to impose censorship in “public interest”. The point is not how the government should go about it but whether. Should the government leave things to other bodies? And should these other bodies take censorship upon themselves? The illusion is sometimes created that here we have the difficult problems of reconciling public good and private freedom of speech in some way or the other in the given circumstances. But this is not true. Freedom of speech is not a private luxury but itself a prerequisite of the public good. The traffic of language cannot remain in a state of health in its absence. To maintain freedom of speech is not to indulge a few intellectuals, but to promote T-oppositeness. The conflict is often between freedom of speech and vested interests, and “the greatest good of the given few” is certainly not the same as public good.


            While we are on the subject of government action against pollution, we can say a word about government action to check language pollution originating in government itself. No one would dispute that the language of laws, government orders and circulars, official correspondence, indeed the language in use in the whole administrative machinery, should be precise and definite. But that is no excuse for obscurity, verbosity, and lack of courtesy. The important work done in Britain by Sir Ernest Gowers through   his report on and campaign against administrative gobbledygook will bear emulation in India—especially at a time when Indian languages are coming into increasing use in government and public life. We must not permit anyone to disfigure Marathi by pompous and arrogant offcialisms.


            The rapid survey should serve to reveal the essentially limited way in which administrative action can check and eschew language pollution. But administrative action is not the same as political action. While the role of the government can be only a limited one, the responsibility of the politician is quite heavy. Persons in power or seeking power are as much concerned with faulty communications in language as thinkers, literary artists, teachers, and the media people. It is not as if teachers and thinkers are the sole custodians of language health—though political, religious, and other leaders, liberated artists, and media people would often like to think this is the case. The truth of the matter is that teachers and thinkers have a special stake in preventing language pollution, their work simply does not thrive on the use of language for concealing thought and for concealing the absence of thought. But let’s come back to the literary artist about whom it is said “nira´kušaḥ kavayaḥ (there is no goading of  poets). Isn’t the literary artist concerned with coherence, correspondence, and relevance? With L, T-, and P-appositeness? The use of language in literature is certainly sui generis, and how to tie in a literary text with the language System, the Topical Domain, and the pragmatic Domain is a difficult but by no means insoluble problem in literary theory. We have no intention of taking that up here. What we do know for certain is that the literary artist not only can egender language pollution but is the first to feel its presence and suffer from it. Caring so much for words, for language, a poet like Auden may even express his agony –


            All words like peace and love

            All sane affirmative speech

            Has been soiled, profanced, debased

            To a horrid mechanical screech.


            The Nazi atrocities silenced many German poets—even long after the regime came to an end. The poets could not see their way to using the German language—the very language that ordered, reported, and sanctioned the massacres with a chilling correctness. But then reviving the words, reviving the language so debased also falls to the artist  with his capacity for a creative and re-creative use of language.




            In final reckoning, however, maintaining the language in health is everybody’s concern and responsibility. The deft writer enlivens his writing with a felicitous turn and certainly such an innovation could be put to opposite use by others. But then who is it that expresses the last ounce of juice from it, that uses it in contexts where it is “less suitable than plain speech”, that deadens it into a clichē? It is the ordinary man. And who is it that suffers the most deprivation in consequence? It is the ordinary man, once again. The Auden lines were cited by the Albermarle Report on “The youth Service in England and Wales” (London: HMSO, 1960, P.39). (May one dare to catch a Maharashtra Government committee quoting from Mardhekar?) The committee go on to point out that terms like service, dedication, leadership have been used in situations that so reek with hypocrisy to the young people that, even to those young people who reject society’s false values and even when coming from disinterested and sincere seniors, the words “now carry a negative significance and promote cynical, if not hostile responses in the young audience.”


            If words are bearers of values, feelings, cultural meanings, and sensibilities, they are also bearers of reason, intelligence, logical analysis, sound thinking. Intellectual sleight of hand, sloppiness, and blubberiness constitute also a species of hypocrisy. Unfortunately the Indian has looked for the woman and for the degree. Once the Indian has looked for the woman and for the gold, he is content. Educating the public on this point is a sore need. Public connivance helps language pollution.


            There is a third route along with which the problem of language pollution finds its way to the common man’s door-step. Earlier we pleaded for a novel kind of language purism, for an  alertness about translation loans. Now any such campaign or movement is not going to succeed unless every one takes it up, unless every man lends a hand. “How does it touch me?” is no password to the haven of irresponsibility. In the small town any quality of stuff sells so long as it is cheap, nobody can tell the difference. If this is a dangerous feeling to let the trader develop, by the same token it is dangerous to let the wholesale and retail purveyors of thought. Knowledge, and culture think that anything goes in the small town by way of a lecture, a stage play, a film show, a radio or television programme, a newspaper column, or a text. Destroying such complacency is open only to their customers who can show there are no takers for shoddy stuff. A teacher finds it both heartening and (in a good sense) sobering even if there are only a few inquiring and alert pupils in the class-room.


            The contemporary Indian public is certainly of emboldening those who ought not to be emboldened and of disheartening those who ought to be taking heart. The thinkers who have something of their own to say are in distress. “I certainly want to be as clear and straightforward as I can”, they seem to plead, “but shouldn’t my listeners and readers try and meet me half way? Maybe my thought is different from the prevailing thinking, maybe even shocking. I should be the last one to expect people to accept it without tarrying. Indeed a blind acceptance will make me unhappy. But shouldn’t they give some thought to the new thought?” Certainly there is no dearth of lecture invitations; the secretary is happy to oblige by filling the hall and spend the evening; everybody is happy except the poor eminent speaker this evening who has given a most “thought-provoking” address. The artist’s plight is no better. Bernard Shaw wrote two endings for his play Pygmalion—One for himself and the other for the crowd. It should perhaps not come as a surprise that the recently staged Marathi adaptation of this play young writer writes a fine story and leaves the ending artistically suggestive. Alas, very few catch on to what he has to say. The next time he is not be caught napping—he blatantly spells things out. This is not by any means an uncommon scenario. It is precisely the common man who is responsible in a way for this deplorable state of affairs. But let no one make the costly mistake of taking him for a sleepy little guy bereft of sensibilities. There is no telling what will hurt his feelings. Anticipating the delicate sensibilities of all possible groups and Interests in the society can be a serious worry even to the writer of a school history text. This worry is making all our public traffic in language slick, insipid, and vapid—and nobody seems to mind. “Budati he jana dekhave nādo½ ā”. ‘These folks are sinking—the eyes can’t bear to see it’, said Tukaram. If someone were to say it today, pat will come the response from the folks—can’t you close the eyes?


            In the last analysis, the public has to be educate itself. The thinker may take the horse to the water, but the horse has to make up his mind. With due apologies to Hamlet, “ay, there’s the rub”.




            Bolinger, Dwightl., ‘Truth is a linguistic question’. Language 49.539-50, 1973. Burke, Kenneth., ‘The Rhetoric of Hitler’s “Battle”. In his:


            The philosophy of Literary From, 1941. (Vintage Books, 1957).


Fowler, H.W., A Dictionary of modern English usage, 1926.


            (Look up under Hackneyed phrases; clichē under Technical terms. Fowler was an active member of the Society for Pure English. In the revised edition of 1965, Sir Ernest Gowers of Plain words has contributed as article on Socioligese.)


Leech, Geoffrey, N., English in advertising. London,  1966.



Orwell, George. ‘Politics and the English Language’.


            Collected Essays. London,  1968.


Robinson, Ian, The Survival of English, London, 1973.


Steiner, George, Language and Silence. London, 1967.


(The Retreat from the word, 1961, ‘Night words’, 1965; ‘The Hollow Miracle’ 1959).


            Thouless, R.H.’ Non-communicating discourse’.


In: I.J. Good (ed.) The Scientist Speculates, New york.




            An earlier Marathi version was given as a talk in 1976 and is now included in the author’s Marathi bhaskecha arthik samsar (Aurangabad, 1977). The English version appeared in contemporary India: Socio-economic and political processes, Pune: Continental, 1982, 436-57.