Why language matters

Published: 00:00, Jun 13,2019


— The Hindu

As the particular language we learn constitutes us and our world, our relationship with it has to be deep, writes Rajeev Bhargava

THE recent emotional outburst by Tamil speakers against the perceived threat of Hindi being imposed on them compels us to ask: why does language matter so much to us? Why are we deeply attached to a particular language? Why do we identify with it so strongly?
According to one theory of the nature and importance of language, it is an instrument by which we describe the world outside it. We have ideas in our heads, and language, consisting of signs — marks or sounds — is needed only to communicate these ideas to others. Our mental representations are private, but become public once words are used to designate them. We convey our thoughts to others in and through words. If this is the only function of language — to designate, describe and communicate things and thoughts that exist independently of it, in order to make them public — why would anybody be attached to a particular language? Cannot this job be performed by any language?
So, this account fails to explain our deep attachment to a particular language, our mother tongue. It does not explain the emotional intensity with which people fight for their own language. Is there an account of language that can?

Objects and relations
THE ‘constitutive theory’ by the great philosopher Charles Taylor does. According to this theory, pre-linguistic humans had already begun to express themselves, but when they became language users, they changed fundamentally. Language helped them articulate explicitly what was earlier somewhat vague and inchoate. It changed the nature of their thought. Language makes certain features of an entity more salient than others, pushes some into the background, while foregrounding others. As we fix our attention only on some features, we draw boundaries, make distinctions, no matter how rough, fluid or porous. We contrast them with other things. To take a simple example from the English language, when we sit at a table, we use a material object with a flat top with one or more legs that serves a range of purposes such as eating, writing, meeting, and so on, and different from, say, a bench or a stool that might look similar but fulfils different purposes. These particular purposes and activities are part of the meaning of the term ‘table’, crucial to learning how to use it. None of this is possible without a certain kind of reflective, focussed awareness which literally brings into existing a piece of wood as a table. So, the word ‘table’ brings a new thought, a new social object and a new set of activities into being. Without that term or its equivalents, the socio-cultural object, table, would not exist. It is in this sense that words, thought and the world are constitutively linked.
Just as the objects that surround us are linguistically constituted, so too are our relations with one another. For instance, learning the use of the word ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ is to learn a whole gamut of social relations crucial to the practice and institution of education. It also helps constitute how those performing these roles (teachers and students) may stand in relation to each other — formal or informal, friendly or withdrawn, casual or serious, and so on. Furthermore, language constitutes not only a web of power-laden or power-free social relationships but also new emotions. For example, anger experienced by non-linguistic animals is different from indignation which depends on a grasp of what is just and unjust. To admire someone is more than just being attracted to her; it is to see her as having exceptional virtues or achievements. We do not just desire things or are repulsed by them but also evaluate, by a standard, which desires are worthy and which among all worthy entities are of even higher worth. This recognition of a standard, of the distinction between correct and incorrect, morally right and wrong, a specifically human characteristic, is also constituted by language. In sum, unlike the purely physical, chemical or biological world, the human world is word-laden, shot through with language. We are, as professor Taylor puts it, language animals, living in a dimension in which other animals do not, the linguistic dimension.

The attachment to one language
ANOTHER feature of language to which the constitutive theory draws our attention is its strong communitarianism. Word-meaning is created and recreated in speech, in conversation and dialogue with others. It follows that a language would not exist or grow without a speech community, a community of language users. So, Tamil is sustained by and grows within the specific community of Tamil speakers, so also Bengali or Hindi. And it is not just the speech community which shapes and creates language, but language which constitutes and sustains the speech community. Since thousands of languages exist and are nourished by its speakers, different linguistic vocabularies imply different ways of constituting and experiencing the world; each having different feelings, concerns, sensibilities, aspirations and so on. Language makes us what we are. Specific languages make us the specific creatures that we are.
So, our own language matters to us because it constitutes us and our world, our own specific way of being in the world. Language makes us at home in the world. In a manner of speaking, we dwell comfortably only in our own particular languages.
Because the particular language we learn constitutes us and our world, our relationship with it simply has to be very deep. And we all feel a special bond with all those who speak the same language. Just imagine the alienation of, say, a rural Tamil speaker who lands unprepared in American English-speaking Texas, and imagine equally his relief and elation if he ever finds a Tamil-speaker there! Fifty years ago, Tamilians probably felt similarly in Punjab!
So, the constitutive theory explains the deep attachment people have to particular languages. It explains why, when a particular set of language-speakers fear a threat to their language, they respond with indignation. They fight to defend it.
What does not follow, however, is that languages are self-contained entities. Instead, they are, as the sociologist Steven Lukes puts it, ‘clusters or assemblages of heterogeneous elements with varying origins’, dynamic constellations in a moving galaxy, intermixing, borrowing from one another, being shaped and in turn shaping one another. The demand for purity is an enemy of language growth and innovation. Consider the Sanskrit term ‘puja’. It has been suggested that it may have not Indo-European but Dravidian roots deriving from the Tamil word ‘pu’ for flowers. How many of us know the Sanskrit word ‘Veda’, or ‘vid’, is linked to ‘wit’ and ‘witness’, the English ‘daughter’ to dugdha (milk), or ‘free’ linked etymologically to Sanskrit ‘preeta’ (love)? Languages which now seem radically distinct from each other have evolved together over a long, interconnected global history.
One must remember the ease and dedication with which people born in one linguistic community embrace languages different from their own. Indeed, we can be attached to more than one language. Just think of the Hebrew/English-speaking Indologist David Shulman’s love for Tamil and Telugu. Not to speak of the passionate bilinguality of good translators. So, while deep attachment to one’s language is understandable, the pathological obsession with which people defend its purity, uniqueness and superiority is unwarranted, pathetic and unforgivable.

TheHindu.com, June 11. Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email