Whats there in a Language?

Language is probably the thing we get least curious about. And there are reasons. You can easily get curious about a building than a brick. Or if you are looking at a brick, there are more chances of you getting curious about it rather than the clay which it is made of. Sure, you can do better if you are Sherlock Homes or fascinated with the pathetic gods of really fundamental things.

The first time I got curious about languages was  when I read about deconstruction in some IIM entrance examination preparatory material. 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 hell lot of profits 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 realized 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. (Update : Researchers are claiming now that tools and languages evolved at the same time. See)

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 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 wonders, politicians are so verbose, at least Indians whom I know very well.

There are some things”, says the protagonist Balram Halwai of the novel The White Tiger, “that can only be said in English”. Sometimes one language offers privileged access to un-mined territories which others can not. Sometimes one thing 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.

One of my classmate, Urmimal was having trouble learning Hindi. She was not able to master the use of gender specific terms e.g.  जाता हैं या जाती है . 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 very fast 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 one uses. For example culture and civilization are indistinguishable for a German speaker. Take another instance, recently especially after so called Hindutva forces were in power at center, they were arguing that 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.]

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. More importantly, as 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.” Does it make a difference?

One can ask here whether people who speaks gender sensitive languages are more sensitive towards nature or things? Indian have been considered first in the world to enact laws to protect animals and forests (Read about Asoka and Mauryan Empire in Middle ages).

There are things not available in one language which are the hallmark of other languages. For example, natural numbers are totally absent from this 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. You want to kill one of them, ask him to say which represent infinity. Or take Guugu Yimithirr, ask them their address and they will not use the words Left and Right, instead they have a built in 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. Even watching a movie they never say that he is coming towards him instead if the screen is facing North, he will say that this person is going North. The use of this language had made a 24×7 compass in their hand.  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.


Now 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 for example, it not only has singular and plural, but also dual as to emphasize relations which are dual in nature. Husband and wife, son and mother, daughter and father, two friends.  Does it mean that speaker of Sanskrit are more conscious about relations which are dual. 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 – doesn’t matter if only few have left – is curious whether We were two or many. Anyway, there are only handful of Sanskrit speaker left.

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. So in my opinion, it is always beneficial to learn more than one language.


About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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