Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 2 February 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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    M. S. Thirumalai
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    Central Institute of Indian Languages,
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


S. Imtiaz Hasnain, Ph.D.


We have had a tradition, not so very long ago, where matters could be addressed through political debate and discussions, while disagreement and dissent were never considered as a sign of discourtesy and disobedience. Fearless speech was taken as a hallmark of intellect and wisdom. Gargi's fearless speech in the male-dominated Brahmodya assembly reported in Brahadaranyaka Upanishad is a fine example of fearless speech, or Parrhesia as discussed by Foucault in the Greco-Roman context. Even the debates between King Janaka and Sulabha, the monk, or Mandanmishra and Shankaracharya are the case in point.


Linguistically, heterogeneity was given higher premium, and the literate minority languages were treated with respect. The tradition of debate and discussion, and disagreement and dissent continued even after India achieved independence. Protests of the language group outside the Hindi heartland against the perceived hegemonic thrust of Hindi, agitations of tribals and linguistic minorities for their right to education in their own languages, etc., were heard and listened to with equanimity and patience. The language groups in the post colonial India "could hold off the big ashvamedhas," and allowed the Indian languages "to grow in their own image, and for new ideas compatible with the sheer size of our landmass to emerge". (Mohan 1995: 887).

Countries like Japan and China, and even the so-called 'Asian Tigers', have strengthened our belief in decentralization and linguistic heterogeneity, for they have convincingly showed us that "English medium education might not be the only route to English proficiency and international success". Even the emergence of European Union (in a terrain approximately as diverse as India) further reassured our heterogeneous disposition and our way of life.


But then came a digirati - a new global "literati" of telectronics ruling class - armed with scientific superiority and technological arrogance, concentrated in the nations of the so-called North, imposing the language of the privileged - the only legitimate language which has been gifted with a legitimacy to make an unrestrained inroads in any domain, be it education or media.

Kenneth Keniston (1998) used this term, digirati, to refer to a small group of individuals marked by the following four characteristics:

  1. Computer literate
  2. Possessing internet address/web site
  3. Possessing cellular phone, and
  4. Possessing knowledge of English as first, second and/or third language.

According to him, it is this group which will effectively control the entire world in the not-too-distant future. The new digirati, i.e., new global telectronics ruling class, will rule the remaining 99% of the world's population, which does not possess the above four characteristics.


The digirati, as a class, feels uncomfortable with the blossoming of 'hundred flowers' - with multilinguality and plurality of culture - and believes in the homogeneity and facelessness of the human beings. There is an intrinsic totalitarianism to the digirati. It never goes for compromise or consensus for resolving the conflict. Instead it prefers to choose and back the strongest of the existing options and seeks to absorb and eliminate the others. The digirati, through its corporations, has ceased to be merely economic entities and has become the 'dominant governance institution'. It has even gradually replaced the state as the key actor.

The digirati has an unflinching faith in market forces that are strongly inclined towards English, representing national state power, corporate power, the social elites, and India's interface with the global system. It also supports the standard regional languages, each representing the economic epicentre of a large region and formally related to the dialect continuum of that region. In the process, the dialect continuum of the subsistence economy as well as the tribal languages, representing the primeval hunting and gathering economy, gets relegated, and slips into oblivion.


Whether the direction of force is upward from a predominantly subsistence economy to a predominantly market economy, or downward from the global economy, by creating triage conditions that favor only one local language, the mass media, in either case, automatically assumes far greater importance. Dubbing of Jurassic Park, Titanic, etc., into Hindi (or even Tamil, or Bengali) has been in response to the dominant market forces with the sole objective of letting the product reach out to the large viewership of the Hindi belt, and turn in the biggest profit a foreign film had ever made in India.


Media effectively creates a separation between the producers of the message and its recipients, through a complex interactive mechanism that involves the entire enterprise of eliciting governmental/commercial sponsorship, sourcing news material, coordinating productions, etc. It is this complexity that ultimately leads to control over communication. But who controls the choice of language - the very form of language that gets projected?

The state-owned broadcasting agencies like the DD may have been favorably disposed towards linguistic heterogeneity and may even reflect a principled stance towards giving equal representation to all other languages (Mohan 1995). However, when it comes to choosing a language, in the new dispensation, although the remnants of power struggle can still be discerned, eventually the net result is the totalitarianism of the digirati. For example, when commissioning a program material, the DD offers advice on how program could be dubbed into all the regional languages of India. But in the absence of any hardware facilities, software components, its commitment to linguistic heterogeneity becomes a casualty. "There is a near-total absence of software in languages which the majority of Indians speak. Restated in the jargon of the computer scientist, there has been virtually no 'software localization' to any of the major vernacular languages of India" (Keniston 1998).


The common explanation given for the absence of "software localization" is economic. Market demands are not conducive to localization in a country like India "where the annual income (parity purchasing power) of the average Indian is less than half the cost of a well-equipped computer, where almost half the population is illiterate, where almost a third of the population live at or below the official level of subsistence, and where the cost of an Internet connection may increase the cost of food for a month …" (Keniston 1998:106). Besides, India is reported to have quite high piracy rates.

Certainly these economic explanations justify the absence of localization of versions of major software programs. But economic explanation alone does not justify the existence of localized programs for Iceland, for the Norwegians, and even for the People's Republic of China, where the piracy rates are said to exceed 90%. Hence economic factors alone do not provide a sufficient explanation for the absence of software localization relating to Indian languages. What is equally important is the planning - "a long term planning cycle of software firms" which unfortunately is missing in India. Perhaps, it may not be too out of place to mention here that even with regard to language, India does not have a well articulated Language Planning, and if at all there is one, it is merely a posture. Hence, to anticipate a long term planning cycle of software firms will be expecting too much.


Economic considerations have not provided any convincing answers as to why software localization to Indian languages is still an illusion or elusive. One may have to go beyond the economic perspective towards a view that also takes account of politics and culture1. Language is embedded in the dynamics of politics and culture and, therefore, absence of software localization in Indian Languages must be approached from this dynamic of culture and politics.

India's democratic and federal political structure is supportive of celebrating plurality of language and culture. However, IT pundits and media moguls do not see this structure as a virtue. Rather, they look at this plurality as a source of problems. For, it entails considering messy questions like: Which Indian languages? Spoken or Written? Which plurality? - "…in respect of those who look at such a plurality from outside [or] those who live in such space"2 (Singh 2002). In addition, it also involves questions pertaining to the selection of standard language and the concomitant problems embedded in the entire socio-political matrix of language choice.


A discourse on standard language provides an interesting relationship between language, culture, and power. The apparently simple, and seemingly innocuous definition of standard language as "a codified variety of a language that serves the multiple and complex communicative needs of a speech community …" (Garvin 1991:6) performs a transparent communication of conveying a truth statement about linguistic features which are characteristics of standard language. But what remains silent in such a transparent communication is the process by which suppression of optional variability and selection of some at the cost of others are constituted and incorporated into a form of authority and control in the construction of a standard language.

The obverse of standard is non-standard. Here 'non' does not merely connote a simple linguistic process of prefixing suggesting a negative meaning. Nor does it reflect a transparent dimension of discursive practices absorbed in truth-value statement. It is, in fact, suggestive of a political content and renders a political currency by positioning the discourse of standard language in the semantic space, which is positive and negative. The positive semantic space is unmarked and reserved for dominant groups in society. Like all other linguistic features, the unmarked terms are also reserved for the norm. The marked term, on the other hand, occupies a negative semantic space and it is linguistically expressed as non-standard. It is construed as a deviation from the norm and is reserved for the groups that are subject to domination in society.


Besides the ideological underpinnings in the selection of standard language, there is yet another issue of language choice which is located in the linguistic engineering of language patterns of northern India which mark wide regional variations in spoken Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani. Linguistic engineering is often undertaken at the behest of a select elite trying to appropriate political power or to maintain the status quo.

Interventions, be it Persianization or Sanskritization, are disastrous both for mass participation in the process of social change and for literary excellence. The common man, on the one hand, shows a remarkable resilience to rise above these maneuvers. Even today there is a social mind that enjoys Hindi-Urdu speech and literature. Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani does not consist of three language categories defining the existence of three distinct linguistic identities. This constitutes a single structure verging on mutual intelligibility and sharing the social and inner space. It is this fluidity, which renders polymorphous or pluricentric identity to its speakers.

Hindu-Muslim antagonism has generated a kind of tension between Hindi-Urdu, between the conceded response of the non-committed and communally untainted speakers and the calculated response of the demographers and people committed to divisiveness. Hindustani emerges as a construct. It came in response to the tension between Hindi-Urdu - as a conscious decision towards openness with no excessive or extremist commitment to rigidity in the use of expressions. Its use by both Hindi and Urdu speakers reflects a positive affirmation. It provides a convenient ground to counter the hegemony of pristine Hindi-Urdu, against the anxiety of communal constructionists of both Hindi and Urdu.

It should be pointed out that one shade of communal construction (for example, Perso-Arabic expressions) has not emerged in reaction to another shade (for example, Sanskritization) and vice versa. This construction is not an act of retaliation. In fact, the anxiety behind Hindi-Urdu commitment is not symmetrical. In Urdu, the language extremists constitute only a vanishing tribe, who simply use Perso-Arabic expressions for defense. In Hindi, the language purists or extremists constitute an emerging culture, which harks back to the Golden Age or seek revivalism based on some assumed nostalgia. Use of chaste Hindi in TV serials like Ramayana vindicates our point. This use of Sanskritized Hindi as against Hindustani is not simply a reflection of individual language choice, but it is suggestive of an ideology, which is exclusionary.

Interestingly, it may be mentioned here that another mega serial called Mahabharata was telecast in a language which is neither a Sanskritized Hindi nor a Perso-Arabicized Urdu, but a generally accepted ecumenical Hindustani.

Even the use of Hindustani by Hindi-Urdu speakers does not evoke a symmetrical anxiety. For Hindi speakers it may be an act of rebellion against disciplined Hindi. For Urdu speakers it may reflect both a rebellious intent as well as a conscious desire to portray their secular and syncretic credentials (A sure way of testing the waters of the mainstream in Hindutva sense).3


The globalization of media has not only given rise to new factors in which market forces dominate or influence the language legitimation, but has also contributed towards symbolic domination of an emergent language through complex mechanism of pecking order.

According to Bourdieu (1991), 'Symbolic domination' is the ability of certain social groups to exercise control over others by establishing their view of reality, their norms - both cultural and linguistic, and their cultural practices - as the most valued ones.

Language is central to institutional processes of symbolic domination, since conventional language practices serve to establish the normality, the everydayness of institutional processes. Language norms are a key aspect of institutional norms, and reveal ideologies, which legitimate (or contest) institutional relations of power (Heller 1995: 373).


Language legitimation is achieved through institutional exercises of symbolic domination. These institutional exercises may be carried out through state, market, classes, ideologies, etc. All these institutions play a powerful role in the legitimation process of language. The intervention of state is invariably through social mechanism of the play of power to designate a language as 'Official', or 'Standard,' etc., which legitimizes its entry into the category of 'legitimate language'. Market is another powerful institution, which deeply influences the legitimation process of language. It has assumed far more significant position particularly in the context of globalization and the concomitant weakening of nation-states.4

There is both a physical violence (in the form of denial of linguistic rights to an individual) and symbolic violence acting upon a language to maintain a relation of domination. Symbolic violence is a subtle and invisible mode of domination that prevents domination from being recognized as such and, therefore, it tends to be socially accepted without much resistance. It works when subjective structures - the habitus (the given nature of body build and constitution, the predisposition) - and objective structures (the external and clearly seen or heard or felt structures) are in accord with each other. In Language and Symbolic Power, Bourdieu speaks of the "complicity" of the dominated, which is necessary if symbolic domination is to be realized:

All symbolic domination presupposes, on the part of those who submit to it, a form of complicity, which is neither passive submission to external constraint nor a free adherence to values. The recognition of the legitimacy of the official language has nothing in common with an explicitly professed, deliberate and revocable belief, or with an intentional act of accepting a 'norm'. It is inscribed, in a practical state, in dispositions which are impalpably inculcated, through a long and a slow process of acquisition, by the sanctions of the linguistic market, and which are, therefore, adjusted without any cynical calculation or consciously expressed constraints to the chances of material and symbolic profit, which the laws of price formation characteristic of a given market objectively offer to the holders of a given linguistic capital (Bordeau 1991:50-51).

Complicity implies, then, that the person who is confronted by acts of symbolic violence is disposed to perceive the violence in these acts, to decode the relevant signals, and to understand their veiled social meaning, but without recognizing them consciously as what they are - namely as words, gestures, movements, and intonations of domination. In other words, one has to be endowed with a habitus providing him with the sens pratique to react and to act correspondingly.


The institutional exercise of symbolic domination through language choices that allow speakers both to attempt to wield power and to resist it, has resulted in a kind of ambivalence in media discourse within both the dominated and the dominant. As for ambivalence, at one level, there is a possibility of consolidating the benefits of the existing privileges of the elite speaking the dominant language (for example, English in India). This elitist group claims to represent a language (or so-called legitimate language) that is concerned with "the particular forms of commonality which a [national] language happens to perform" (Strong 1984:91). At another level, this elitist claim is looked at with suspicion, as it is identified in many respects as a repertoire of a particular class. If this class is not seen to be representing the interests of other groups, the continuation of this ambivalence is likely to evoke a strong reaction against the growing power of the dominant language speaking elite (and the globalized English language culture), and these reactions might even overturn India's traditions of multicultural tolerance, democracy, diversity, and Human Rights. There is yet another possibility likely to emerge from these reactions. Possibility of dehegemonization and revernacularization of, or localization to several Indian languages, which have hitherto remained marginalized.

Satellite television has begun to blur regional linguistic distinctions. It is claimed that it even creates a new language, Hinglish, as is evident from the news telecast through Zee News channel, etc. One may even find an emergence of a designer language, promoting "an upper middle class Hindi based on the Hindi spoken by fluent Hindi speakers who normally operate their lives in English" (Mohan 1995:889).

This trait of designer language may also be seen in regional language varieties. Dialogue in languages like Bhojpuri and Panjabi, or in dialects within the Hindi fold, is specially written so as to be fully comprehensible to an urban Hindi speaking audience, while retaining superficial stereotype forms. The innovation is mainly intended for the city dwellers. For degradation of language, if one were to use this phrase for all kinds of deification of 'anti-grammar', a fair share of the blame goes to the media.

While expressions like Locust Stand I and dum dum (Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things) are seen as a manifestation of 'linguistic inventiveness' and creativity, Humko Binnie's Mangta, Surfte rehjaoge, In someone else's wedding Abdullah has gone mad, There is something black in the pulses, etc., have become most effective ingredients for market forces in global media.

Perhaps, it may not be too improper to suggest here that creation of such forms of language is indicative of a collapse of language - a collapse where language is no more a means of communicating message in McLuhnian sense, but where a message becomes more important than the medium. The message conveyed through these forms of advertisement has kept astray the existing norms of language, grossly violating certain principles of syntax and pragmatics of language.

Sagarika Ghose has rightly captured this collapse in the "Degraded language":

... the rise of a loud entertainment-based 'dumb' enjoyment seems to have come about because economic liberalization 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 . . . In such a milieu, language, the vehicle of thought, has suffered" (Ghose 2001:21).


  1. Keniston (1998) has provided an interesting comparison between India and China in the context of software localization and has outlined reasons which have made software localization possible in case of China, but not in Indian languages.
  2. Singh (2002) gives yet another dimension for looking at the pluricentricity of space found in South Asia in terms of voices arising from the periphery.
  3. For politics of linguistic engineering and Hindustani as an anxiety of communalist construction look up Hasnain and Rajyashree (forthcoming).
  4. The anxiety and hope with regard to globalization and language/culture have been discussed at length in Hasnain and Gupta (forthcoming).


Ahmad, I. 1999. Tracking peoples' inclination. Nation and the World, November 16, 1999.

Bourdieu, P. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1997. The economics of linguistic exchange. Social Science Information, 16,6.

Chakrabarti, A. 2002. How To Do Good Things With Words. Foundation Day Lectures on THE ETHICS OF SPEECH. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages.

Collins, J. 1993. Determination and contradiction: An appreciation and critique of the work of Pierre Bourdieu on language and education. Craig Calhoun, Edward Li Puma, and Moishe Postone. (Eds.). Bourdieu : Critical Perspectives, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Garvin, P. 1991. A conceptual framework for the study of language standardization, Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics, Special Issue XVII.1 (also in S.I.Hasnain. (Ed.). 1985. Standardization and Modernization: Dynamics of Language Planning, New Delhi: Bahri Publications).

Ghose, S. 2001. Degraded language, Seminar 501 (May).

Hasnain, S.I. 1998. Covering' standard language : A discourse perspective, in R. S. Gupta and K. S. Aggarwal, (Eds.) Studies in Indian Sociolinguistics, New Delhi: Creative Books.

Hasnain, S.I. and R.S.Gupta (forthcoming). Globalization, language, culture and media: Some reflections. in S.Imtiaz Hasnain and B.N.Pattnaik. (Eds.) Globalization, Language, Culture and Media: Proceedings of the Seminar, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

Hasnain, S.I. and K.S.Rajyashree (forthcoming). Hindustani as an anxiety between Hindi - Urdu commitment: Linguistic engineering of language patterns, to be included in the Proceedings of ZICR. 21st Century Reality: Language, Culture and Technology. Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, New Delhi.

Heller, M. 1995. Language choice, social institutions and symbolic domination, Language in Society, 24,3.

Keniston, K. 1998. Politics, culture and software, Economic and Political Weekly, (January 17).

Mohan, P. 1995. Market forces and language in global India, Economic and Political Weekly, (April 22).

Rudolph, L.I. 1992. The media and cultural politics, Economic and Political Weekly, (July 11).

Singh, U.N. 2002. Another India: Voices from the periphery, Paper presented in a Seminar on Peripheral Centres-Central Peripheries, at the University of Saarbrucken, Germany (August).

Singh, Y. 2000. Language legitimation and identity: Status of Urdu and Muslims in India since independence, in Y.Singh, Culture Change in India: Identity and Globalization. Jaipur and New Delhi: Rawat Press.

Strong, T.B. 1984. Language and nihilism : Neitzsche's critique of epistemology, in M. Shapiro. (Ed.) Language and Politics, New York: New York University Press.

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S. Imtiaz Hasnain, Ph.D.
Deapartment of Linguistics
Aligarh Muslim University
Aligarh, India
Presently: Senior Fellow
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570008, India
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