The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 30, 2000
2nd Lead

The voice of language
By Usha Bande

LANGUAGE, philologists aver, does not work on logic. It is an evolutionary process and is influenced by sociology and psychology. The words, phrases, images and symbols we use evolve according to the exigency of the time and reflect the conceptual system of the speakers. The concepts that govern our thought are not just related to our intellect. They influence our everyday functioning down to the most mundane details. We are normally not aware of our conceptual system as we tend to do everyday things automatically. However, to understand this system and the current trends in a particular culture, it is important to look at the language and the metaphors used by its speakers. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence of what that culture/system is like.

  Illustration by Rajiv KaulThe current atmosphere of consumerism, greed, violence, power-mania and the inordinate craving to possess are reflected in our language — in our daily usage in conversation, in educational institutions and in the media, both print and electronic. Let us take a few examples. Reporting a military action of the enemy, a news item explains how the enemy "swooped down" on our troops; a T.V. ad. paints a rosy picture of the complete man, another talks of a "collection" of clothes and yet another promises a gadget to "save your time." Well, there is nothing objectionable in these usages. After all, it is the art of selling. What I aim at is to analyse each sentence to explore how the innocent-looking, tiny phrases reflect our attitudes.

The phrase "swooped down" denotes an action of "sweeping along" or "coming down with a sweeping rush." But, the words have an unmistakable connotation of a bird of prey pouncing on its victim, leaving a trail of blood, death and destruction. The image that lingers long in the mind is of violence and blood-shed.

Advertisements proclaiming delight in "collections" of clothes or home appliances, speak of modern trends in consumerism and the inordinate greed to possess, own and display. This is an indication of the race to outsmart others. Outstripping, in its turn, entails not only avaric but it also breeds corruption because if you want more and more, you have to have more and more money to satisfy that want. In this connection one is reminded of Gandhiji’s resolution in London to lead a simple life. He discarded fashionable living and asserted, "if my character cannot make me a gentleman, how can clothes make me one."

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Earl of Kent derides an adversary as "tailor-made man." Obviously, man then was known for his qualities of head and heart, not for his collection of suits and the like.

When we think of "saving time" we allude to "time" as "money." Such usages are an integral part of our system and are coherent with our world-view. They reflect our unconscious conception of ourselves and the values we live by. Leaving aside the media usages, let us take a look at our everyday allusion to time. Here we come across the commodification of this powerful, abstract concept. By and large, we refer to time in phrases like.

  • Do not waste your time.
  • I have no time to give you.
  • I have invested a lot of time in my child.
  • Take your time.

Perfectly normal phrases one should say. But, they have further implications. If one has invested time in the child, one would expect to get a return for that investment. Later in life, if the child fails to pay you back, you are bound to feel miserable. Herein comes an important social factor: Family ties broken; filial affection a burden. We "expect" something in return for our "investment." If that does not come to us, we feel cheated and unhappy. In the traditional pattern of thinking, both Indian and Western, child-rearing was a spiritual activity. It was the sacred duty of parents; never an "investment." In "take your time," we establish ownership. We are the masters and time, the slave. This is again an erroneous view.

Aldous Huxley in his essay Time and Machine extols the Oriental concept of time as more healthy and sound than the modern Western concept of clock-time. It treats the great objective reality as a subjective necessity. The powerful "flow" of time as a mighty river with strong current or as the ever-moving kaal chakra is replaced by the image of time as money, as commodity which can be earned and consumed. These images are the product of industrialised societies and they have profoundly influenced our existing value-system.

Of the many wonderful gifts of Mother Nature (or let us say the Almighty) to man, two stand distinctly at the pinnacle — the power of speech and the human mind. Allied to these are ideas, emotions, expressions and arguments. Whatever be the traditional attitudes to these, the modern, particularly modern urban, concepts speak of the mind in terms of machine, war and rationality rather than in terms of sentiments or emotions. For example, we think of the mind as machine when we use phrases like.

  • I am busy since morning and how I am running out of steam.
  • My mind is rusty and it isn’t operating today.

Now, if our mind is a machine, we "use" it like a machine disregarding its human limitations and potential. That is how we dehumanise ourselves, and become unfeeling. We try to deal rationally with our experience, rejecting human need for emotions and sentiments.

A rational approach is considered the hallmark of a cultured modern man/woman, because in the present culture we pride ourselves as being in control of our physical environment as well as our unique human nature. Emotions are devalued because man’s ability is measured by his rationality that places him above other animals and gives him mastery. Sentences such as these are used increasingly in daily conversation.

  • We should rise above our emotions and take decisions.
  • As the president of the meeting, he did not allow the members to fall to the emotional level and raised the discussion back up to the rational plane.

Similarly, discussions and arguments are often seen as "war" or "quarrel". "There was a wordy tiff between the members," or "the opposition attacked all the weak points in my argument," or "one cannot win an argument with him." Winning and losing are equivalent to victory and defeat. Sometimes, simple issues are blown out of proposition because no party is ready to accept defeat. Suppose, we are living in a culture where arguments are not viewed as "war" or weighed in terms of victory or defeat, there would be no psychological implications. In that case, the entire experience of arguing would become a pleasant exercise.

On similar lines, some thinkers observe that to say fall in love is to devalue the very basic fabric of an evaluating, spiritual experience. More consistent with love’s spiritual quality would be an expression alluding to rising high in love, like "he has risen in love." Moreover, inherent in "fall in" is the sense of being trapped in like an animal "fallen in the trap." If love is a "trap", it is suffocating, if it is "freedom", it is elevating. It is noteworthy that the language we evolved is always close to the rhetoric of actions Probably, humans think of "falling" in love because they have degraded it to physical level, forgetting its spiritual quality.

Love becomes a journey when we say, "We are at crossroads," or "We will not turn back now that we have come so far." Love becomes a magic with words like "charmed", "hypnotised" or "trance." Phrases like "crazy" or "wild" give it the tinge of madness. For example, "He is just wild about her. Love is seen as war in sentences such as "she has conquered me" or "The two friends fought for her."

Language is as much as aesthetic experience as a communication skill and an ontological necessity which enables us to deal rationally with our experiences. Words are the indices of those experiences and we are liable to encounter new meanings with every new experience. But language "reacts poorly to logical or even democratic decisions," says the renowned linguist Randolph Quirk. Language changes and is always chanting. Today, with the feminist assault on the present language structure as patriarchal, new definitions are being evolved out of the ageold phrases. Feminists question why the language should have degrading connotations to the feminine words in pairs of words: dog-bitch, wizard-witch, master-mistress, governor-governess, waiter-waitress and so on. They also deplore that traditionally the female is always defined in terms of the male, as in man-woman, god-goddess, count-countess.

Awareness of the metaphors and the phrases we use and of how they enter into our everyday life can provide us new experimental gestalts and add new dimensions to our understanding of the physical, cultural and inter-personal environment. Political debates on issues of socio-cultural and economic importance sometimes become meaningless exercises when they are lost on ideological grounds. How political ideologies have forestalled the Woman’s Empowerment Bill is a matter of common knowledge. The language and the metaphors used in the debate have had the hidden conventionalised mode of perception which have been dehumanising and degrading.