Degraded language


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IN a recently published book, The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman, professor at Johns Hopkins University, puts forward a lugubrious thesis on contemporary American society. He says the epidemic of ‘dumbing down’ is now so far advanced in the US, that Americans will fall, in the course of time, into a deep economic depression which will lead to an irretrievable ‘dark age’. The ‘dumbest’ president in the history of the United States presides over a society where the number of people reading a daily newspaper has halved since 1965.

Another survey has shown that 40 per cent of adults could not name America’s Second World War enemies and about 120 million Americans read and write the English language at the level of an 11-year-old. In an interview to Reuters, Berman says best-selling books like Chicken Soup For The Soul are the markers of the new ‘dumb’ society. ‘Why did we get so preoccupied with the soul?’ Berman asks. ‘Because we are so dumb we can’t think of anything else.’

Berman’s observations may seem a little paranoid when applied to contemporary India. Here intellectual activity – particularly when married to the internet – is not considered entirely without value. The traditional brahmanical attachment to learning and the almost brutal gulf between those who posses education and those who don’t has made education, over the years, into a prized commodity, so much so that contemporary Dalit activists emphasise the need to democratise this very education.

Dalitbahujan writers like Kancha Ilaiah believe that in order that ‘education’ and not simply ‘literacy’ is imbibed by all sections of society, local English-medium schools should be established in village and district levels across the country so that proficiency is built in English. Across castes, English is valued as a catalyst of upward mobility and the Indian relationship with knowledge and grammar continues to be a serious one. A good academic record is still a strong aspiration.

Nonetheless, Berman’s book is an important one for India too. Not because it’s an accurate description of the present but because it could become a blueprint of a frightening future. The waning of intelligence in a variety of cultural artifacts and the rise of a loud entertainment-based ‘dumb’ enjoyment seems to have come about because economic liberalisation has been taken to mean a frenzied pursuit of the lowest common denominator. When human creativity is measured by the size of the market it can command, then language, which is something other than the ‘kyonki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi’ genre, might be seen to damage market potential. Economic freedom need not mean a license to ignore grammar, yet it has been interpreted as such. In such a milieu, language, the vehicle of thought, has suffered.



The fate of language in a ‘dumb’ society is a particularly piquant one. When rising profits are seen to lie in being able to ‘kick ass’ and ‘get aggro’ then there is hardly any incentive to speak or write in a manner that is complex or subtle, or in a manner that actually shows that we are descendants of centuries of intellectual activity and striving. The English language in India is particularly vulnerable, more so than Marathi, Malayalam or Tamil, precisely because of its saliency, on the one hand and its lack of organic roots in this country, on the other.

English is seen as the language of the global market and of Silicon Valley. Yet on the other hand, the re-invention of ‘Indian’ tradition among the young has also led, in some part, to a certain brazen disregard for the rules of correct or expressive English. It is most unfortunate that the adoption of Hindu chic, such as traditional marriages, karva chauth ‘bashes’ and raakhi parties, has hardly led to an enriching of Punjabi, Marathi or Bengali as languages among the urban young as part of the process of the return to cultural roots. Instead, variations of Hinglish, Bonglish and Tamlish have gained in popularity.

It’s been argued that the invention of Hinglish et al is part of the post-colonial trajectory and a legitimate urge to convert the language of the colonial master into an authentic subcontinental tongue as valid as the American and Australian versions. But the counter-argument is that although the ‘chutney’ languages fulfil an important role, they are as yet not developed enough to become an entire lexicon unto themselves. There may be a danger here of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In the drive to ‘chutneyfication’ we may become confused about the ingredients of good chutney. ‘Humko Binnie’s Mangta’, or ‘Cincinnati Bublaboo’ or ‘Surfte reh jaoge’, or the ‘josh machine’ or ‘dandruff dho dalo’ are valuable if they exist as the rebellious younger brother of another more serious, more profound method of communication. But in themselves they are hardly adequate and have the potential to trap users in intellectual sloth.



However, a glance through the daily newspapers, advertisement hoardings, television announcements and soap operas will show that there are hardly any areas where a language – any language – is celebrated and used for its own sake or enriched by an infusion of human spirit. The BBC series, Yes Minister, was as noteworthy for its script as for its performances. Yet not a single television soap here explores the potential of any language. In Bollywood films, the lyrics of Majrooh Sultanpuri or Kaifi Azmi, of Gulzar and Sahir Ludhianvi have given way to the ‘dhak dhak’, ‘tunak tunak’, ‘ek do teen’ type of lyricism where the words seem hardly to matter as long the tune pumps out enough adrenaline.

Today, to speak well might be regarded as ‘pseudo’, to use words other than monosyllabic rhetoric might be regarded as ‘pretentious’, and to express oneself with subtlety and nuance might invite the accusation of being old-fashioned. ‘My papa loves to tango’, ‘let’s boogie woogie’, and four letter words are bizarre in a context where the young appear to be earning the slang before they actually learn the language. Slang is only slang when there is a mother language to deviate from. But if slang becomes the only means of communication then complex thought might become impossible. A recent survey carried out by the Central Board for Secondary Education found that the majority of Class X students under examination could not tell the difference between fallow land and waste land, between fundamental rights and human rights, or between communism and communalism. Its possible, though, that these students will know the difference between High Five and Low Five, between jhagda and panga.



Of course, language is an evolving organism and several writers have argued against imprisoning it in an orthodox straitjacket. Take the case of Indo-Anglian literature. After the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, critics hailed Rushdie’s ‘chutneyfied’ language as an authentic post-colonial voice of the subcontinent. But Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things which was also linguistically adventurous and used words like Locust Stand I and dum dum invited criticisms of ‘dumbing down’ and ‘childishness’. Rushdie, it was said, created a new language but Roy, according to critics was simply being gimmicky. The point is that language is notoriously fickle and what may in one instance look profound, in another instance could look simply pointless. Whatever the merits of Rushdie’s and Roy’s respective languages, it might be said that linguistic experimentation in the hands of practitioners less deft than Rushdie or Roy could easily descend into linguistic rubbish and lead to a deification of a kind of ‘anti-grammar’.

‘She fasaoed him’, ‘give him a jhaar’, ‘create a tamasha’, ‘don’t take khundak’, ‘saj-dhajofy the bride’, might be harnessed to give subcontinental literature its particular appeal but it would be dangerous if such words became the norm. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, regarded as a modern classic, is written in the slang of an American teenager but the same style transposed in another environment without the necessary depth of spirit or the passionate emotion might degenerate into gibberish. G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr was again linguistically chaotic but a painfully profound book. But the ‘pidgin Indian’ English spoken in a film such as the Merchant-Ivory production of Chutney Mary was seen by sections of the Anglo-Indian community as caricature. Even to create artistic colloquialism you need to plumb the difficult depths.



Novelist and critic, Anthony Burgess, in his biography, Shakespeare, argues against linguistic purity. He says language does not lie in the ‘fixed static elegance’ of academics but is rooted in something more vital and wayward than any lesson imparted in school. The essential function of language, Burgess suggests with characteristic black humour, is to ‘maintain social contact in the dark. It is doubtful whether man learned to speak to convey information or emotion; it was rather, with the light gone and the comforting visible world with it, he had to convince himself that he was not alone among the possible terrors of the night. Speech, when you come to think of it, is not a very exact medium: it is full of stumblings and apologies for not finding the right words; it has to be helped out by animal grunts and gestures which, one is convinced, represent man’s primal mode of communication. Take speech as a flickering auditory candle and the mere fact of maintaining its light becomes enough.’



Although a scholar as learned as Burgess seems here to support speech for its own sake and argues that to insist on a ‘correct’ language stifles the human spirit, yet Burgess can afford to say this because he himself was a person of multi-disciplinary erudition and scholarship. When Burgess applauded Shakespeare for a language that was ‘tougher and more tender’ than anything formally taught, he does so in the framework of his analysis of drama in Elizabethan England. He is speaking as a literary critic. Linguistic anarchy as a general principle for mass speech is no guarantor of enrichment. Such anarchy could easily lead to meaningless babble. The often maddeningly obscure line between brilliant originality and pathetic degradation is of crucial importance. While the rejection of academic conventions may have led to Shakespearean majesty, such over-confidence in the hands of the less naturally gifted might lead to Bermanesque dumbness.

For degradation of language a fair share of the blame may be assigned to technology, namely television, internet and the mobile telephone. Ironically enough, though these are primarily vehicles of information and less presumably of ideas and analysis, they appear to have a significant influence in actually being able to shape the type of ideas and information they dispense as well as the language that they dispense it in. It could be argued, however, that even before the gizmo invasion, English-language Indian broadsheets had been fairly slap-dash in the use of language. ‘Three items found lost’ was a particular Times of India howler, as was ‘Road Undering Work-in-Progress.’ The Times of India and the Hindustan Times routinely used words like ‘air-dash’, ‘overzeal’ ‘alright’, ‘getting it from left and right’ and ‘nabbed’.

Equally, the use of bureaucratic language like ‘onpass’ for pass on, ‘queries’ for questions or ‘parleys’ for discussion contributed to a deadening of language. Leapfrogging away from the boredom of the past, contemporary glamour supplements, by stark contrast, use words that should be heard in a college cafe, not in publications meant for consumption by a wider audience. Words like ‘fundas’, ‘bakwas’, ‘hot’, ‘chill out’, ‘heavies’, ‘honchos’, ‘punters’ are used in the attempt to appear irreverent and youthful.



There is a tragic ignorance that vivacious copy too requires some amount of thought and undoing the dullness of the past doesn’t mean a triumph of idiocy. There is no reason why colour supplements should not aim at some amount of intelligence in their headings and captions. After all, at the core of all public writing is a spirit of responsibility and if there is any institution that can preserve the integrity of the written word then it is the daily newspaper or magazine.

The new best-selling book in the United Kingdom is a book called Wan2tlk? This book, priced at 99p, is a guide to the words or ‘emoticons’ which all users of mobile phones can tap into in order to talk to each other via SMS or the Short Messaging System. Thus, ‘BTDT’ becomes ‘Been there done that’, ‘OMG’ is ‘Oh my god’, ‘RUF2T’ is ‘Are you free to talk’, ‘GAL’ is Get a Life, ‘HHOJ’ is ‘Ha ha only joking’, ‘ILBL8’ is ‘I am going to be late.’ Perhaps there might come a time when a newspaper columnist might sign off his or her column with a ‘CUL8r’ or See you later.

On television, the pressure to secure the quickest and most telling soundbyte and pack in as much viewer interest as possible in the shortest possible time has led not only to a blunting of complex issues but a simplification of language. Jeffrey Scheuer in his recently published, The Sound-Bite Society: Television and the American Mind, says simple short messages like ‘Read my lips – no new taxes’ as uttered by George Bush senior, in fact, create conditions in which the public mind is dulled and there is no stimulation to look beyond the resoundingly obvious. Thus, the conditions are created for the rise of what Scheuer calls the ‘electronic Right’, that is, because of the very simplicity of its language and strength of its images, television becomes a source of conservative right-wing values.



In India, Laloo Prasad Yadav’s famous clarion-call, ‘Pataliputra is coming!’ or Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Too sebentee too’ (two seventy two) or Chiman Lal Gupta’s ‘Plane is missing’ statement during the Kandahar hijack are more famous than any pithy policy statements or intelligent puns. In a recent English-language television broadcast, ‘nadir’ was used to describe the highest point and ‘defections’ were confidently mistaken for ‘deceptions’.

Youthful viewers might be easily persuaded, therefore, that to be a glamorous television star and earn a high salary one needn’t bother with a thoughtful search for the right words. All one needs to do is ensure the accent is ersatz BBC and devil take the meaning of what one is actually saying. Berman says of the US: A country that used to export ideals like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, now flogs mind-numbing sitcoms and fried chicken. In the massively popular television series, Cheers, all the people who have any intellectual interests whatsoever are seen as pompous and pretentious ‘while folk who don’t know their ass from their elbow are seen as warm, authentic, the real grit of America.’

In our society the intellectual is still not regarded as public enemy No. 1. But if there comes a time when all cerebral activity is seen to spoil the fun then spoken and written language will be the first to spiral into an abyss of technological grunts and glitzy packaging.



The arrival of satellite television, Pizza Hut, Benetton, a glamorous media and international beauty pageants may be the workings of consumer choice but the need to be ‘sellable’ doesn’t or at least shouldn’t mean that linguistic complexity is sacrificed for digital or Hinglish abbreviations. For if language is the child, then thought is the mother and when there is no incentive for robust thought there will be little possibility of a lively language. Intelligence quotients in society are definitely at a premium when a young woman can be crowned Miss India for asserting that Jamshedpur is in the West, Mother Teresa is alive and the population of India is 2 billion. And ‘dumbing down’ is surely a worldwide phenomenon as seen in the recent charges against the venerable BBC itself.

Although the Indian attachment to a vigorous language tradition – whether in Bengali, Marathi, Tamil or in English – is stronger than the American one, perhaps the time has come for those who believe in their languages to resist pressures to dumb it down and preserve and propagate their lexicons so that future generations may know that there’s an estate of expressions beyond ‘lock kiya jaaye’.