Culture and Society

On Language

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

In his novel 1984, George Orwell is interested in the use of language. He demonstrates a repeated abuse of the language by the people in power and the media to manipulate people and deceive them into unquestioning loyalty and mindless drones.

According to the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, the civilizations which have contributed to the construction of the Tower suffer from the Curse of Confusion after God destroys the Tower (seems like the sort of thing he would do). The Curse makes languages unintelligible to the civilizations and it alters their nature. As a result, they no longer express the nature of things clearly. Instead, they obscure and distort them.

Certain words make us think and feel in a certain way. This is a fact that’s not lost on advertisers.

The words used are meant to give you a positive impression of things and ultimately, make you feel good about yourselves. “New”, “Crisp”, “Easy”, “Safe”, “Extra”, “Rich” and that veritable source of advertising goodwill “Free”. All chosen carefully.

Slogans use other language tricks like alliteration, word-play, verbal imagery, intentional mistakes and commands or imperatives.

Then they make claims. Comparisons with other products, unique chemicals that have no real names, a celeb endorsement and flattering you. Then of course, they trot out the science.

The dentist, the man in the white coat, the lab guy, the tech guy and anyone else who looks sciencey makes everything seem atleast 33% more credible. [see what I mean?]

Adding engineering to anything makes it sound serious. Really. I am surprised Axe still hasn’t come up with something like ‘seduction engineering’.

And that is not the only way language works in advertising. Sometimes, it can be a really bad mistress.

The Belfast Telegraph recently ran a story on the Limerick town of Effin – named for St Eimhin no less. Ann Marie Kennedy is proud to live in Effin – and now she has launched an online campaign to have Facebook recognise the town whose name was blacklisted for being too offensive. Placenames get mutated through the generations. Language is fluid. Placenames are but a funny casualty.  For example, a Yorkshire village – Middle Shittlington, became Middleton in 1855 and Britishers could stop laughing. But, Yorkshire also seems to have Penistone and Wombwell.

“In Michigan there is a small town of Hell which, appropriately, is a considerable distance south of the town of Paradise. Pennsylvania also has a town of Paradise along with Intercourse and Blue Ball, and it is well known that the best way to go from Blue Ball to Paradise is through Intercourse.”

Closer to him, we have the curious case of Vicks VapoRub. Everyone knows it and everyone has used it. Countless common colds have been braved with the aid of this veteran decongestant.

But did you know, Vicks had its name changed to market it in Germany, as the German pronunciation was “fick.” I can safely assume, what that could imply to most innocent minds.

All this raises 1 significant question, is it in the words or is it in our minds?

Language defines us. A lot of our language might easily be a derivative of our British masters, our sense of tolerance, resistance to action and an evident lack of a sense of humour. So do these qualities come from our culture or does our language bring about our culture?
There’s language and there’s speech.
Hundreds of thousands of available words, families of legitimate new ideas, so that I can say a completely unique sentence and not be accused of plagiarism.

“Terrible animals for breakfast, chocolate for lunch and acidity for dinner.”

Perfectly ordinary words. Precise order.
Still, a lot of our time everyday is spent saying the same things to each other. So, any utterance of oddities like ‘oddity,’ ‘borborygmus,’ or ‘leeway’ make me happy.

Which of course, brings me to the quote at the start of this thought-dump.

My language is responsible largely for my view of the world around me. IT defines the world as I see it. This in turn defines IT. There is a whole lot of Indianness in the way I use English and there is a reasonable amount of English in my Indianness. [Note how Indianness is a wholly Indian word]

Accept the things around you and let them reflect your language. There will be quirks and their will be gaffes but there will be language. After all, it is not just a means of communication, is it?

As Stephen Fry says, “Language is the breath of God. Language is the dew on a fresh apple, it’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pluck from a old bookshelf a half-forgotten book of erotic memoirs. Language is the creak on a stair, it’s a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party, it’s the warm, wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl. It’s cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.”

A bit like this village in Austria.


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