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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Language, for the love of God, language!

Every human mind, wrote Nehru, is ‘a private universe of thought and feeling’, and no other human can look into it, except in rare (and usually faulty) glimpses. This is all the more true of intelligent, learned, reflective and complex minds. Yet we desperately need to communicate, not only for getting along in the workaday world, but because we are all at heart, at least sometimes, terribly lonely and scared and confused and in need of the warmth which only the loving, understanding and caring of other human minds can give us, short of direct contact with God.  And that can be done only, or at least primarily, through language, through the written and spoken word.

Also, language misused or abused can do immeasurable, often irreparable harm. It can break hearts, confuse and misguide minds, create the worst possible (and often entirely avoidable-) misunderstandings, ruin lives, trigger off riots and wars.  And it can have enduring effects on all history. Which is why Hammurabi and Asoka got their edicts carved on stone, which is why Aesop and Vishnu Sharma told stories, Socrates and Aurelius and the editors of the King James Bible chose their words with great care, which is why diplomats and lawyers take so much time and pay so much attention to ironing out drafts of official documents, which is why my textbooks in French were titled Le français et la vie... French and life. That’s right: language is the very foundation of thought and culture, and you cannot separate it from life itself. For God’s sake, even mathematics and computer codes are types of language, and you cannot explain a fundamental concept in physics or economics without language, no matter how good you are with graphs and equations.  I know. I have been teaching language all my life, among other things.

I have a very special reason for loving and worshipping language, of course. It has fed me richly, both my body and mind. It has ‘kept me from evil’, remembering that the worst evils are hurting the innocent and wasting your time. It has given me something to be proud of, as no mere material possessions and titles and family connections can make one proud. It has allowed me to be a lot of help to a lot of people in need. It has helped me to understand the world, and to know people – both in their richness and their banality. Indeed, nothing tells you more about people’s characters than the kind of language they use: that is why psychoanalysts depend so much on what their clients on the couch say while engaging in free association of thoughts, and even a teacher of mathematics, if he is worth his salt, will insist that his pupils get the successive statements of a proof just right; no shoddiness will be tolerated. So it shouldn’t be too hard to understand why I have always tried to speak rationally, succinctly, lucidly, illustratively... and even more so when I am writing, because writing is more permanent than the spoken word, and you have fewer excuses for shooting your mouth, even if you are writing on google chat. I have talked and written all my life, and said a lot of hard and harsh things to so many people too, yet rarely have I had to take back something I said, while I know people who have to do that twenty times a day. Not an accident. It needs hard work. And one puts in that kind of hard work day in, day out, only when one is convinced about how important it is, how much better a human being one becomes if one makes a lifelong habit of it. If one wants to become a better human being, of course, at least a little more than wanting to buy a better  cellphone or pair of shoes.

So nothing makes me wince or want to throw up more than seeing people mangling language, and saying things they don’t mean (or, “really mean”) simply because they won’t take the trouble. And then lamenting ‘Folks don’t understand me... X, Y or Z misunderstands me so much’! I don’t merely mean the way journalists routinely abuse language through the bad habit of thoughtless overuse and the knowledge that nobody really cares what they write. I don’t merely mean the Bangalore-based IT hack who writes on his Facebook wall, under a photograph of himself in front of the Taj Mahal, ‘1st time wid soooo wonderful creature n d world!’ He is not, after all, quite a human being. I don’t mean the teenage girl who, whenever she gets annoyed, exclaims ‘Oh, shit!’ imagining that makes her ‘cool’, though she cannot write a decent 400-word essay on any sensible subject under the sun to save her life: she’s got company, and there’s a faint possibility that given the right kind of teachers, she might still grow up, maybe by the time she’s seventy, and she can think beyond getting married and having babies and dolling up for parties. I am certainly not sneering at someone who can use her mother tongue with fluency and élan, though her grasp of the English language might be poor: indeed, I have met far too many people who can write/speak only pidgin English, or Hinglish/Banglish at best, and far too few who can handle chaste Bangla or Hindi, so I actually respect the latter kind. I am no martinet, as my best students can tell you: I too like the occasional bit of fun playing with caricatured language, including its textese format, or writing Bangla in the Roman script, or employing currently fashionable buzzwords. But there is somewhere everybody with education, good taste and self-respect must draw the line, and I do too.

It’s when people who know better – or should know better – do it, and keep doing it, despite knowing well enough it is bad, wrong, hurtful or at best vulgar: do it despite being told. People who are adults, people who like to think of themselves as educated, people who have read more than a few good books, who have themselves grimaced at or even suffered from others’ abuse of language, most of all people who have known me for sometime as a teacher, formally or otherwise. With such people, I feel like puking when I still see that anything can be hot as well as cool, it’s okay to say to anybody ‘I love you’ because they’ve learnt it from stage performers who are paid to blow kisses at audiences and scream ‘I love all you amayyzing people!’, anyone can be called great or awesome, from Alexander to the boyfriend,  anyone can be called foolish or worse, from an ex-classmate to Tagore or Russell because that helps the cause of democracy, I suppose; when such people are too quick to take offence at a reprimand, forgetting that I have never demanded less than and never renounced my dues as a teacher, forgetting hundreds of things they have reason to be grateful for merely because they feel this momentary compulsion to talk back in a hurry; people who have opinions on everything but are repeatedly struck dumb when I ask for their well-considered opinions on certain things because ‘they don’t know what to say’;  people who do not have the strength of character to admit and correct the fact that they contradict themselves too often (like asking for edification one day and telling me they don’t want sermonizing the next), people who hate to be compared with their betters instead of wanting to learn from them, people who insist, in denial of all their education, that others have an obligation to understand their intended meaning instead of listening to what they actually say, people who can dish it out to Sir but can’t take it from him and still imagine they have a right to his kind of attention...

For those who have lost me already, I suggest you re-read the first two paragraphs. You can wipe more than one thing with your handkerchief. How much truer and more significant that is with something infinitely precious and powerful like a language! Especially when it comes to dealing with a language worshipper like me, who has never liked to waste time on trifles or trivial people? I know how I talk when I am dealing with my family doctor, I know how much more reverential attention I shall give to someone of real and ineffable worth, like if I was talking to Vivekananda.  Whoever has been reading this blog consistently for a couple of years, even if s/he has not met me in the flesh, cannot help knowing, even if s/he never has the courage and honesty to acknowledge it and celebrate it, that I am not quite another Tom, Dick or Harry. Surely people ought to admit – especially when I have given them time enough, and I am not an impatient man, as my parents, sisters and the likes of Bijit Mukherjee know – that I have a right, beyond a point, to cut them out of my life? Professional interest apart, why should I keep talking to people who will not listen to me, who will keep irritating me either because they don’t understand they are doing it or can’t help it, and who will never share my love, respect and awe for language and all that it entails: given that that love, respect and awe has paid off vastly more handsomely than knowing such people has or ever will? After all, fifty years is a long time to have been around, and I can still count on two fingers the people to whom I owe anything of value at all! And if I limit my attention to those who are both able and willing to give me anything of value still, should I look beyond my wife, my daughter and my investment counsellor? Is anybody else likely to do better? – get my book published, or give me love (as I define love, not they, it goes without saying), or build a memorial when I am gone? Should I lower my expectations to the level of being invited to weddings instead?

Can anybody claim after reading this post through that I have written a single sentence outside my rights? This link is about how people react to cinema these days, but it fits in perfectly with what I have been saying here. This one, which Mayuri sent me, shows that others too are ruing how the facility of the internet is encouraging us to bring the worst of ourselves out on the surface for full public view. Also, it won’t hurt to look up the posts I have put under the label of ‘netiquette’. Because I know for a fact that I get much less lip and irrelevant chatter when people come over to talk with me face to face. Whether they are 15 or 50.  

All my life I have believed a) there is nothing more worth  having than an education, b) that education means knowing above all else what is crap and why it is necessary to cut out the crap, c) that I want to find a man about whom it can be said he is ‘one whose very company is a complete education’, completely sure that I will do anything for him, and I don’t use words loosely, d) I have tried consciously and single-mindedly to become someone like that myself, e) I have got more than a little acknowledgment that at least I tried, and so, f) I do not want to know people who think less than that of me. For those who can’t or won’t, the rest of the world is waiting. Try the gutter. Try the slums. Try the pubs. Try Facebook. I know that Tagore and Russell and Asimov and Galbraith would have agreed; I know that Pupu agrees, I do not have to waste time considering the ‘opinions’ of lesser creatures masquerading as human beings, no matter what their numbers are. You are above 21 and still use FB, after trying it out for a year? Don’t talk to me. And that you didn’t delete your account immediately after reading this post tells me all I want to know about you and what you really feel about me: how much I 'matter' to you when the chips are down.

I like to tell this zen story: the master was deep in meditation, and the would-be pupil came and kept waiting to draw his attention. It was snowing, and he was out in the open, and eventually he began to freeze, but he hung on. At last the master opened his eyes, and snarled, ‘What do you want, you rascal?’ ‘To be your disciple’, said the man. ‘And what are you willing to give up for me?’ The man drew out his sword, cut off his left arm with his right, and said, ‘Do you want more?’ Then he was accepted. Yes, yes, I know, by closing down your FB account and minding your language you will lose so many ‘friends’, and after all, it’s only numbers that matter, and ‘what will people say?’... alamativistaarena, they say in Sanskrit, don’t talk too much. They don’t listen anyway.


Stotra said...

Dear Sir,
I read your blog-posts quite often. Every post unique and subtle in the true sense of the words. I read the posts, feel like writing a line or two, but later refrain from it (mixed emotions surging through my veins).
However, couldn't resist telling you this,
loved this particular post. Trust me, this post reminded me of lions roaring resoundingly in the red dawn while I was working in Gujarat for my master's dissertation. Their love of communication, their language.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for commenting, Stotra. I thought I had lost you, and that's never a happy feeling.

I sounded like a lion roaring? I should have said more like an old and tired lion sighing, remembering things he's tried so very hard to do lifelong, and failed...

Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,

I remember you saying in class once, “All kinds of corruption begin with the corruption of language.” I recently repeated this to the students in one of the classes I take, and a girl asked me, “How’s that possible? Suppose a man asks me for a bribe. What does that have to do with the corruption of language?” I replied, “Well, my dear, if you do someday find yourself in such a situation, or if you ask those who have, you shall know that the man in question would never say, ‘Give me a bribe.’ He shall ask for ‘cut-money’. Or ‘chai-paani ka paisa.’ Or, if he is particularly discreet about his tendencies, he shall put it thus: ‘Ektu alada khoroch hobe.’ In other words, he shall use some insidious euphemism or the other to mask the true nature and intent of his immoral, illegal demand. He shall mangle his language to make his misdeed look less criminal. If he were forced to call a spade a spade, he would have no choice but to acknowledge, if only to himself, that what he is doing is bribe-taking, and NOTHING else. But of course he won’t do that. He would twist and warp his words to suit and serve his twisted and warped activities. Now have I made myself clear?” The girl said that yeah, I had. Hopefully, I REALLY had.

I have always wondered how people can be so careless, so callous, about something as important as language. Laziness, I have decided, is a major cause: after all, being careful about spelling and grammar (among other things) while writing, about diction and tone while speaking, and about the choice of words in both cases, requires, as you have said, hard work, and not many are willing to put in that sort of effort. And the laziness springs, in turn, from a lack of understanding of how important accuracy is (except when it comes to grossly trivial matters, such as dressing up “perfectly”). The idea that speaking and writing correctly is important is something that most people simply refuse to understand, their logic being, “What’s the big deal if I get a few spellings wrong and use past tense after ‘did’? As long as the person I am speaking to understands what I mean, the purpose of communication is served, right?” I have tried telling them that people could “communicate” just fine through grunts and squeals too, but obviously they felt that it was not enough, and that is why such a thing as language has been born. Why, then, are we trying so hard to go back to the stone ages, through the rampant use of SMS lingo and suchlike, which, when enunciated, sound pretty much like caveman talk? But most of my arguments fall upon deaf ears. Respect for language remains a rarity.

Abhirup said...

At the other end of spectrum lie, as I was telling you yesterday, the “academic scholars”, who represent a different kind of sickness: namely, a love for jargon and incomprehensibility. Oscar Wilde mocked this breed long ago when he wrote, in The Happy Prince, about scholars who, having seen a swallow in winter, wrote mammoth letters to the newspapers, which were full of unintelligible words and phrases that nobody understood but everybody felt compelled to applaud. These people, I think, do as much damage to language as the SMS tribe, and because they hide under the garb of academia, it is that much harder to take them to task. Which is why I think the Bad Writing Award renders an immensely desirable service by handing out its ‘prizes’ to people like Judith Butler and Homi K. Bhabha, identifying, in the process, them as people who use language to obfuscate rather than clarify, to show off rather than to communicate. The two following links, I think, say it very well:



Abhirup said...

(Allow me, also, to quote Martha Nussbaum, a thinker who, unlike Butler and her ilk, actually makes sense, not only because her arguments are better, but because she writes in a lucid, discernible manner: “It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are. Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.” Nussbaum may be writing about a specific individual here, but her words apply to a vast number of “scholars”).

As for your blogpost, Sir, I can only state my agreement with every point you have made, and add that Facebook and Twitter have indeed done a lot of damage to language and culture, not only by encouraging people to write bad English, but also by allowing them to become armchair critics on every issue under the sun, be it cinema or literature or music or sports or politics or philosophy. No matter what rubbish you write, you are sure to get more than a handful of ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ such as “so tru i agr fully wid u”, which boosts the ego of fools further and encourage them to continue mauling of language and making a joke of subjects which need detailed study to be commented upon in the first place. Some may claim that these social networking sites have led to a ‘democratization’ of sorts, enabling the ‘common people’ to talk about things that had otherwise been the exclusive domain of the learned. While I have nothing against ‘common people’ talking about important issues—indeed, I have never been one of those who dictates that those holding this or that degree and professorship in universities alone should be allowed to talk about important matters—I do demand that these ‘common people’ take the trouble to educate themselves on the said matter and learn to express themselves, in any language of their choice, correctly and coherently. Not much to ask for, I am sure, and on these points I see no reason to budge.

Lastly, to those who are seething at this blogpost because you see yourself and your treatment of language being criticized here, understand this: if Sir wants the people who talk to him and write to him to be careful about what they say and how they say it, it’s more for their benefit than his own. After all, learning to speak and write properly is going to serve YOU—in the professional capacity and otherwise—well: he stands to gain very little from it, except a sense of satisfaction (which any teacher worth his salt is entitled to) that he has done a good job of teaching the language to you. And if he sounds stern today, it is only because he has seen too much of the abuse of language, and has learnt the unfortunate lesson that a lot of people mend their ways only when reprimanded strongly. Treat his words as instructions, not an admonition (or at least, not one whose sole aim is to make you feel bad about yourself). Obeying these instructions, trust me, has done a lot of us much good, and so it shall to you, provided you are willing.

With regards,
Abhirup Mascharak.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am grateful for your comments, Abhirup. Indeed, they serve to complete what I wanted to say.

People who do not know what they want - and that includes those who think they will never have to deal with hard choices - can never use language the way it should be. And that is both the beginning and end of 'corruption': they will cheat themselves, so how can they help cheating others who make the mistake of trusting them?

Subhadip Dutta said...

Alas Abhirup, if only people understood what Sir has wanted to say and what you have wanted to say! It is only a handful who will actually appreciate your comment(s), but there will be a vast number who will write abusive comments on yours without even reading upto the last line of your comment(s), because their egos have already been hurt in the 2nd and 4th paragraphs.

But of course, we are the least concerned about these "people", and we always should be. Good advice should never be given for free, especially to the ones who do not matter.

Thank you Sir for this post, and thank you Abhirup for your fantastic comment(s).

- Subhadip Dutta.