India’s tradition of language use: why we need to speak and write more clearly

The cost of losing meaning because of improper language use is staggering in terms of governance, ease of doing business and justice delivery systems

opinion Updated: Sep 20, 2017 13:17 IST
Indian languages,Hindi,English
A vendor works at a stall at a railway platform in Mumbai. India needs to manage its languages for governance, ease of doing business and justice delivery systems.(Reuters file photo)

There is inadequate discussion on complexities created by the lack of a developed tradition of language use in India. Long years of English rule, pronounced cultural preference for the use of hyperbole, ineffective language training at school and linguistic diversity are among reasons for the hotchpotch that have been caused in most spheres of life in our society. India has become a country where most often four blind persons are trying to make sense of an elephant.

Look at the phenomena of youth from Adivasi communities becoming armed Maoist insurgents. These communities have their own languages. Our official language can be like Greek to them. Many Adivasi children, unable to cope, drop out after two-three years of school education; a failed contact. Very rarely children who stay on till class 8th or 9th join Maoist ranks, everything else being constant. Government offices require them to fill forms, give thumb impression on an application written in an unknown language. They are perplexed when asked to show a piece of paper to prove ownership over thousands of years of ancestral land.

On the other hand, Maoists provide a simple narrative: give up bows and arrows, carry a gun and your problems will be solved. Because of their real-life experience, the Maoist version sounds more plausible than our legitimate but complex claims.

The experience of the urban and the rich are no different though. The system can be an enigma even to people within. Senior government employees cannot file a tax return without assistance. Even rich industrial houses hire liaison managers and lawyers to work through the system. Everyone needs an interpreter to demystify the system and a middleman to access services.

Laws are complex globally. But, what is different in India is the constant misuse of language to hoodwink the law. If we can speak and write without constantly creating smokescreens, almost 70% of cases in our courts may vanish. The cost of losing meaning because of improper language use is staggering in terms of governance, ease of doing business and justice delivery systems.

There is a tendency to view linguistic obfuscation as clever or even diplomatic. In the developed parts of the world taking liberties with words, avoiding being simple and straight, normally lead to adverse inferences being drawn about rectitude. So, are there cultural limitations making us unmindful or even vulnerable to the abuse of language? Do our education systems incentivise the use of jargons and standard narratives at the cost of brevity and application of mind?

The uncritical use of high-flown language can cause two consequences: First, those with proficiency over a higher language version can acquire legitimacy and power. Noam Chomsky argues that local elite pick up the language of erstwhile colonial powers to replace former rulers. Second, a tradition of use of language without bothering for proper meaning can develop. We often reduce use of language to a ritual, like a priest reciting verses from the scripture. There are standard formulae and templates to communication or what is called ‘boilerplate’, referring to copy-pasting of long programming codes without further application of mind.

Our education system trains us to answer set questions with answers that fetch higher marks. The focus is neither on creativity nor on application of mind. On top of it, is the argumentative tradition that prefers the esoteric to the mundane. Our pundits would prefer to discuss the creation of the universe and cosmology to the cleaning of drains in front of their houses. So, subjects unknown or hazy to the laity are obviously preferred. Along with the selection of subjects is the choice of language; complex, heavily boiler-plated and jargonised. Discourses in Sanskrit about cosmology can possibly be the highest level of intellectual attainment. We are argumentative, but our analytical ability is not focussed on solving the myriad small problems around us.

Once, a professor in a British University had given me an interesting feedback to a research paper. “The purpose of knowledge is not to make the simple complicated, but to explain the complicated in simple ways. Newton lives on because he could reduce laws of motion to simple sentences and equations. Einstein was a genius because he worked out that e=mc2. Inability to explain in simple language shows lack of understanding and not wisdom.”

Time for us to look at the way we use language. If obfuscation is considered intellectual and clever, then our governance systems will not improve.

(The author is a serving IPS office. Views expressed are personal)

First Published: Sep 20, 2017 13:16 IST