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The Politics of Language

Disclaimer: The Stephanian Forum does not take any institutional position on its content and would like to inform readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.

I happened to watch a reality game show on a leading television channel during the semester break at home in Cochin. The show involved the game’s protagonist choosing an opponent of their choice at every level of the game. The episode I watched was that of a young man who was doing remarkably well, but what made me notice him was that he chose a lady in the first level of the game (that is not what grabbed my attention) saying, “Ladies first” (that statement made me sit up). He did defeat that female contestant and in the next two levels too, he chose female contestants, citing reasons from how it would be easier to beat lady opponents, to some phenomenon he called ‘lady luck’. He was not impolite, but patriarchy was evident in his language, in forms that most people tend to overlook (which is a problem in itself).

Social networks and communal bonds were forged centuries ago out of an intuitive sense of belonging to individuals we could communicate with easily. It was later, in the post-Renaissance period, that the ideas of nationhood and nationalism, emerged from these linguistic identities. Most anthropologists and linguists agree that it is communication that gives rise to language, not the other way round. It is humanity’s ardent desire to communicate with the fellow members of the species, which gave rise to language, which has evolved into different types, dialects and sub-dialects today. The earliest example of linguistic nationalism is that of the ancient Greeks, who distinguished themselves as a nation or ethnic community, because they spoke a language different from the Barbarians, whose communication was still primeval in nature as compared to them. Modern nation states in Europe were established primarily on linguistic grounds. In India, Andhra Pradesh became the first state to be formed based on language in 1953. Languages are flags of allegiance in today’s world, often being imposed on communities and tribes to reinforce or establish larger identities, say that of a nation. That is another book in itself.

Coming back to the reality game show episode I witnessed, it was a clear example of language reflecting a social fact, which is the deep-rooted presence of patriarchy in our society. It has been through my interactions with students from across the country in my college, which led me to understand the politics of language– the sexism that still exists in modern language, the racism in etymology and colloquial terminology, the vestiges of the caste system in our native tongues- perspectives which I would not have realized if I did not have the good fortune of exposing myself to different groups of people. We might wonder what is wrong with telling a lady to do any activity first (we are told that it is gentlemanly and chivalrous- I would probably have been remarking so even today, if not for the lucky opportunities to broaden my mind), but what we often fail to realize is that such phrases and terms are subtle messages we (un)intentionally convey.

…today I think twice before cracking jokes or reviewing movies– there is a lot more to language than what we hear or read.

Ukrainian poster depicting a German soldier protecting a Ukrainian woman; targeted at colonists of the Reichsgau Wartheland

The terms ‘gentlemanly’ and ‘chivalrous’ entered the English language since the time of ‘knights in shining armour’ and ever since connote the apparent responsibility of a man to protect the woman he is with or to let the female companions speak first, supposedly because men are stronger or capable enough to wait patiently and consider the task the lady must perform. These are archaic, patriarchal notions reeking of the supposedly ‘masculine’ qualities of intelligence and strength and resilience, compared to the ‘feminine’ traits of frailty and dependence and beauty – none of which can be attributed to any one gender. These traits and qualities vary from individual to individual, irrespective of gender, and the continued use of such terms like the ‘fairer sex’ to denote women or the use of the word ‘mankind’ to denote the human species is deplorable and deadly. They propagate the dominance of a gender or disseminate the characterization of a gender with traits in our subconscious minds.

Examples abound in almost all languages, especially in English include- a ‘master’ has positive connotations, but nobody says they work for their ‘mistress’; there is a ‘chairman’, and a female chairman (pardon the terminology, English vocabulary does not help) is referred to as a ‘chairperson’. Our proverbs and pop culture references, not to mention the language used in the media, are abound with gender discrimination once we start looking for them.

Racism still permeates our language, and the Varna system hides itself cleverly in Indian languages, most of them having originated from Sanskrit. We may not be racists or casteists, but the language we use often are, and do harm by reinforcing those notions. That is why today I think twice before cracking jokes or reviewing movies– there is a lot more to language than what we hear or read.

We live in a post-truth world, where political leaders march to power by cleverly manipulating the politics of language.

Language is one of the most important tools of propaganda, and has been used and is still being used as method of thought control. In his masterpiece ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, George Orwell establishes ‘Newspeak’ as the official language of Oceania, devised to meet the ideological needs of the ruling dispensation. Leading articles and mass media use Newspeak, which is predicted to overtake ‘Oldspeak’ by 2050. The biggest advantage of Newspeak was to provide a unified medium of communication worldwide, making all other methods of thought impossible. Information and ideas in other languages are being systematically erased with the imposition of Newspeak in Oceania, thereby using it as a powerful tool of propaganda. Orwell writes how the word ‘free’ in Oceania meant the usage in ‘Dogs are free of lice’ and not political freedom, which used a new term ‘Crimethink’.

Today, there is a manufacture of consent (Chomsky) which political and corporate powers achieve to stifle dissent, by articulating the way we view various happenings around the world in linguistic terms, that convey the dominant thought, suppressing subaltern opinions. We live in a post-truth world, where political leaders march to power by cleverly manipulating the politics of language. When demonetisation can be represented as an economic class uprising to win elections, and a President can be elected by using language that conveys fear of the immigrants, coupled with catchy slogans to reinforce identities, we realise that language plays an important role in shaping our thoughts and actions.

‘Azaadi’ means freedom, and today communities need to gain freedom from poverty, from oppression, from discrimination. But the mainstream thought in India has converted ‘azaadi’, at the behest of forces powerful enough, into a word denoting sedition and ‘anti-nationalism’. I personally know of students who are today uncomfortable with shouting ‘azaadi’ from any legitimate oppression, because of its links to Kashmiri politics and so-called anti-nationalism. The usage of terms like terrorists and martyrs, vary as per perspective of the concerned communities, and the rise of a dominant use of a term changes the politics of that term. Violence can never be condoned, and if Hamas soldiers who attack Israel are terrorists, then why are Israeli soldiers who forcibly displace Palestinians and kill innocent civilians in their own land, not branded so? A Delhi University student, Gurmehar Kaur, rightly pointed out that her decorated Army Captain father was killed by War, not by Pakistan. This logical, rational statement saw anger and hatred spewed by trolls, and even adverse comments from politicians and celebrities. She left Delhi when she started receiving rape threats (Welcome to 21st century India).

If there is one thing I learnt over the years, it has been to constantly try to question the language used and the information which is bombarded at me, every day, by people and by the media. I believe it is important to ensure that we do not fall prey to the propaganda traps of mainstream language, and we refrain from propagating social evils like patriarchy and racism, even subtly, through words oral and written. It is never possible to change the system by changing language (which in itself is never perfect, with all of us unknowingly using subtle terms of patriarchy or elitism, however hard we try), because language reflects the society. As a writer pointed out, ultimately even if we change linguistic convention to use only ‘chairperson’, it does not change the fact that more men occupy the position than women. But it surely is a start. It is time to start looking out for a lot more than to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. And as Martin Osborne, an economist, wrote in the foreword to his Game Theory textbook which we learn,

I shall henceforth use ‘she’ to denote an individual in general terms as the dominant convention exceedingly favours the men, and we can do our small part to prevent language from propagating patriarchy.


Gratitude is in order to the Gender Studies Cell and Planning Forum at my college, my college library, and my politically motivated fellow batchmates.

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