Language: editor-in-chief?

RUKMINI BHAYA NAIR

back to issue

Preliminaries: Intentionality lies at the core of a critique of censorship. When the governments of contemporary nation states attempt to mitigate the harsh fallouts of their (mis-)rule by pretending that all is well in the face of palpable evidence to the contrary, when they try to muzzle the media and keep from the people a knowledge of the ‘true’ state of affairs, such prevarications are widely regarded as deliberate. There may have been bureaucratic bungling and mumbling miscommunication along the way where the edges of intentionality blurred and shifted; in the last resort, though, being either economical or extravagant with the truth is judged an intentional, premeditated, conscious act. It is hardly surprising, then, that those holding high government offices are held culpable in such cases for merrily ‘editing history’ in their own self-interest.

This is by no means a new phenomenon of course. Indeed, absolutist lessons from remote past histories seem to have ineradicably entered the bloodstream of modern political discourse. The populist leaders of today might not quite have the legendary power of a Qin Shi Huang who not only built the Great Wall of China to keep ‘foreigners’ out but is held to have ruthlessly burnt libraries and executed scholars in a bid to ensure that history would begin with him – but this strain of imperial thought surely persists into the 21st century. The difference is that the art of the cover-up or ‘the edit’ has become seductively sophisticated; the human species, endlessly inventive, has discovered new linguistic avenues for masking the truth.

Whatever the vision of founding (or confounding) fathers of great democratic countries like India or the United States, these ideals appear not to have always inspired the leaders who have come after them, even though the use of the soothing language of ‘people’s rights’, ‘freedom of expression’, ‘the rule of law’, ‘national interest’ and so forth is by now so routine as to be almost anodyne.

For the most part, this iterative but usually not-so-considered understanding of what citizens are owed by their rulers has succeeded at keeping public dissatisfaction at manageable levels. Yet, ordinary citizens under every sort of contemporary regime have long suspected that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ – if Denmark is just substituted by the name of their own country. What they have, what ‘we the people’, have lacked is a language framework to articulate this intuition, leaving us flailing about with inadequate and disparate notions (‘corruption’, ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘policy failure’ etc.) to describe the awful inequities faced, the injustices done to citizens in the name of lawful governance. Perhaps all this is stating the obvious but where do we go from here?

 

Proofs and proofing: The rest of this essay will try and address the question of language in the processes of ‘editing history’ head on. It will suggest that the stereotypically intentional use of rhetoric by individuals and groups from politicians to social scientists to activists to persuade, and sometimes bamboozle us could be a distracting, on-the-surface, superficial use. It operates more or less at the level of what one might call ‘proofing’ and/or ‘copy editing’. This is not to say that such processes are without severe consequences, since insensitive or ignorant editing, let’s say, of the social texts of ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’ can severely distort them. The meanings of these texts can be hollowed out in such a manner that the consequences are devastating – as, for example, we have seen unfold in the terrible mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic in so many countries, including our own.

My argument, however, is that the template for this type of ‘truth-proofing’ is still shallow; its jargon can be quickly identified and repeatedly exposed because the intentionality is just so obvious. We’ve witnessed these misleading turns of history before, whether it was the nationalist propaganda machine of Nazi Germany proclaiming ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer’ to social scientists converging on the ideas of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ to faux NGOs talking the bland language of rights and feel-good equality to the wretched of the earth while living off the fat of international consortiums. These hubristic attempts at homogenization were – and are – doomed to fail. For, although they can mimic the language of democracy or scientific and social consensus in the historical short term, they are no proof against the awakening realization of citizens in the long run.

 

In democracies, committed to pluralism, such governments will in the end be voted out (but see Levitsky and Ziblatt for a more pessimistic and, unfortunately, extremely plausible perspective1); in autocracies, there will be coups or bloody civil wars until a new regime installs itself. In the 20th century alone, we have had examples of these uprisings time and again when colonial states have failed to admit that the human beings they rule are talking animals and that when human subjects talk, they create plural universes and often polarized narratives about what constitutes ‘the truth’. As the philosopher J.L. Austin put it:

‘…under the heading "truth" what we, in fact, have is not a simple quality nor a relation, not indeed any one thing, but rather a whole dimension of criticism... there is a whole lot of things to be considered and weighed in this dimension alone – the facts, yes, but also the situation of the speaker, his purpose in speaking, his hearer, questions of precision etc.’2

For this reason, courts in the 21st century continue to be out of touch with ‘reality’ when they still require witnesses to raise their right hands and swear that they shall tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’ This view is biologically, socially and psychologically erroneous. Humans are not omniscient gods; their perspectives are always necessarily partial, guided by local contexts, pre-existing beliefs and the inexorable workings of language at levels in the brain not available to straightforward, conscious scrutiny. I want to argue in this essay, in short, that we may have missed a deeper sort of editing. This is the editorial role played by language structures that have evolved over evolutionary time to obscure certain aspects of ‘the truth’ and spotlight others.

 

Language is the first censor. Its abstract structures make it the chief editor or designer of what we can or cannot express in words and sentences. Even before the intentional ‘proofing’ stages of editing history that we associate with governments, communities and individuals take place the deep grammar of human language has exercised its basic editorial choices.

These evolutionary structures of language and gesture, side by side with the evolution of ancient material culture tools (such as chipped stone cutters, bone needles and hematite and ochre paints to symbolically depict lived experience on cave walls and human and animal bodies) preceded the writing of history and even oral epic histories by millennia. Language is believed to have co-evolved alongside basic cultures of community cooperation anything between 50,000 to a million years ago, while the oldest, quasi-historical inscriptions we have are no more than five or six thousand years old.

 

My suggestion here is that there are in fact two levels in the linguistic editing of ‘history’: the first is the one found in historical times that we imbue with the semantics of intentionality and usually take contentious political positions on; the second consists in the deep, evolutionary forms of language as they have evolved in the survival annals of prehistory to allow the species to say and do some things with language – but not others.

Of this second, prehistoric, level of language editing, we are barely aware. That is why I want to focus on it here. For instance, trivially, no one amongst us, however brilliant, can look into his or her own head and count the number of words (technically, morphemes) there – something even the simplest computer can do.

Or, however much one values action one cannot find anywhere on earth a natural language that consists only of verbs; however much one values agency one cannot locate a natural language with only nouns, since all the world’s languages require a sentence to have at least the first two of the following three elements: Subjects, Verbs and Objects. These three elements give us basic ‘word order’ in all of the world’s 7000 or so languages; for instance, English has an SVO word order (‘The BJP defeated the Congress’) and Hindi has a SOV word order (BJP ne Congress ko haraya’).

Now, this business of word order is non-trivial especially in languages like English, since it makes a difference to the meaning conveyed if one switches the noun phrases around (‘Ram killed Ravana’ is obviously different from ‘Ravana killed Ram’). But even here distributions are strikingly uneven because a good 85% of the world’s languages use either the word order exemplified by English (SVO) or Hindi (SOV), whereas just an infinitesimal 1% of the world’s languages display an OVS or OSV word order.

This is perhaps not the appropriate space to discuss why this is so or the fascinating implications of this kind of language inheritance for the current power relations between languages where roughly 90% of the world’s population speaks 10% of the world’s languages and the remaining 90% of languages (many of them endangered because the populations that speak them are powerless and dying out) are spoken by 10% of the human population. Let us move on, then, to a few other aspects of the basic editorial toolkit of all languages developed over millennia.

 

Is there a shared repertoire, a menu of editorial options that human languages share? The answer is yes – with the critical caveat that even this small structural menu, combined with cultural and environmental differences, produces a huge and lively variation of ‘styles’ of communication across languages, a case in point being India’s vaunted multilingualism. So what exactly do languages have in common?

Well, there are believed to be 16 ‘design features’ of human language,3 at least 10 of which are also found in animal communication systems. A few, though, seem to be limited to human languages. Here are four of the latter that most closely connect to our ‘conscious’ perceptions of intentionality: displacement, cultural transmission, reflexivity and prevarication.

Displacement is the linguistic property of being able to capture a sense of time not located in the immediate present. For example, the current 2021 headline ‘Pandemic likely to be far more deadly this year, warns WHO’ projects into a future time and makes a qualified prediction. As far as we know, no animal language actively creates such complex temporal futures and pasts. In political discourse, this feature of language is useful because so much political talk is promissory, projecting hope for the future: for example, acche din aayenge or ‘better days will come (if you vote our party into power)’.

 

Cultural transmission means that languages grow in a bath of culture, and it is simply impossible to acquire language if it is not learnt from other humans in specific cultural settings. This is politically critical because a neta’s speech must resonate with his audience, it must contain emotive cultural references that vary according to region. For example, the phrase ram janmabhoomi may stir audiences in Uttar Pradesh but could be quite irrelevant in Tamil Nadu.

Reflexivity is the feature of being able to reflect on your own and other’s utterances and actions. Structurally, this means that language categories like nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, prepositions, sentences, narratives etc. can be created to meta-analyze the workings of language. Politically, reflexivity implies that politicians can artfully apologize, explain, or take credit for past actions and discredit, malign or mock the words, demeanor and failed actions of opposition politicians.

Finally, almost all human children have told their first lie by age four4 and despite moral admonitions to always ‘tell the truth’, continue to practice this form of linguistic deception across a lifetime. Prevarication is how Hockett described this ‘universal’ human trait. Its political advantages need little elaboration.

 

In addition, all languages draw from a common pool of some 50 or so phonemes suited to the human vocal tract to construct words, which is partly why all humans can master the phonology of any language – and indeed, more than one – particularly if these languages are acquired before the pre-puberty ‘language window’.5

Syntactically, all languages seem to have the feature of recursion (although see the famous Everett-Chomsky debate on this point6), as well as iterations or repetitions of ‘function words’ (prepositions and conjunctions, for example). Semantically, all seem to have some deictic pointers (here/there, now/then); most have proper names for individuals and pronouns (you/she/it). From inductive studies, we also know that all languages appear to have some form of negation, colour and kinship terms, names for body parts and the state of being dead (although a few languages have the same word for illness and death, while others talk of death as the state of ‘not being present’).

There could be a few other features of language not mentioned above. Previous research, for example, points out that a newspaper headline that states ‘17 killed in riots’ takes advantage of the commonly used structure of the passive in English. This nifty clausal structure allows ‘agent deletion’, so it can omit to say by whom (Hindus, insurgents, police, whoever) and in this way implicitly avoid apportioning blame. We could keep multiplying such instances of inbuilt capacities for censorship in every language, but it might be prudent to pause at this point to review a relevant conjecture. This is the view known as the Whorfian or ‘Sapir-Whorf’ Hypothesis, reflecting the contribution made by its founders, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf to a perspective more formally called ‘Linguistic Relativity’.

 

This widely debated theory takes the view that the language a person speaks will influence, even determine, the way in which that person thinks about the world, his reasoning and actual choices that he makes. ‘We cut up nature – organize it into concepts – and ascribe significances as we do, largely because of absolutely obligatory patterns of our own language’, wrote Whorf, while Sapir spoke of ‘the tyrannical hold that linguistic form has upon our orientation to the world.’

This phraseology of ‘cutting up nature’ and ‘the tyrannical hold of language’ is very much in keeping with the argument advanced in this essay that underlying language patterns perform an invisible but powerful ‘chief editor’s role’ in conceptualizing the world. True, Sapir and Whorf are thinking in terms of individual languages while my argument is that the basic structures of all languages developed over evolutionary time act as primary censors. The crucial point, however, is that the structures to which both Sapir and Whorf and I refer are not intentional, they are by no means the creations of scheming individuals or groups; rather, they are language structures possessed of no agency in themselves and that yet powerfully motivate interpretations of human agency.

Elaborating on the theme of ‘linguistic relativity’, Sapir declares:

‘Language is a guide to "social reality". Though language is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest to the students of social science, it power-fully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.’7

In the next section, I will briefly examine an enormously influential political speech, perhaps the most famous of political speeches in modern times, as ‘proof’ of the workings of almost all the ‘universal’ but ‘unconscious’ shaping features of language that I’ve mentioned above.

 

Praxis: Abraham Lincoln’s legendary ‘Gettysburg Address’ was delivered bang in the middle of a Civil War. Part of a long ceremonial dedicated to consecrating a cemetery for the soldiers who had died during the Battle of Gettysburg, there’s no doubting that the intentions motivating Lincoln’s speech are noble, his cadences appealing, and his emotional appeal pitch perfect. Unlike the figure of the prototypical thuggish politician out to manipulate public perception invoked at the beginning of this essay, here is the voice of a man patently sincere and honest.

In his own time, though, we should note that Lincoln’s short ‘Presidential’ Address followed upon a two-hour long ‘proper’ oration of 13, 607 words by the Honorable Edward Everett that was very well received. Lincoln’s speech, on the contrary, was regarded as flimsy, with the Chicago Times dismissing it as ‘silly, flat and dishwatery’. Eyewitnesses reported that there was no applause for it.

 

It is not, however, my purpose to go into the tangled antecedents of this now greatly elevated and then seemingly inconsequential speech. Much scholarship has been devoted to it, including the question of whether Lincoln had simply lifted his final stirring phrase, namely, ‘this government of the people, by the people, for the people’ via his reading of the American abolitionist Theodore Parker, from John Wycliffe’s 14th century English preface to his translation of the Bible. My aim, as I’ve said, is rather to show that this superbly condensed speech of just about 270 or so words, so short that it can be reproduced in its entirety below, contains all the universal editorial elements of human ‘language design’.

‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We are now come to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

 

We immediately find in this speech something of a phenotype for the four Hockettian ‘design features’ of human language mentioned in this essay: displacement, those temporal forays into distant times, past and future, that only human languages make (‘fourscore years and ten ago’; ‘this nation shall have a new birth of freedom’); cultural transmission (the Christian imagery of a cemetery, of consecration, for example); reflexivity (‘the world will little note, nor long remember’); and even prevarication or the feature of being ‘economical with the truth’. For, consider this: the year to which Lincoln alludes, working backwards 70 years from 1863, the year of the Gettysburg Address, has to be 1776, the momentous year that the American Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4.

So what, if anything, is being left out of Lincoln’s reverential account of 1776? 1776 may indeed have been a ‘good year’ from the revolutionary perspective; after all, it was one in which an irate mob in New York managed to topple the high-riding statue of George III. Yet, 1776 was also a murderous year. It was a year when ‘patriot’ troops invaded the Cherokee Nation and destroyed no less than 36 Cherokee settlements. These wars continued well into Lincoln’s own times until the First Nations were virtually exterminated or corralled wholesale onto reservations. Not exactly an advertisement for a nation that espoused ‘the proposition that all men were created equal.’

 

But did Lincoln really intend to leave out the Native Americans from his peroration on ‘Liberty’? This seems unlikely. The fact is rather, as I’ve suggested, that the structures of language permit no one, not even Lincoln, to tell ‘the whole truth’. Even without knowing that these features exist, all humans take advantage of the inbuilt features of language design. We can all cite glaring cases of venal politicians who intentionally take liberties with the truth, editing history at will for electoral gains; others – the vast majority – are, in the general case, honest and sincere. Both groups, however, are subject to the deep rules of language and its preinstalled Subject-Verb-Object and other structures.

Linguistic censors installed in prehistory, that is, are busily, automatically, at work whenever we process an event, allowing speakers of any language only some ways of presenting the world. Such routines of language and memory are most drearily, disturbingly, familiar in the public squares of politics when we attempt to decode the on-display, soapbox intentions of political leaders.

When in power, governments, as we know, can have a stranglehold over ‘ideological state apparatuses’.8 They can change received narratives by redefining heroes of the past as villains and vice versa; they can create new, gloriously invulnerable histories of the nation by tracing the lineage of their land back to a mystic, mythic antiquity that simply cannot be ‘fact-checked’. They can physically redo landscapes by pulling down landmark buildings including, let’s say, defunct mosques or colonial statues and by claiming public lands and constructing great vistas in their own name; they can rename cities, roads and stadia.

Psychologically, they can create regimens of fear, guilt and loathing as well as of addictive love and desire; they can ban books, incarcerate naysayers from comedians to activists and cunningly suborn parallel branches of government. And so on and on – but my argument is that all these species of ‘intentional’ action are undergirded by the ‘universal’ elements of language design that I’ve listed.

 

Returning to Lincoln’s exquisite bonsai speech, all but one of the semantic features mentioned explicitly occur in the course of its delivery. The one that does not occur is colour. Yet one could argue that skin colour and racial tension are in fact a crucial subtext throughout the American Civil War and remain a bitterly divisive motif in the US today. For the rest, we observe that kinship turns up as a powerful metaphor right at the beginning (‘our fathers brought forth’). Death is a presence throughout and the contrast between the heroic dead whose bodies are to grace the cemetery and those still alive is an iterated trope.

Indeed, iteration or repetition is a prominent feature of the speech (for example, the word ‘nation’ is repeated as many as five times); negations (cannot, never) are effectively placed at the centre of the speech; deitics (here, now etc.) turn up eight times and pronouns (we, us, they) 17 times. This means that every 10th or 12th word in this speech is a deictic or pronominal – particles of language that we barely notice but which are ‘universal’ – possibly because they subtly bind together other linguistic elements into an apparently coherent whole.

Overall, what these bundles of inconspicuous linguistic features manage to accomplish is a sweeping, automated erasure of context. For linguists, this is unsurprising because the evolutionary resilience of language resides precisely in the fact that grammar, but not necessarily meaning, is designed to survive the decay of context. For instance, we could never guess the date indicated by ‘four score years and ten ago’ without crucial additional information. Lincoln’s speech may be grammatically flawless, displaying a complete, complex unity marvelously preserved – yet we still can’t quite decode it without lots of extratextual information. This is because linguistic censorship works by grammatical sleight of hand and implication.9

Context, multiple points of view and polyphony are silently, severely erased when texts are read, or speech memorialized outside the unique settings in which they occur. This means that any historical account must fend, frustratingly, with materials mercilessly pre-edited by language in its avatar as perhaps the most defining aspect of our collective, flawed, humanness.

 

Postscript: In conclusion, I return to the vexed question of intentionality with which this essay began and its relation to the ‘automatic’, honed by evolution, processes of language outlined in the previous section. In their famous 1946 essay, W.K. Wimsatt, and M.C. Beardsley presented what they called the ‘Intentional Fallacy’, the gist of which was the idea that the intentions of the author of a text, such as for example Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, were irrelevant to judgments of its intrinsic worth. These critics maintained that intentionality was ‘neither available nor desirable as a standard’ for critical discussion.

 

In doing so, they directly took on the Sri Lankan critic and significant contributor both to studies of Indian art and the Indian ‘Swadeshi’ movement, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy who thought that the judgments of art (and, by extension, all sorts of cultural texts) were based on two parameters: first, whether an author had succeeded in conveying his ‘intentions’ to the public and, second, whether an author’s text had ‘moral’ resonance.

Wimsatt and Beardsley were willing to concede in part that texts and words were morally suffused but remained convinced that any appeal to speaker intention was fallacious, declaring that this was a fundamental principle in understanding the meaning of a text: ‘…a principle which goes deep into some differences in the history of critical attitudes and… entails many specific truths about inspiration, authenticity, biography, literary history and scholarship.’10

According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, a text is:

‘…not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). [It] belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge [italics mine]. What is said about the poem [or any other text] is subject to the same scrutiny as any statement in linguistics or in the general science of psychology or morals.’11

 

Is a text really as independent of the intentions attributed by ‘the public’ and ‘critics’ to its author as Wimsatt and Beardsley claim? Most theorists no longer accept the extreme view that intentionality is beside the point in our judgments of what constitutes ‘inspiration, authenticity, biography… history and scholarship.’ This is because understanding intention involves processing complex ideas about belief, agency, trust, ethics and other such crucial inter-relational elements that are the basis on which humans assess the words and actions of other human beings.

Interacting with others through language willy-nilly requires us to assess moment to moment, however imperfectly, the intentions of other human beings. Even a child must judge on the fly when scolded whether a parent as ‘lawgiver’ is ‘really’ angry or upset and behave accordingly. Making such nuanced adjustments in order to live with others in familial, social and political settings is simply part of a lifelong learning curve.

As a species, it turns out that we habitually ‘edit history’ through attributing intentionality to linguistic utterances. In this respect, it’s worth noting that, as a linguistic structure, the verb ‘intend’ behaves quite differently from verbs like ‘think’ or ‘talk’. For instance, one can say of a person ‘She thinks a lot’ or ‘She talks a lot’ or that ‘She is a talker/thinker’. But one cannot say ‘She intends a lot’ or ‘She is an intender’. This is because one just cannot intend in the abstract. Philosophers sometimes call this feature of intentionality ‘aboutness’. By rule, the verb ‘intend’ must take a grammatical complement. One has to intend to do something like read Das Capital or get oneself vaccinated or change the world. This ‘future action’ oriented feature of intentionality is what makes it so relevant to sociopolitical discourse and so morally fungible when one announces one’s intentions publicly.

 

Thus, when politicians inform us about a state of affairs in the country that concerns us, we match what they say with previous events and memories of ‘action states’ and come to tentative but, often, strong conclusions about whether we will vote for them. Democracy, with its reliance on the ballot box, would come a cropper without such ‘moral’ judgments being constantly made because if the public just went by what politicians piously declared they’d done or would do in the future for citizens’ welfare, then politicians from differing parties might seem equally worthy of our votes and it would be considerably harder to choose between them since their hope delivery wagons would stop at the same linguistic stations.

The fact is that we do apply rule-of-thumb verification measures, ticket checks as it were, to the statements of politicians: we rely on performance indicators, community opinion, in-group/out-group affiliations of religious, caste or gender or class, news reports, tacit background knowledge, a desire of change, rhetorical appeal and intangibles measures like political charisma to make voting choices. Today, because the volume of information coming in about the ‘authenticity’ of politicians’ statements is so large, we observe that citizens have retreated into ‘bubbles’ where they only listen to channels that have already edited the political narrative in terms of attributions of intentionality.

At the same time, independent news organizations have begun to rate what they call the ‘nutrition’ quotient of various new channels, given the dramatic polarizations in day-to-day interpretations of history; here, channels that peddle conspiracy or racist theories about the evil intentions of ‘our enemies’ obviously get low ‘junk food’ ratings. To this extent, Coomaraswamy was dead right: human beings routinely make an ethics of intentionality central to judgments of others’ performances.

Nevertheless, Wimsatt and Beardsley were factually correct to contend that others’ intentionality – and even our own – is not in fact ‘available’ to us. Evolution simply did not design us as beings who have transparent screens on our chests or foreheads that directly reveal our thoughts and intentions. We are therefore forced to infer intentionality based on how we, not always accurately, read symbols, facial expressions, gestures and, most importantly, language.

 

Language is the best – but far from perfect – instrument we have to probe the mind. And language, as I have argued, comes pre-equipped with certain ‘design features’, four of which I have discussed in this essay, that direct and limit – edit, if you like – our reading of intentionality.

The following is a final example, selected at random from an Indian newspaper: ‘The government used the term "Indian double mutant strain" in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court just days before it officially objected to affixing nationality to the virus variant…The affidavit was filed in the court three days prior (May 9) to a Ministry of Health statement on May 12 taking exception to media reports which referred to the B.1.617 variant as an "Indian variant".’12

This short extract reveals a complex intentionality that is not necessarily to be associated with the author of the article per se but, rather, that of the editorship of the newspaper that judges this piece of information about the contradictory intentions of the Government of India newsworthy enough to present to its readership or ‘public’. How do we infer layers of intentionality from such a brief and unadorned newspaper report?

Once again, I suggest that these patterns of intentionality derive from at least the four underlying features of language design already mentioned: temporal displacement (the government uses the adjective ‘Indian’ to describe a mutant coronavirus strain on May 9, yet oddly objects via a Ministry of Health statement to the same usage in the media on May 12); cultural transmission (the word ‘Indian’ carries connotations of national pride and, in this case, also a socially charged denial of responsibility for somehow producing within the country a new strain of Sars-Covid-19); reflexivity (the language used is clearly shared by the media and the government but the government adheres to righteous political correctness by condemning the media usage while itself utilizing the same terminology in an official filing in the highest court in the land); and prevarication (the government seems to hold a pretty equivocal position on whether it believes that the coronavirus is or is not ‘Indian’).

It is in this sense that I suggest that the four deeply evolved, embedded and ‘editorial’ linguistic pillars of displacement, cultural transmission, reflexivity and prevarication may be regarded as holding up the very architecture of human intentionality across cultures.

 

Footnotes:

1. Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. Viking, London, 2018.

2. John LangshawAustin, How To Do Things With Words. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962.

3. Charles F. Hockett, ‘The Problem of Universals in Language’ in Joseph H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of Language. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1966, pp. 1-22.

4. V. Talwar and K. Lee, ‘Emergence of White-lie Telling in Children Between 3 and 7 Years of Age’, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 48, 2002, pp. 160-181.

5. Eric Lenneberg, Biological Foundations of Language. John Wiley, New York, 1967.

6. John Calapinto, ‘The Interpreter: Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?’ The New Yorker, 16 April 2007.

7. Edward Sapir, ‘The Status of Linguistics as a Science’, Language 5(4), December 1929, pp. 207-214. The Linguistic Society of America, New York, 1929, p. 207.

8. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (trans. and ed. G.M. Goshgarian). Verso, New York, 1970, 2014.

9. Rukmini Bhaya Nair, ‘Implicature and Impliculture’ in Janet Maybin and Joan Swann (eds.), The Art of English: Everyday Creativity. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2006, pp. 99-102; Rukmini Bhaya Nair, ‘Intending to Mean, Pretending to Be: Reflections on the Limits on Genre’ in R. Page, B. Busse and N. Nørgaard (eds.), Rethinking Language, Text and Context: Interdisciplinary Research in Stylistics. Routledge, London, 2018; Rukmini Bhaya Nair, ‘A Forensic Examination of Prashant Kishor’s "Agar Vote Hai",’ NDTV Opinion Column, 12 April, 2021 https://www.ndtv. com/opinion/a-forensic-examination-of-prashant-kishors-agar-vote-hai-2411592

10. W.K. Wimsatt and M.C. Beardsley, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, The Sewanee Review 54(3), 1946, p. 468 (468-488).

11. Ibid., p. 470.

12. Krishnadas Rajagopal, The Hindu, 30 May 2021. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/government-used-indian-double-mutant-strain-in-affidavit-filed-in-supreme-court/article34683300.ece?homepage=true (retrieved 31 May 2021).

top