What’s there in Language?



Languages are not an easy thing to get curious about. The first time I got curious about languages was when I read about deconstruction in CAT exam preparatory material over which my room-mate was loosing sleep. Later it turns out that there are much more to a language than these school of thoughts.

Lets get curious about why language evolved in the first place. From the top of  my mind, to woo a pretty girl by uttering something which does not make sense, to gain influence in a group by saying something which other would find impressive, to disseminate your ideologies. Basically there are many benefits one can get by mastering the use of language (You need not to be right! Ask any politician). It has been argued that language was fabricated because early humans realised that they could influence others for their own benefits by using it. To prove this hypothesis they like to argue that despite of having all the tools to built a language e.g. suffixing and prefixing a primitive sound with another to make another meaningful sound, chimpanzees do not have any language simply because they are not able to realize the potential benefits of its use. According to them, basically they yet have not realised that other have thoughts. Time is ripe for their first Budhha. Bottom-line : Realization of benefits is the mother of all invention.

Most of the species have some sort of language – if you can define it that way. They do not speak in long sentences, they tweets in few distinguishable sounds (If you love tweeter means that you are catching up with them very fast). Mostly they speak to warn others of danger (cooperation) or to attract the other gender for reproduction  etc.. Humans have advanced capabilities in their languages. Almost all languages posses the same fundamental structures despite of their vastness in difference.  The use of languages is also very symmetrical. They are generally used to influence others by various means. No wonder, politicians are verbose, at least Indians whom we know very well.

 One of my Bengali classmate during M.Tech days at IITB was having trouble learning Hindi. She was not able to master the use of gender specific terms e.g.  जाता हैं या जाती है. She found these rules not only hard to understand but also ridiculous. It seems that her native language Bengali is more gender neutral than Hindi. English on the other hand is much more gender neutral than some of the European Languages such as Spanish, German or French. So if I tell my mom that I had dinner with my neighbor being a native Hindi speaker she might get curious whether my neighbor was male or female. In Hindi, I’d have used padosan for female neighbor or padosi for male neighbor. In one way, using Hindi makes us much more aware of the genders. On the other hand, by using the word dinner I was able to communicate to my mother that I had my food in late evening or in night. In Hindi, I had to express it explicitly.

There are other more subtle difference among the languages. For example culture and civilization are indistinguishable for a German speaker. Also French do not distinguish between policy and politics. For an English speaker, policy and politics are two different concepts. Take another instance, when Hindutva forces were in power at center, they were arguing about secularism. For them, as they called it, religious pluralism which is an integral part of Hindusim is a kind of secularism. On top of it, they were asking why they can not have their own idea of secularism. Why be burdened by the western conception of it. It is true that there is no exact equivalent of the English word `secular’ in any Indian language. But then, the French word `laique,’ which is used to describe the republic in the Constitution of France, cannot be exactly translated into English. Obviously the idea of the secular can be compared – or contrasted – with its counterparts elsewhere. [see more on this topic]. Sometimes idea make sense only in one language. While an English educated Indian can take pride in his market oriented thinking, for a native Hindi speaker this could be a shameful act of being Bazaru.

Talking of translation, languages do not translate and when one thinks they do, one can easily come a cropper. As Tony Blair discovered when he thought he was telling Lionel Jospin, the French socialist prime minister, how much he envied him and his policies. What he actually said in French was how much he lusted after him in all his positions. Admires of Ravindranath Tagore often complains how the beauty of his Bengali verses is lost in his English translation. To some, at least to V. S. Naipaul, Premchand turns out to be a simple story teller in his English translation.

Lets come to everyday stuff. For example, when I say, “I am lying my bed.” A native English speaker will simply think that I am lying in it but for me being an native Hindi speaker I am lying in her. Because for me, Bed is ‘feminine’. Its not to say that I will mistake for biological sex and confuse my bed with whatever lying in it. Some studies have shown that people who uses gender sensitive languages may see same thing differently. For example I may find mountains beautiful, slander, and graceful since in Hindi mountains are feminine.  But for an German it might contain masculine properties (der) like strengths and ruggedness.  While an English speaker might be having the same trouble with mountains as Parker Selfridge, the “company man” on Pandora, the Chief Administrator for RDA, in movie Avatar was having digesting the idea of sacred tree.

Dr. Grace Augustine: What we think we know – is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora…
Selfridge: That’s a lot, I’m guessing.
Dr. Grace Augustine: That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network – a global network. And the Na’vi can access it – they can upload and download data – memories – at sites like the one you just destroyed.
Selfridge: [after a stunned pause] What the HELL have you people been smoking out there?
[beginning to laugh]
Selfridge: They’re just. Goddamn. Trees.

 What he might be thinking, “It is a god damn tree.” Now think it like that, “She is a god-damn tree.”

One can ask here whether people who speaks gender sensitive languages are more sensitive towards nature or things? After 1967 essay of Lynn white, we have been told repeatedly that Indians are the first in the world to enact laws to protect animals and forests. It’s another story altogether why these views were not current before 1967!
 
Anthropologists were of the opinion that there are few concepts which are common to all languages, no matter how primitive. It came as a shock to know that natural numbers are totally absent from a tribal language called Piraha. They do not have words like of one, two, three. They use Hoi, hoii, hooiii sounds to represent one, few and many. Another surprising fact, thought less shocking, is Guugu Yimithirr, ask them their address and they will not use the words Left and Right. They somehow have built a compass in their head. They will tell you that from here go North that much and then East that much and then so on and so forth. When some of them made to  watch a movie on T.V., they do not say that he is coming towards them instead they used directions. If the screen is facing North, he will say that this person is going North. Now consider taking dance training classes in this language. How would you respond if your instructor asks you to bend you north leg eastward and rotate it to south?

This effect may vary geographically also in one language. My experience is that people from Villages use more words related with direction rather than using left  &  right. The reason could be that they have more open spaces and it make sense by remembering the direction rather than landmarks. In Mumbai, I can tell people to go left from IITB main gate. In cities I may not be able to make out which is North and South if I am not train well. In jungle, It is better to rely on direction and trace your path exactly in same way rather than making some landmarks.

DOES IT CHANGES SOMETHING FUNDAMENTAL


The Irish had no word for ‘no’, The Roman none for ‘yes’. Which language best helped an empire grow, Is easy to access.

One can ask whether using a language make us handicap while its come to think of some idea? In 1940, Benjamin Lee Worf published an essay which started this school of thought that language make us what we think. His views were as popular as The Selfish Gene or The Clash of Civilization have been. All of these theories are now widely discarded, at least in academic circles.

Take Sanskrit, it has not only singular and plural, but also have dual; probably to emphasize relations which are dual in nature such as husband and wife, son and mother, daughter and father, friends.  Does it mean that speaker of Sanskrit are more conscious about relations which are dual in nature. In Sanskrit what in English means They went away could as well mean Both of them went away. And if one say in English We were home that day. Can we expect that a Sanskrit speaker to be curious whether ‘we were’ two or many?

The experts are still far away from concluding anything concrete whether there is something fundamental which one can not understand using one language. Though as we have seen there are some benefits one language provides over other language.

BILINGUALISM IN INDIA

Was Guru Govind a product of English education? Is there a single English-knowing Indian who is a match for Nanak, the founder of a sect second to none in point of valour and sacrifice?… If the race has even to be revived it is to be revived not by English education. … It is my considered opinion that English education in the manner it has been given has emasculated the English-educated Indian, it has put a severe strain on the Indian students’ nervous energy, and has made of us imitators. The process of displacing the vernaculars has been one of the saddest chapters in the British connection.

— M. K. Gandhi on Rammohan Roy’s effort for Western Education in India 

Rammohan Roy could be perfectly natural in his acceptance of the West, not only because his education had been perfectly Eastern, he had the full inheritance of the Indian wisdom. He was never a school boy of the West, and therefore he had the dignity to be the friend of the West. If he is not understood by modern India, this only shows the pure light of her own truth has been obscured for the moment by the storm-clouds of passion.

 — Rabindra Nath Tagore

I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off by any.”

— M. K. Gandhi

Once an Indian anthropologists told a Cambridge academics seated next to him over dinner hosted by an Japanese anthropologist that he did not think British to be particularly civilised. On which his British friend took the banter and challenged him to define a civilised person. He took the challenged and said that for him a ‘civilised person is simply a person who is at home in at least two different languages: having one language makes us human and being at home in more than one is what makes us civilised.’  Prof. Chie Nakane who has been listening to the interchange with amusement turned to Indian and said, “Ah! That a very Indian way of looking at civilisaztion. [3] One could only guess the embarrassed our co-patriot have been through since Japanese are, if anything, are more inept that British at any other language that their own.

Indians have always been at ease with languages, at least in its spoken forms. At the time of Independence, till 1970’s, almost all of our Scholars were emotionally bilingual.  They were as active in English as they were in their native languages. They were not only functionally active, they were able to feel and think in other language. Even while Gandhi was criticizing English language, He was following the path of others who used English as a medium to make his views known to the other world. So if he wrote his book in Gujrati, he also made sure by translating them in English that his books reaches a wider audience.

In fact, he was just following in the footsteps of others. Rammohan roy published his essays in Persian and Begali before he came to write in English. As for Tagore who shaped and reshaped Bangla literature by his writings wrote extensively in English. His major non-fiction work Nationalism was written in English. Nothing can be more striking than the fact that the very archetype of modern Hindi novel Godan was first outlined in English by Premchand. Although he never wrote anything in English.

This rise and decline of Bilingualism in India is discussed by Ramachandra Guha in [2]. There have been a very lively debate over it and can be found in later issues of EPW.  In his essay, he concludes that, “The decline of the bilingual intellectual in contemporary India is thus a product of a combination of many factors: public policy – which emphasised the mother tongue alone; elite preference – which d­enied or diminished the mother tongue altogether; social change – as in new patterns of marriage (If a Bengali and Tamil got married, their children mother tongue will be English!); and economic change – as in the material gains to be had from a command of English.

There are some things”, says the protagonist Balram Halwai of the novel The White Tiger[1], “that can only be said in English”. Sometimes one language offers privileged access to un-mined territories which others can not. The influence of English has in-fact enriched the quality of arguments in native languages even if the arguments are often subservient of combative. The major literary figures of 19th century who commanded English language did not hesitate to experiment with the new literary forms in their own languages.

It is often said that difference of language divide people all over. These arguments have been made first in Europe which has been divided on the lines of languages. India has been divided into states on the lines of the languages and such demand have not stopped in present also. The question of language has been a major factor in the early days of nationalist movements  and the arrogance of Hindiwallah provoked Muslim League to consider the idea of Pakistan [For instance, see Hindi nationalism, Alok Rai]. We often see, and many of us as witnessed it, the politics of language created hostility to other languages in the name of loyalty and attachment to the mother tongue.

Politics is often used to deepen the gap between people or create the bridge across them. It would be worthwhile to keep in mind that loyalty of Indians is not necessarily singular since an Indian is usually attached with more than one languages, if not by a direct contact than at least though music and movies. This has been a practise in the past an their in no signs that such a practise will not become more extensive in future.

At least the educated Indians are rapidly giving away this advantage of having grip over languages. Europeans are slowly realizing the potential of learning other languages. If the old Bhasabalahs banned English on the school, our English educated elites are much more averse to their own native languages – their mother tongue. Learning a different languages may not make us think fundamentally different. It probably will be of no worth in language-agnostic professions of Engineering and Mathematics but as for Gandhi, and for Tagore, ‘the foreign language was a window into another culture, another civilisation, another way (or ways) of living in the world.’ For them ‘the command of a language other than their own was a way of simultaneously making perspective themselves less parochial and their work more universal. Their readings and  travels fed back into their own writing, thus bringing the world to Bengal and Gujarat, and’ (when they chose to wrote in the foreign language) ‘Bengal and Gujarat to the world. Bilingualism was here a vehicle or something larger and more enduring namely, multiculturalism’.[2]

END NOTES
[1]  The Last and The First, Toral Gajarwala, Economic & Political Weekly, December 12, 2009  vol xliv no 50. According to him , even if,

“Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger has been criticised for its lack of realism and the caricature of its characters. The novel breaks with realist traditions of representing poverty and backwardness in Indian anglophone literature. Instead it poses a challenge to progressive traditions by framing the main character’s revolt in Fanonian terms which challenges both the tradition of leftist movement politics  as well as the liberal discourse of rights and privileges. Drawing from the same sources of anger and angst as much of realist literature, Adiga fashions a new voice which is unfamiliar and unsettlingin its revolt.

[2] The Rise and Fall of Bilingual Intellect, Ramachandra Guha, Economic & Political Weekly, August 15, 2009  vol xliv no 33.
[3] See the chapter on ‘Tagore and his India’ , Argumentative Indians, Sen Amartya.


Dilawar

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Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

2 thoughts on “What’s there in Language?”

  1. I landed on the matka page after bugging google for some gyaan on the IIT experience at that level, and as correctly pointed in the opening para, language got me glued. IIM wannabe is not a nice way to put it, but I had my doubts and here you spell it out. I liked the idea of ABCD hate,but I think between march and now you are giving up. Anyway i liked it all, and am not even a matka but hopefully be one in a single shot at ABCDexam. Right now i am more interested in your reading list. Please post it for small town bhatkas? One more thing, you might have a gift. Why not write another story of n-idiots rather than just being one (or one half a idiot? :D) I am not posting my name and address in fear. ;) AnD let me warn you, everything you write henceforth will be read.

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