Losing our way with words

Losing our way with words

Losing our way with words

Many years ago, my grandfather offered to give me the English textbooks he had studied from in school.

 “You’re interested in reading. You may like them.” I agreed, and then got the shock of my life. Because the three books were Gulliver’s Travels, The Trial and Death of Socrates, by Plato, and an annotated version of Hamlet.

I was in 10th standard then, and my English textbooks were composed of short stories and essays, none more than four pages long, and certainly nothing as complex as Hamlet. “Did you really study these books in school?” I asked incredulously. He nodded, and said, “But this was during the British times, when the Arts were taught seriously.”

I read through Gulliver’s Travels with ease, but it was many years before I could comprehend Hamlet, and the Plato book — with pencilled-in annotations by my grandfather — remains unread to this day. 

Incidentally, whether it was because of these tough textbooks, or because of a general interest, I don’t know, but my grandfather’s English was perfect, his vocabulary vast. His job involved a lot of communication with people of different kinds, and his command over language was one of his greatest strengths.

Looking through his textbooks got me thinking, though. About the teaching of language, and language in general. It could be argued that language is one of mankind’s most powerful inventions. The complex, shifting sands of thoughts and feelings inside man can only be explained, codified and shared using language. How does one rate one’s command over language? 

Would the size of one’s vocabulary be the benchmark? I’m not sure. I’ve met folks who aced the TOEFL and GRE exams, who couldn’t express their thoughts in a coherent way in English, let alone master the use of the language. 

On the other hand, Dr Seuss’s books work with barely a handful of words, but they convey a wonderful range of emotions. And that’s because the expressiveness of a language comes not only from the dictionary meanings of words, but also from their sounds and their connotations.

“Connotations” are the unstated meanings of words, as opposed to “denotations”, which is the meaning that appears in the dictionary. So, while the denotation of “My father passed away last year”, and “My old man kicked the bucket last summer”, may be the same, the connotations are entirely different. That’s why we’d never use the second version of that sentence, except — maybe — in jest. But where do you build up this knowledge of connotations and usage? More than ever, this reason is why language is a shared construct. It isn’t a static entity, but a constantly changing set of rules created and modified by all its speakers.

That’s why immersion training, where you hear and try to speak only the target language for an extended period of time, is the fastest way of learning a new language. 

As you learn the language and hear more of it, you pick up these connotations and phrases. Think of them as shorthand for conveying a deeper meaning of what the words alone mean. Someone experienced in the language, and the culture associated with that language, can convey sentiments that aren’t actually described in the dictionary. 

Reminds me, the other day I heard a colleague raising his voice at another over a fairly trivial mistake. The latter listened for a minute, then, annoyed, responded with a sarcastic “Sorry Shaktimaan”. Whatever response the angry guy could muster was drowned out in hoots of laughter from the other cubicles around them. The Sorry Shaktimaan phrase is burned into the memory of everyone who was a kid in India in the 90s and ‘00s. All the meanings associated with it were conveyed instantly, in those two simple words. 

It’s the same story with our mother tongues for the most part, the day-to-day language we’ve spoken growing up. It is rich in allusions, layers of meaning, and connotations. It’s come to us unconsciously, from hearing other people speak and use the language.

However, the meanings encoded in daily language barely scratch its surface. The full depth of what a language can convey comes from the experts in that language: the people who use it well enough to earn money off it. I mean writers, poets, scriptwriters, reporters — the people who encode and explain the deepest of thoughts in words.

If your knowledge of language is extended to use what these people produce, you are suddenly in command of some of the most powerful tools of the language. These tools are not just vocabulary, but phrases and sentences that are so imbued with context and meaning that they bring up emotions that would otherwise take whole paragraphs to bring out.

The simple words “Water” and “Everywhere”, for example, don’t mean all that much, but for someone who’s read Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the phrase “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!” would conjure up very powerful emotions indeed: the hopelessness of being becalmed at sea, the foreboding of bad omens (and maybe albatrosses).

Behind every word is a story

Or, take an example that would be more familiar: The media, over the past few years, has been fond of using the suffix 

“-gate” to denote scandals connected to specific things: so we have the neologisms Coalgate, Foddergate, and so on. There’s actually a wikipedia page listing scandals from all over the world named with something-gate, with maybe a hundred entries. If someone’s just heard a single one of these words, it means nothing more to her other than a strange suffix.

If you’ve seen this suffix used in several places, you know it refers to some sort of scandal. Hearing the suffix in a new word will instantly tell you the discussion is about some sort of corruption scandal.

But if you dig into the etymology of the word, you’ll find it’s an offshoot of the Watergate Hotel scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, back in the 70s, in the US. Suddenly, the same suffix becomes a way of connecting a new misdeed to the shock and outrage felt throughout the world, generations ago. Are we really getting all that, without knowing the history of the word? 

All of that is at a personal level. As a society, what effect does mastery over a language have over its effectiveness and maturity levels? For India, at least, the question to be answered first is, “Which language are we the most well-versed in, to be able to use most effectively?”

For a long time, it was our mother tongues — Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi — that we spoke effectively across all levels of society and media. Movies from the previous and earlier generations showcase an ease with language that is hard to find now — listen to the dialogues in movies like Mughal-e-Azam, Pyaasa, or even, say, Shankarabharanam, to see how much they manage to convey in a few words. Quotes from those movies are still used today. 

Our command over our mother tongues has eroded over the past decades. To continue the previous example, take the language used by newer movies. Quick, give me a quote from a recent mainstream Bollywood movie.

 Chances are it’s something inane, or funny, or generally meaningless. If you quoted something from a Salman Khan movie, I’m not talking to you anymore. Either because of this, or in parallel with this, there is a mass abandonment of the literatures of these languages. There are few new writers coming up, the average age of the readers is going up, and you hardly ever hear of any blockbuster books unless you’re already in the know.

But wait, you say. It’s not a total loss, it’s a substitution. We are deliberately shifting away from using Hindi/Kannada/Marathi in public spaces, and moving towards English as the new lingua franca. Look at how many books are being published in English these days. Look at how many English words are used in day-to-day conversation. Isn’t it a good thing that we’re beginning to use a language that has global acceptance? 

True, there is a sort of critical mass of English speakers now achieved. India is the only country where newspapers and books are a growing market, and the majority of this growth is in English. New writers are popping up left and right, and as long as you don’t care about the quality of the language, the number of people who understand English grows day by day. 

Still. You do have to care about the quality of the language, don’t you? The depth of public conversation, via newspapers, movies and TV shows, is determined partly by the depth of feeling that the medium — the language — can convey. Indian English has dissociated itself from most of the classic language influences: that set of Gulliver’s Travels, Macbeth and Socrates would mean nothing to most English readers today.

In doing so, we have lost convenient phrases and references for many, many complex emotions. How do we talk of guilt, of angst, of world-weariness, of alienation, of any number of other emotions that are referenced in literature? 

With our tongues tied...

George Orwell and Ayn Rand had the right idea. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian government works to remove redundant words from the official language, Newspeak, and bring in a uniform, controllable, structure. “The whole aim of Newspeak is to reduce the range of thought.

 In the end, we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it,” says a government character in the book. Ayn Rand had an even more extreme example in her book Anthem: the totalitarian-communist government has abolished the word “I” from the language, leading people to think only in collective terms. 

We Indians are doing the same thing to ourselves without the help of any government — reducing the level of public discourse, talking in banalities, all in the name of a shift to a new mass language, English.

Perhaps in a few generations, we will have enough of a base of common references (From Facebook? From campus romance novels? From SMS lingo?) to be able to talk of more nuanced things. For now, though, we’re rejecting the available language (our native tongues) either because it’s unfashionable, or because we don’t have a place to start with (English).

It hasn’t been always like this. Indian literature and poetry in our traditional languages used to be capable of expressing the most nuanced of emotions. Case in point: Mirza Ghalib. You will, even today, find Hindi speakers using phrases like “Dil ko behelaane ko, Ghalib, khayaal accha hai!” Understanding these phrases requires context, yes: as an outsider, it helps to go to the lanes of Chandni Chowk to see where Ghalib lived, some explanations from a knowledgeable person help, and reading the larger corpus of his work is essential. For someone who grew up with him, all of these things seep in from context and the way in which these phrases are used by others.

If you read through Hindi newspapers, you’ll find, here and there, quotes from Ghalib. The “Dil ko behelaane ko” quote, and “Hazaaron khwaishein aisi” is used in daily speech everywhere.

 To explain its place in Hindi/Urdu, let’s say the closest example is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which expresses a small subset of Ghalib’s emotions in a similarly lyrical fashion. While The Rubaiyat is often quoted in the western world’s English usage, it’s hardly ever mentioned in mainstream Indian English work. 

There are any number of such examples from each of the popular Indian languages, and they are sadly out of the mainstream today. New listeners of music and poetry gravitate towards Yo Yo Honey Singh and other lightweight language.

 The literary figures that do make the mainstream are known either for their simpler, commercial work (Gulzar is best known for his film songs, less so for his poetry collections), or else for page 3 type scandals (more than one person I know had heard of Salman Rushdie’s supermodel wife, but had never read any of his books). 

Where do we go from here? Do we just accept the lower level of language mastery in the Indian media and public discourse? Or, do we start by making language education something real, and not a “scoring subject” in exams? More is at stake here than marks, after all.

Perhaps, the best thing we can do is to pick up a good book. Perhaps a classic, perhaps something new. But something just a little tougher than what we’ve been reading so far.