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Transceding Sociolinguistics: Language, Caste and Power Essay

Though there has been a long tradition of studying and interpreting language in India, most of these studies are in descriptive, technical or structural mode. For long, language has been seen as a non-political or apolitical phenomenon and its study has remained restricted to its structure. India also has a long tradition in the study of language. However, the linguistic tradition in ancient India was exclusively concerned with what is called descriptive or synchronic linguistics. i] It refused to see that language is not just a self-referential object and its study assumes the organic relationship it has with the society and power. R. K. Agnihotri argues that “the primary preoccupation of linguistics has been the analysis of the structural properties of language” and the “process of segmentation and classification eventually lead to postulating roots and stems that nobody uses”.

Even when some efforts were made from time to time to locate language in its social context, structuralist considerations continued to dominate the enterprise. ii] For example, American linguistics in the first half of the twentieth century remained primarily a “formal discipline”, almost along the line of abstract mathematics. Concentrating on the analysis of language structure and focusing on a corpus of sounds and smaller and larger units of meaning, the linguists studied the properties of language, as if it existed above and beyond its users. Recently, it has been well argued by the scholars of language that there exist interrelationships between language and society.

Interest in the study of language in its social contexts can be traced back quite far, to the eighteen and nineteen century sociology and social philology. However, the stronger and clearer interest has come from linguists, both as a result of its more sophisticated synchronic (i. e. non-historical) concerns as well as a result of its growing response to applied demands. Though the realization is widespread that the study of a language without reference to its “social context” leads inevitably to “the loss of pportunities for further theoretical progress,” the term “sociolinguistics” is very often understood either as the “sociology of language” or as just one of the branches in the study of linguistics. [iii] B. R. Bapuji has pointed out that in the former approach, it is meant to be one of the approaches borrowed from the discipline of sociology or, more precisely, from the functional or behaviourist technique. In the latter, it is an attempt to emphasise on the social and cultural content of a given language behaviour.

In both the cases, one discerns a failure to formulate an integrated theory that explains the social process of which the language behaviour is an inextricable element. [iv] Sociolinguistics in the recent years has shifted its emphasis from an abstract study of the rules of language to a concrete use of language. It now assumes that the study of language has to consider the fact that language usage is essentially and predominantly a social phenomenon. The term “sociolinguistics” is constituted of two components – socio and linguistics.

In sociolinguistics – as the name indicates – the focus is very much upon the relation between social groupings (classes) and – contexts and variable ways in which languages are used in the society. [v] Joshua Fishman has argued that, with the rise of sociolinguistics, many linguists came to be concerned with variations in language that were formerly set aside as purportedly unsystematic and of little scientific account. Deborah Cameron has criticised Fishman for the overplaying of the “sociological” aspect, which was a starting point in her sociolinguistic enquiry.

William Labov’s work on the relationship between language use and social class is supported by a substantial body of empirical research and has become so influential that it has caused a shift in the orientation of sociolinguistic studies. [vi] However, in Cameron’s view, “what underpins Labovian quantitative paradigm is the notion that language reflects society”. She argues that the notion that language reflects society is a naive belief and that what sociolinguistics needs is a social theory and not a naive belief.

This notion not only separates languages and society but also misses “the fact that features like class, gender, age, occupation, etc. ” are social forces. Questioning the basic premises of linguistics and sociolinguistics, Cameron has argued that the features of a society should not be confused with dynamic social forces. Her point is that language as a social institution is deeply rooted in culture, society and in political relations.

Sociolinguistics, therefore, must base itself on a social theory which will provide the necessary orientation to study language as a linguistic practice in which members of a community unceasingly participate. vii] Pointing out the inherent limitations of sociolinguistics, R. K. Agnihotri argues that the “so-called sociolinguistic and ethnographic analysis remained confined to either co-relational analysis of social and linguistic variables or to the treatment of variable communicative practices across different societies. ”[viii] The language issue in India has always been a problem for many a reason. It has been studied, analysed and commented upon to excess. However, many of these studies have failed to address the intricacies inherent in the relationship between language and society.

Failure of the traditional linguistics or sociolinguistics in this regard can be attributed to the following reasons: 1) These studies were made without assuming the inevitable politico-cultural contexts in which the linguistic issues are organically rooted. Many of the scholars who undertook such studies failed to understand that the language problems in a given society are not merely the problems of language alone and that do they do not reflect the socio-economic condition of the society.

In fact, the language problem is deeply entrenched in the social structure, which is marked by inequality and replete with the power relations. While studying the linguistic problem in a multilingual and highly stratified country like India, the intricate mechanisms and dynamics of caste remained poorly, and sometimes wrongly, attended to. 2) Such studies were not based on a sound theory having explanatory adequacy. The conceptual frameworks in which these studies were undertaken were not suited to address the deep crisis and structures of power relationships involved therein.

The theoretically dislocated frameworks, consequently, fail to suggest the resolution of the issue. Language has often been defined as a means of expression and of communication. However, such a definition focuses on a communicative aspect of language and neglects its political function. Moreover, the term “communication” is not apolitical or value-neutral. It is deeply marked and obstinately governed by the hierarchical relationship that the communicators hold.

In describing the way language functions, scholars have variously described it as a rule governed, a container, a transmitter, a symbolic system or a social leveller. [ix] Similarly, traditional linguists failed to understand that language is not an autonomous construct, simply a system of sentences. They also failed to “concern themselves with the relation of language to its spatial, temporal and social contexts. ” Even in most of the sociolinguistic analyses, “speech community remained a rather vaguely defined cultural construct and enjoyed some kind of political neutrality.

According to Agnihotri, the traditionalists certainly noticed that there was generally a significant correlation between socio-economic hierarchies on the one hand and celebration or stigmatization of linguistic features on the other; yet, they refused to see that this differential distribution of prestige and power – be it social, economic or linguistic – was actually historically constituted and that it was a manifestation of the socio-political manipulation of a select few.

What is generally subsumed under the colourful rubric of sociolinguistic variability is essentially the result of the carefully structured power relations in society. [xi] For the scholars who are critical of the relationship between language and power, the discourse on language policy is merely a political discourse. Language is now seen as discourse and is being studied not in relation to society in general but power in particular.

Similarly, society is considered not as a mosaic of individual existences or as a stratified structure but a dynamic formation of relationships and practices constituted in large measure by struggles for power. Language is also seen not as a phenomenon external to society but as discursive social practice. It may be assumed that language and linguistic policies may be used as a means of achieving dominance of one class over the other. Access to a particular variety of language provides to the user additional power and makes her or him part of socially advantageous class in the society.

It is discussed elsewhere that the construction of standard Marathi and access to it in the nineteenth century Maharashtra remained dominated by the upper-caste elite. [xii] Language and Politics in India The language scenario in India is supposedly marked by pluralism. India has a very rich and rare heritage of 400-odd languages and 3000-odd dialects. Many sociolinguists have extolled the multilingual and multidialectal nature of India. However, linguistic diversity in India is more complex than it appears to be.

The glorification of the multulinguality and multidialectality of India is achieved at the neglect of the exploitative hierarchical structure of the Indian society to which the multilinguality corresponds. This glorification presupposes that multilinguality is an added feature of the great heritage of India and has no reference to or correlationship with the hierarchical structure of Indian society. The rise of multilingualism has given a boost to the uncritical glorification of the other culture.

Its emergence is seen as a response to the multi-ethnic nature of contemporary western societies. Its claim on tolerance and a respect for difference has been criticised by the critics. They argue that this policy disguises an assumption of the centrality of the predominantly white ethnic group or of the dominant culture. The underlying values of multiculuralism and the idea of pluralism result in practice in “containment and domestication. ”[xiii] Multiculturalism has shrouded the non-cognizance of the antagonistic relationship between cultures and their constitutive elements like languages.

Such an approach belittles the strong relationship of language with power. The extraordinary growth of sociolinguistics has convinced us that language is organically linked with the society and the study of any language needs to be essentially situated in its social context. Any attempts of artificially isolating it for study will ignore its complex and intricate relation with society. Linguistic studies, which are largely based on the elicitation from the users of the standard language, end in the skewed results.

William O’Barr and Jean F. O’Barr have argued that the studies of language that largely draw upon only one or a few informants are recognized as leaving unanswered many significant questions about the relation between language and the social context in which it is always embedded. [xiv] The emergence of sociolinguistics has enabled us study language in its social context and amplified our understanding of the concepts of language and communication within speech communities.

This has also helped us to understand that language is not a monolithic static entity and patterns of variation in communication and linguistic change that are extant in groups of interacting speakers cannot be ignored. Sociolinguistics also opened up the issues inherent in the sociology of language. The sociology of language examines the interaction between the two aspects of human behaviour: use of the spoken, written and printed language and the social organization of behaviour.

Briefly put, the sociology of language focuses upon the entire gamut of topics related to the social organisation of language behaviour, including not only language usage per se but also language attitudes, overt behaviour toward language and toward language users. However, neither sociolinguistics nor sociology of language has adequately analysed the interrelation between language and politics. The study of language and politics is of potential interest to most of the social scientists, development planners and to those whose primary interests centre on politics and linguistics. William M. O’Barr and Jean F. O’Barr have expressed their deep dissatisfaction over the failure of various disciplines like sociolinguistics, sociology of language, political science, anthropology, jurisprudence, and economic development to engage with the relationship between language and politics.

They complained in 1976 that there were no important theories about how language is/was different from political issues; about how what might be called politico-linguistics differed from sociolinguistics, or about how language factors intervened in and thus affected the outcome of political processes. xv] O’Barr and O’Barr argue that there are three important categories of relations between language and politics: i)those situations in which governments intervene in and attempt to control the communication system itself; ii)those in which language factors intervene in and thus affect the processes of the government and politics; and iii)those in which language and politics are in mutual interaction, feeding back upon one another.

Though O’Barr and O’Barr’s book, entitled Language and Politics, broke fresh grounds with regard to the interrelationship between language and politics, many of the articles in the book deem politics to be the formal, institutionalised politics, leaving apart the wider field of informal politics and power. Language and Caste Caste possesses some features of nationality. True, it has not, as a rule, its own territory and a separate language, but it has its own customs, symbols, mythology, a sort of common culture, and, what is basic, the eeling of close affinity. – L. B. Alayev [xvii] Language was used in India as a means of exclusion by which the dichotomous and often conflicting relationship between castes was maintained. Language also preserved the relative isolation and the distinct nature of each caste. Consequently, it contributed to the reinforcement of the differentiation and divisiveness, which are the inherent characteristics of caste system. Various sociolinguists have amply demonstrated the relationship between language and caste.

Susan Bean in her article “Linguistic Variation and the Caste System in South Asia” has given an elaborate overview of the literature on this issue and finally concluded that “class, education and friendship groups appear to be significantly inter-dependent with caste. ” According to Upadhyay, “caste distinction is still a dominant force. ” To Karunakaran, “it is only caste which is the major factor of distinction. ”[xviii] It is instructive to turn to Ranajit Guha in this connection.

Guha has cited many historians and scholars to prove the interrelationship between caste and language. The tradition of using language as a register of caste status was very much alive till the late nineteenth century. When William Logan went to Malabar, he found that a man’s difference with those ranked higher than himself was evident in the explicit verbal acknowledgement of his own verbal inferiority. Conversationally, the lower ranked man had to debase himself by stigmatising whatever he possessed.

Thus, he had to refer to his own food not simply as rice but as “stonny or gritty rice”, his money as nothing more than “copper cash”, his house as a “dungheap”. [xix] The indigenous perception of . the structural cleavages in Malabar society of a century ago was recorded by Logan in a list of words for houses. He wrote: The house itself is called by different names according to the occupant’s caste. The house of a Pariah is a cheri, while the agrestic slave – the Cheraman – lives in a chala.

The blacksmith, the goldsmith, the carpenter, the weaver, etc. and the toddy-drawer (Tiyan) inhabit houses styled pura or kudi; the temple servant resides in a variyan or pisharam or pumatham, the ordinary player in a vidu or bhavanam while the man in authority of his cable dwell in an idam; the Raju lives in a Kovilakam or Kottaram. The indigenous Brahman (Nambuturi) in an illam, while his fellow of higher ranks calls his house a mana or manakkal. [xx] Ranajit Guha has discussed the caste-generated linguistic hierarchy by using Charles Fergusson’s notion of the “high” and “low” varieties of dialect.

We owe the initial use of the term diaglossia to Fergusson. The imprint of hierarchical divisions within a speech community is perhaps most clearly visible in diaglossia. Fergusson had noticed this phenomenon in the coexistence of the “high” and “low” varieties of dialects. The “high” variety of dialects, the more prestigious of the two, was used for the religious sermons, academic or political lectures, personal correspondence, newspaper editorials, etc. nd the “low” variety was used for conversation among friends, colleagues and members of one’s family, for use in folk literature and so on. Diaglossia of this kind has been a traditional feature of many of the linguistic communities in India. For instance, Guha argues that the deep caste division between brahmin and non-brahmin in parts of Southern India has been found to correspond to dialectical differences between brahmin and non-brahmin. Such division with regard to vocabulary and to salient aspects of phonology and morphology existed in Tamil and Kannada both.

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