The Globalization of Language


            The recent launching of globalization took place in trade and industry, but the process is gradually spreading to other fields of life.  Language is no exception to this.  The words cinema, bank, railway, football, renaissance, glasnost, satyagraha have gained world currency and so have the concepts underlying words like bureaucracy, brainwashing, freedom of expression, or globalization which often appear in certain languages in a translated form.  Not only are certain words like these global.  French, English, Spanish were the earliest world languages; the United Nations added Chinese and Russian to this list.  In the course of time one may also see the addition of Arabic, Hindi, or perhaps Japanese.  (Limiting oneself to the field of scholarship and research, one may have to add German, Sanskrit, Classical Greek, and Latin.)


            It is obvious that among these world languages English has the pride of place.  There was a time when, for the convenience of tourists, they used to put up signs saying ‘Ici on parle francais’, then came signs saying ‘English is spoken here’, now even the sign has become unnecessary.  True, English has had to pay some price for this position.  Speakers of other languages may be grateful for the fact that English gets written in an easy to master Roman script or that it is free from the gender confusion of the sort found in French, Spanish, or Russian, but then they also curse English for its spelling whose craziness is matched only by French.  At the time of my first visit to the United States in 1956, the lady customs officer heaved a sigh of relief on listening to my English, saying: ‘Yes, cur language has certainly become global, but we have to reconcile ourselves to hearing it murdered all the time! It was nice to hear your good English.’  Curses and murderous assaults apart, more seriously, English has had to throw its doors open to words and phrases borrowed from other languages.  The borrowings may be direct (like typhoon from Chinese) or indirect by way of translation (like the Chinese idiom brain-washing).  (The French have become wise after the event.)  Secondly, an English speaker has to bend or adapt the language in dealing with the foreigner: whether it is by accepting his common errors into the language or by oversimplifying his language for the foreigner’s benefit or by leaving aside expressions overly tied with English-speaking culture or by respecting the habits and sentiments of the foreigner (thus, billion being 109 now rather than 1012, speaking of developing economies rather than underdeveloped economies, substituting Moslem or Muslim for Mahomedan or Mohammedan).


            What happens to English also happens to any other language aspiring to the status of a contact language though perhaps less drastically so.  Hindi as the all-India contact language or standard Marathi as the all-Maharashtra contact language are no exceptions.  As the contact language of scholarship, Sanskrit has been subjected to attempts at ‘simplification’.  Globalization is something that affects more or less any regional contact language no less than any global language.



            Any society calling itself modern needs to overcome any reluctance or annoyance and offer diversified, plentiful, and good-quality foreign-language-learning facilities.  That is the highway to freedom from the confining walls of language.  Some years ago there were attempts at Pune, Ujjain, and elsewhere at the initiative of Professors Dayakrishna and M.P. Rege to bring about a dialogue with the help of interpreters between traditionally educated Sanskrit pandits and university-educated scholars.  The participants from both sides benefited from this exercise.  Both sides expressed satisfaction at the access to novel areas of knowledge and, what is more, novels modes of thought.  Higher language-proficiency may also free us from the excessive and exclusive glorification of the visual image or the tuneful sound by the media.  Pictures certainly add value to books and periodicals, but skimming through pictures alone to the exclusion of reading them is getting walled in by pictures.  Adapting one’s language to communicate with foreigners or to meet the needs of the mass media is fine, but this is going to narrow the distance between the flow of everyday speech and the graceful elegance of literary writing.  Once the importance of disseminating ideas is accepted, the demand for making the language easy to follow cannot be resisted.  But then the complicated world of today will often call for complicated thoughts to do justice to it, and so the ordinary person’s linguistic capacity in following a thought needs to be enhanced to some extent.  (Is any educationist listening?) Simplicity of presentation is by no means an excuse for oversimplification of the ideas.  Any plan for beneficial globalization will demand that no society lags behind in the intellectual race.  The intellectuals in a society shouldn’t be content with thinking complicated thoughts; they owe it to themselves to make these thoughts accessible to the ordinary people to the extent feasible.  They cannot shirk the responsibility of acquiring for this purpose the needed competence in handling language.


            The process of globalization incorporates two opposed trends.  One is the trend of centralization; for example, the world over weights and measures be metric, the rule of the road be right (or left), the keyboard for the Roman script be uniform (the QWERTY arrangement for English, for instance), e-mail addressing be settled at one place, the quality control specifications be fixed by the International Standards Organization (ISO), and so forth.  The other is the trend of decentralization, for example, goods be marketed in the world in accordance with local needs and habits, accepting the Roman script need not mean accepting some uniform calligraphic style but, rather, offering a choice between different calligraphic styles.  One needs to effect an advantageous combination of the two.  Letting either trend dominate to the exclusion of the other can be ruinous.


            The globalization of language is also subject to these considerations.  Centralizing demands that everybody learn at least some functional English, decentralizing that the English used at the world level open to variation according to the need and the place.  But if this flexible variation be excessive, even Keralites and Assamese won’t understand each other’s English! Hence the need for blending the two forces.  Centralizing will demand that the contact language be one and so all-purpose (so Arabic served in the Islamic world not only religion but also learning and governance).  Decentralizing will propose different contact languages for different purposes (so the Indian three language formula: the regional language, Hindi and English).  In the competition between contact languages in the course of history, even some small languages gained prominence (as with Portuguese) while others were left behind (as with Basque on the France-Spanish border).  Some of those left behind fought for a place in the sun and even won their battle (so with Catalan in Spain, Konkani in Goa, Welsh in Britain; but in a sense they won the battle only to lose the war—running schools or newspapers became difficult, but the Welsh poetry festival Eisteddfod and the Konkani ‘teatr’ stage flourishes).  It is worth noticing that the language schedule of the Sahitya Akademi is more inclusive than the language schedule of the Constitution of India.  All these facts add up to a crucial insight.   


            Language is no mere means of communication to convey thoughts, feelings, or wishes to one another in the ordinary business of life, or no mere social symbol of each variably inclusive identity (thus, Maharashtrian identity being inclusive of Indian identity).  Language is more: it is the medium for human poetic, spiritual, or intellectual creativity.  Anyone seeking to understand the process of globalization of language cannot possibly lose sight this.


            Welshmen may conduct their ordinary business of life in the contact language of English, but at least some Welsh poets would rather compose poetry in Welsh rather than English.  A Marathi speaker speaking some rural dialect from childhood may come to use standard Marathi as the contact language, but may wish to express his inner life in his particular dialect.  If Catholics adopted Latin as their language of religion, at least some of them, the Protestants, preferred to use their respective languages for the purpose.  English or French or German speaking thinkers keep acquainting themselves with one another’s thoughts by reading one another in the original or in translation and belong to the same Western intellectual tradition: and yet one senses the deep impress of their respective languages on their mode of thinking.  English firmly plants the feet on the ground of shared common sense; French nurses its elegant clarity and logic; and German loses itself in complex schemes of abstract concepts.  Mediaeval India accepted a demarcation between classical Sanskrit or Persian for intellectual life and ‘vernacular’ languages for poetic inspiration, that’s true, but then this had a restrictive effect on both the intellectual life and the poetic life and even modern India has not freed itself from this restrictive effect.  Modern Indians write their intellectual prose either in English or in vernacular (in reality a translation in the Sanskritized vernacular of some half-formed English version at the back of the writer’s mind) – this is certainly no great improvement over the mediaeval practice.


            Language functions as the medium of poetic, spiritual, or intellectual creativity, and the idiom that has kept one company from babyhood is the one in which that creativity often flourishes best.  Language is certainly a means of communicating thoughts, feelings, or wishes to one another in a life of mutual harmony or disharmony.  But then language is more; it lets one speak to oneself and in the process understand one’s thoughts better and shapes one’s understanding, being additionally a medium of cognition.  One keeps an unending dialogue, smooth or disturbed as the case may be, with oneself.  As often, it may remain unspoken, but even so mostly through language.


            In the globalization of language in respect of communication, the centralizing trend or the use of contact languages certainly helps.  But in the globalization of language in respect of cognition the decentralizing trend comes to the force.  That is why one struggles to express oneself in one’s own language but at the same time remains keep to reach out to others through translation.  It is again a question of the beneficial combination of the two forces, avoiding ruinous extremes.


The Language of Globalization


            Who, when, where, what for initiated the language of globalization? The English word globalization is one of these global words (with translated counterparts in many languages) and it was first used in the context of trade and industry.  The idea of an entrepreneur producing goods, marketing them primarily at home, and exporting just the surplus got firmly implanted in the 19th century because of two reasons.  The Industrial Revolution ensured surplus commodity production and the European countries found dependent countries to import raw materials from and export manufactured goods to.  The European countries and Japan, weakened by the Second World War, recovered around 1980 and looked for markets for their surplus goods, ending the temporary American advantage.  The means of communication improved and proliferated.  A large portion of the globe continued to remain undeveloped or at best developing.  In consequence, what was so far only a drive to export one’s surplus tuned into a drive to trade conceived in global terms.  That is to say, one struggled to identify specific local needs and produced in order to meet these.  Even the drive to produce was conceived in global terms.  Japan stole a march in this attempt to match local needs and global production over Europe and America, which woke up with a start.  The Japanese language coined a word for their drive, namely, dochakucha, best translated as global localization.  (Incidentally, the craze for management courses also started about this time.)  In due course, the reverse process also started: rather than adapting export production to the needs of the importing market, there was the adapting of the needs of the importing market, there was the adapting of the needs of the local market to the imported supply of goods.  This is beginning to happen not only in undeveloped or underdeveloped countries but also in countries like Japan or the European countries.  Local cinema is retreating before the Hollywood onslaught or changing itself.  This other trend has spread to other fields.  In sum, the language of globalization is no longer limited to economy or technology but acquiring wider political, social, or cultural dimensions.


            In the perspective of human history, this is by all means a major shift, but it is not by any means an episode confined to a decade or two.  Man has long nursed a quest for globalization; modern trade and industry is only reinforcing it in a major way.  Whenever and wherever in human history, industry, trade, polity, social fabric, and culture reached a mature and ambitious phase, human beings raised their sights beyond their own to what pertains to others, whether it is the country, the learning, the way of life, the language, and took recourse to comparison and influence between what is their own and what pertains to others.  The earliest empires (China, ancient Persia, Rome), the earliest world-proselytizing religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam), the earliest classical literatures creative or intellectual (Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Arabic, Persian), the earliest world-scale movements (modern science and technology, modern ‘public instruction’, labour movement), the earliest world-scale media of transmission (print, mail, wire and wireless transmission), and the very first global art (cinema – these are all footprints of globalization.  To understand this clearly is to truly understand globalization together with its opportunities and dangers.  


            The Indian subcontinent is no exception to this historical process.  One rightly takes pride in the unity of its diversity (or the diversity of its unity, if you so prefer).  At the bottom of it is the very Indian language of ‘live and let live’, which is so favourable to globalization.  This facilitated the transition in Indian history from the somewhat monotonous exclusively local or tribal lives to the more inclusive, the more orchestrated lifestyle and cultural heritage of India.  In the classical period of ancient India (roughly 600 BC to 600 CE), this subcontinent was in touch with the outside world.  There was not only an exchange of goods in trade but also the export (Buddhism, Āyurveda) and import (the zodiac, the Gāndhara style of sculpture) in social-cultural realms.  Towards the close of this period, however, a number of factors conspired to put an end to this healthy state of affairs and to lead to the closing of the Indian mind in stupefying dread.  Keeping foreign people, countries, learning, religions, languages at well beyond an arm’s length and imprisoning oneself within walls became the ruling language of India.  Later of course the outer world impacted on India; the Arabs, Afghans, and Turks at one time and the Europeans at a later time refused to leave India alone.  How did India face up to this challenge? India didn’t face up to it at all in all honesty and courage; it offered reluctant, passive, abject resistance.  The post-classical history of India is a history of a ‘wounded civilization’, to use Naipaul’s telling phrase.  Foreign people, countries, learning, religions, languages stopped arousing in Indians any natural curiosity or intellectual wonderment; but rather, faced with things foreign Indians have been either abjectly or naïvely accepting them, or, more commonly, obstinately or blindly rejecting them.  Either of these extreme responses are signs of a wounded attitude and feelings of inferiority arising from it.  The only difference between one Indian and another may be the overtness or the covertness of this sense of inferiority.  In either case, the net result is the some failure to understand and assess what is foreign in objective detachment.  Even today both these expressions of the sense of inferiority are widely met with in India.  If Indians today have to face the globalizing turn of events, they shouldn’t be doing so in stupefying dread.  Indians should be ready and prepared for all sorts of imports and exports – economic, political, social, intellectual, or cultural.  If they refuse, Indians can be said to be living not in the modern period at all but time-locked in some post-medieval period of history! Indians blindly dreading or blindly admiring the West are both equally caught in this time-warp.


            Of course there is nothing wrong with the language of globalization, but we must rewrite the grammar of that language clear-sightedly and confidently.  This thing called globalization is neither wholly a boon nor wholly a curse.  It is neither a wholly self-propelled and irrestible process nor wholly at the disposal of human choice.  If we are going to accept many things from the rest of the world, we are also going to offer a good many things to it in return.  (Accepting things to the exclusion of offering any will render the word ‘globalization’ into a mere euphemism for Westernization or, for that matter, Americanization!) Globalization, we have to prove, is a two-way street, it is both centralizing and decentralizing; it is a major shift in human history whose actual direction we have to determine.


            As the Marathi poet ‘Bee’ said, “This courtyard of the universe is a playground gifted to us.”  We need, to recall Gandhiji’s angry words, to simply “refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.”




            The English version has remained unpublished.  The Marathi version was published in Anubhav June-July-August 1999: reprinted The Hindi version was published in Alocanā April-June 2002.