Language, Communication and Society

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 PMNov (Literature, Media, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life)

The African novelist Chinua Achebe inaugurates one of his essays saying, “In his long evolutionary history man has scored few greater success than his creation of human society.” Further in his essay he focuses on the role played by language in the formation of human society.

We need to understand language not in its popular senses but as a tool or medium of communication. If language played an important role in the formation of human society, then we can very well turn the pyramid and attempt understanding of human society through language.

The concept of ‘Patterning of Passions’ has not been so popular in India as yet. However the study of it takes us deep into the understanding of any human society through the path of language. Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” As a counter to this Leopold Senghore said, “I think I can make the other dance, therefore I am.” The earlier statement by Descartes reflects the individualistic nature of the society it represents. For Descartes ‘self’ is just itself and an island. If it can think, in tranquility, its existence is valid. But for the community that Senghore and his words represents the ‘self’ is not just itself but also involves the ‘other.’ The self can move the other, touch the other through its music and make the other dance hence its existence is valid.

This not just shows the difference between two communities but also gives us an insight into how we can understand human society through language. Probably when Ludwig Wittgenstein declared that “The limitation of my words is the limitation of my world,” he probably meant that the world can be perceived and understood through language. To extend this thought let us go to the latest essay by Arundhati Roy titled ‘Walking With The Comrades’ where writing about her entry into what is popularly known as “Maoist infested’ area she says, “These are not careless words. Infest/ infestation’ implies disease/pests. Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must be wiped out,” and continues to say, “In these creeping, innocuous ways, the language of genocide has entered our vocabulary.” This enquiry into language takes us into the ways in which our common sense is formed and also throws light on how consent is manufactured through language.

The Chile poet Pablo Neruda in one of his poems titled ‘Word’ writes the line, “I utter and I am.” This line has within it an echo of the famous phrases by Descartes and Senghore. Here the existence is directly related to communication. “I utter” to mean, “I can communicate,” so “I am,” shows that man whom we know as a social being can exist only when he can communicate. To go back to Achebe we will understand that the human society itself exists because we can communicate. Existence, in its fullest meaning, to Neruda, is directly related to human communication. And we can recollect what Paulo Freire in ‘Pedagogy Of The Oppressed’ says: “Dialogue is an existential necessity.” This again takes us back to the argument of Achebe focusing on the role of communication in the formation of human society.

The Chile poet Pablo Neruda wrote in Spanish language. There are two beautiful things about the Spanish language. I must say, at this point of time, that I do not know the language and this piece of information and insight I have got through my Sir Prof. H.S. Shivaprakash. The first beauty of the language Spanish is that the words of the language Spanish ends with vowel i.e. a, e, i, o, u. How musical the language would be, when heard! The other beauty of the language, I am told, is that there is no usage of ‘You’ and ‘I’ in Spanish. Now, this is the most interesting part. What is so beautiful about the absence of ‘You’ and ‘I’? The beauty is that with erasing the ‘I’ and the ‘You’ it has united the ‘You’ and the ‘I’. So every feeling emotion that is expressed, through the language, appears and becomes a collective feeling and a collective emotion. Even some Indian languages share a similar quality. Let us take Hindi for example. “Lagtaa hai baarish hogi,” and also look at Kannada example: “Maley baruva haagide.” Here who is feeling that it is will rain? You or I? Or is it all of us? Language here unites. Isn’t that, after all, the purpose of communication? To transcend the self, to unite the self and the other, unite the self with the other. It is only by uniting the self and the other that language has contributed to the formation of human society.

Our greatest strengths are always our greatest weakness. That which can unite us can also destroy us. Similarly, language which we have seen till now as a uniting force can also break us apart. Let us go back to the example we saw earlier that of Arundhati Roy’s latest essay ‘Walking With The Comrades.’ What Roy calls as the language of genocide, works towards manufacturing consent and also at shaping perspectives as required by the state or by the power holders. By using words like ‘Infest’ the state/ power is making Maoists the ‘other’ and creating a wall between us and them. This is being done consciously in many ways and also unconsciously through language. Let us take a local example in the same line. There is a popular newspaper in Kannada which is published in a nearby place. The contribution of this particular newspaper to the communal tension of coastal Karnataka is a material for study. This particular newspaper reports refers to Muslim community and Christian community as “the other community.” This othering of Muslim community in daily news has created a mindset among its readers, mainly the people of coastal Karnataka, about the Muslim and Christian community being ‘other’. The word ‘other’ used and reused by this newspaper, almost on a daily basis, has created invisible walls between the communities and broken the unity by dividing the community into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Newspaper or media, as we all know, shape the public opinion. So the language used by media becomes crucial. Language if used like it is by Senghore, Neruda and likes then it can unite the society and form a human society, but if used in the way the newspaper I mentioned then it will break the society and also create war between the many pieces, it has created.

Media, as I said, also forms the public opinion. It shapes the perspective of the people. Speaking in Gramscian sense everything that creates a public space creates public opinions and mass perspectives. But in an age of media information the role played by media in forming public opinion of the perspective of the public is major. So this brings us to the responsibility that media holds in shaping the future, through shaping opinions and perspectives of the people, with the help of language. Here by language I mean tools or medium of communication. Newspaper is a language, radio is a language, television is a language, cinema is a language. These in their own way play on the minds of people and shape their perspectives.

Let us reverse this idea now. If language can shape perspectives, then it is the other way round too. That is to say, perspective shapes our language. Karl Marx argues that there are three levels of language. The first of the three, as he calls it, is ‘the language of real life.’ The second level is the spoken and the third level is the written. Now leaving aside the second and third level let us focus on the first level i.e. the language of real life. Here the argument of Marx is that the direct engagement of human beings with labor has direct relations with their language and thinking. The kind of labour that they are engaged with decides the kind and texture of the language and thinking pattern. What Marx’s arguments tells us is that our spoken and written language stand on the foundation of a particular way of thinking, language of real life.

We all know that the same event is covered in different ways by different media. This in a way reflects the fact that all news is a literary artifact like history is. But more importantly it suggests that it is the different perspectives of different media which makes the same event come through them in different ways.

One of the first questions that is asked in media schools and media courses is “Why have you come for journalism?” and one of the most common answers given by many is, “I love writing and so I think I can become a good journalist.” This notion in its heart holds the view that a good command on language and the skill of beautifying the story with polished language will result in good journalism. I do not want to say that language is not important. But more important, it appears to me, is the perspective which later gives shape to the language and then shapes the perspective and opinion of the public.

Marx at one point of his life was a journalist. Some argue that his journalistic experience led him to his philosophy. Once with the implementation of a law banning the tribes from collecting herbs and fuel material from the forest, turned all the tribes as criminals. Here, as a journalist, Marx is said to have focused on the relationship between power or state and life and livelihood of the people. In fact D.R. Nagaraj argues that it was after this that Marx’s understanding got a particular focus and he started exploring things in that direction.

The lesson for the students and practitioners of journalism and media, from this example, according to me, is ‘look beyond.’ Marx here was able to look beyond the implementation of law and criminalizing of the tribes. He could see the relationship between power/ state and livelihood and life of the people. It is the same fashion we should be looking at the inhumane budget of Delhi by the government of Sheila Dixith and the cleaning of Delhi in the wake of commonwealth games.

Let me end my talk with a poem of Pablo Neruda titled ‘An Ode To The Bread’ which strives to look beyond the surface and thus, through language, tries to show its readers beyond the surface and thus create a new kind of perspective among its readers. The poem reads:

In The Bread
I Look
Beyond The Form.
I Like Bread, I Bite It.
And Then
I See The Wheat,
The New Wheat Fields,
The Green Form Of Spring
The Roots, Water
And So
Beyond The Bread
I See The Land
And Thus I Taste Everything
Looking For You
In Everything.

Lecture delivered by B.A. Samvartha (‘Sahil’) on 15 April 2010 at A.V. Baliga Institute of Social Sciences and Rural Management, Harady, Bhramavara, Udupi District, Karnataka.

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